This week, my friend Thea Sullivan wrote an excellent article for Salon about her profoundly gifted son, Jack — one of Ms. H’s closest friends and a fellow homeschooler.
It mirrors so much of my process of letting go the “shoulds” of childhood for Ms. H – of my many preconceived notions of what her life should look like, what her mind should worry about. It mirrors how much I’ve had to rethink what childhood should be.
Like Jack, Ms. H struggled with a classroom environment where she was both ostracized and bored. And while I’ve always championed her right to free play, who knew that her tribe would ultimately be found in Wild Child‘s Nerdy Naturalists program – where she gets to play in the woods AND discuss the correlation between testosterone production and the agression and mating behavior of elephant seals (that was today).
I so profoundly love my child, quirks and all. And by loving the whole package — not just the sweet girl who dances in the living room, but the girl who does the intense questioning, makes the mental leaps, and reads the college textbook on fetal development — I love a person different than what society expects from a child.
Here’s to childhood — whether it’s celebrated in the woods, on the playground, or at a University lecture hall.
In the recently published study of organic versus conventional agriculture, Stanford researchers concluded that organic foods were no more nutritious than their conventionally-grown counterparts. There’s one catch – the study was a meta-analysis. It’s a term that puts the nerdy-numbers-loving part of my brain on high alert.
What’s a meta-analysis, you ask? Well, it’s a study that aggregates the results from numerous studies, compiling them into one big picture. Sometimes it’s a useful tool – if you’re trying to get a big picture from a bunch of different researchers’ attempts to answer the same question in different ways. The problem with meta-analyses is that they are a notoriously unreliable methodology for discovering anything statistically significant about well… anything. A meta-analysis can shore up and confirm a known correlation (for instance, that smoking is correlated with lung cancer) but what it can’t do is find a definitive conclusion from a bunch of inconclusive studies. What does this study mean for the nutritional value of organic produce? Well, to know that, you’d have to know how reliable, rigorously designed, and methodologically comparable the “source” studies are.
When you go to the source, many of the studies are painfully flawed, both in their methodology and execution. For a great analysis of the devilish details that make this study one big flaw from start to finish, read Chuck Benbrook’s analysis in Civil Eats. The old dictum “garbage in, garbage out” comes to mind.
That said, it makes me wonder… what would a well-designed study of farming methods and nutritional value look like? Would it just be the dichotomy of organic vs. conventional, or would it take into account the soil building practices of the beyond-organic movement? My suspicion is that farms that focus on building high quality soil (rather than the big organic farms that simply use only organically-approved pesticides and fertilizers) would indeed produce more nutrient dense food! If your soil has more nutrients present, it stands to reason that the vegetables grown in that soil do too. But that’s a layer of complication that no study to my knowledge has addressed.
But back to this hypothetical study – how would you define “healthier” and what would be statistically significant? Is it simply nutritional value per calorie consumed, or is there a bigger picture in the health of our planet, our communities? Isn’t planetary health a PART of our health? How is it that we still need to ask that question?
It seems to me there is a larger issue playing out in this study and in the media coverage of the so-called results – that we have a deep disconnect between the health of our own bodies and the health of our planet. We are unable to see that we are all tied together. The fertilizer applied to my strawberries runs off into your water supply. The the pesticides that kill the bugs on your lettuce disperse into the air we all breathe. The soil that gets stripped away year after year in conventionally-managed fields leaves the surrounding wildlife, water, and air contaminated, weakened, and frighteningly vulnerable to both natural and man-made disaster. It’s all connected – but we are disconnected, unable to see the intricate links when we walk down the produce aisle.
But really, when it comes down to it, would anyone outside of academia ever assume that “health benefits” are defined by the nutrient density of a single piece of fruit? Would anyone but the mainstream media tell us how to eat, based on such a frivolous conclusion?
Today, the amazing blogger, activist, and author Sarah Wu (aka Mrs. Q) published my guest blog on her site, Fed Up With Lunch. It is such an honor to be featured there, and I hope you enjoy reading it!
In defense of the childhood treat
It can be painful sometimes, being that “mean mom.” The one saying “no” to the snack foods aisle of the grocery store, the ice cream cart at the park, or the snack bar at the pool.
If you’re a parent reading this, you can probably relate. Because unfortunately, the way we feed our kids at school is just the tip of the iceberg. It seems to me that, in every corner of the world inhabited by kids, there is a company or institution pedaling junk food laden with corn- and soy-based chemical byproducts. I don’t blame my daughter for wanting it all – her brain is wired to seek extra sugar, fat, and calories. But by consistently and vehemently saying no, I am always worried that I am turning junk food into forbidden fruit, something to be coveted and snuck and eaten in secrecy. As a nutritional anthropologist who’s studied the deep connections between food choices and emotions, I realize this is the exact opposite of what I want for my child…
READ THE REST on Fed Up With Lunch!
I have always been effected by SAD (seasonal affective disorder), ever since I was a kid. November and December were the “Heart of Darkness” where I struggled to stay awake, think straight, or get much of anything done.
Today I just realized that it’s “that time” and for the first time in my life, I am totally unaffected. Yesterday, I turned the compost pile, pulled up a bunch of plants, did laundry, got some computer stuff done with a minimum of idle surfing, took Ms. H to her doctor’s appointment and then the park, chased some wayward chickens through the neighbor’s yard, and made 5 turkey pot pies. I went to bed tired, but not feeling like I might be slipping into a coma. It’s and odd feeling, being chipper and energetic in the middle of winter! So what changed?
Well, a little less than a year ago, I stopped using soap to clean my body. I had read a fascinating article on Food Renegade about rickets being seen again in our kids, despite sun exposure and supplements. I wondered – why? – and did some research. As it turns out, your skin takes a good long while to synthesize vitamin D from sunshine. Lathering up? Well, it strips your body of oil – including the vitamin D being produced. My decision to stop using soap on myself and Ms. H (aside from hand-washing) stemmed out of this reading.
Today, here’s my 3 step routine to beat the winter blues:
1. Daily sun exposure. I try to go out for 15-20 minutes in the middle of the day, with as much skin showing as possible. Brrrr! It’s easier here (weather in the 50-60s) than other places, but even 10 minutes on your arms and chest will make a difference. If sun is not present at all (again, it doesn’t happen that often here), you could even see about finding a tanning salon with a UVB bed. Ask if they’ll let you use it for just 15 minutes. This is not to tan at all, just to get the UVB needed to start making some vitamin D.
2. Avoid soap (other than washing your hands). Your skin needs about 2 weeks to process the UVB rays in your skin and synthesize vitamin D. The vitamin D is then synthesized as an oil on the surface of your skin. As the oil is absorbed over time, vit D levels go up in your bloodstream.
Instead, try a very dilute solution of tea tree oil (1 tiny capful in a cup of warm water) on a washcloth. You could also try other antiseptic essential oils diluted – lavendar, eucalyptus, or oregano oil. I have bathed this way for almost now, and honestly I smell better than ever. I think my underarms have been also able to reestablish good bacteria, meaning that my pits are less stinky too! Another bonus – no winter scaly skin. Even my elbows are baby-soft.
3. Cod liver oil, 2 tsp a day. It’s less gross than it sounds, plus you’re getting all those healthy Omega-3s. I buy the fermented kind – it has the most bioavailable vitamin D. In terms of bioavailability in general, CLO beats out most synthetic vitamin D supplements.
For a rundown of the importance of vitamin D for mood and health, this is a great summary.
Still, I can hardly wait for spring to come again. But in the meantime – here’s to happy, energetic winters!
I was both honored and anxious when Full Circle Farm’s ED Wolfram Alderson asked me to write something about being the co-founder of Full Circle Farm. So many unresolved feelings, such a sense of loss – it’s hard to describe what it feels like when you voluntarily walk away from something, and yet that something is so near and dear to your heart that it feels like walking away from your child. When I left Full Circle Farm, a big part of me was heartbroken. But I knew I needed to do it – for my family, for my sanity, and for the farm to continue to grow and evolve far past what I could have ever imagined. Writing this was cathartic. I needed it, and I’m so glad to see the farms’ history come alive on the web thanks to Wolfram’s efforts!
Here’s what I wrote:
Taking part in the foundation of Full Circle Farm will always be one of the proudest accomplishments of my life. Together with an intrepid group of volunteers and Josh Salans – all-around visionary and the founder of Sustainable Community Gardens –we dared to dream what seemed nearly impossible: an urban, educational farm right smack dab in the middle of Silicon Valley.
These days, if you ask the average person on the street about local food or urban agriculture, usually you get a nod of agreement that locally produced food is a great thing for any community. Back in 2006-2007, this just wasn’t the case. Collecting signatures to gain support for the idea of Full Circle Farm, we mostly got a lot of blank stares. But our hours of clipboard-wielding persistence paid off and we eventually gathered over a thousand signatures from local supporters.
But the real challenge? Convincing the school board that we were on to something! Then-school board member Teresa O’Neill was the catalyst for the whole idea – her work with Save BAREC and farmer-activist Linda Perrine had inspired her to think differently about the school’s excess acreage – to look way beyond dollars-per-square-foot and imagine something wildly different than the greyscape that so much of our open space has become in the last 50 years.
Teresa put out the school board’s RFP for an organic, educational farm. I always had the feeling the other board members were mostly humoring her – the assumption was that the land would be leased to fee-based soccer leagues at a competitive price! All that changed though when our rag tag group came in with our 97-page proposal, our 1000 signatures, and our impassioned plea to keep the land in a form where it could benefit ALL children, not just the children than could afford organized sports programs.
In a surprise turnaround, the school board voted 6-1 for Full Circle Farm. I could have fallen out of my chair! I remember Josh turning to me, wide-eyed, and saying “Holy Crap! Now we have to start a farm!” My sentiments, exactly.
It was a dizzying experience, to have your vision for something so beautiful and good and world-changing to be set on the path to becoming reality. To this day, I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the vision and faith the Santa Clara Unified School District showed that night.
In the whirlwind 3 years that followed, I wore many hats: grant writer, post-hole digger, garden educator, event planner, weed warrior, public speaker, produce washer, and even a terrifying 11 months as Interim Executive Director. Through it all, it was incredible to watch the farm come to life – red tailed hawks circling overhead, western bluebirds perched in the young orchard trees, lacewings and ladybugs flitting past, and killdeers nesting in the rows of glistening green vegetables. Seeing the ability of an organic farm to bring back wildlife to suburbia still astounds me!
In 2009, it was time for me to step down. I realized that I was burned out, and that I needed to let others take the torch. Stepping down, though bittersweet, allowed me to gain some much-needed sanity! I’m guessing that many of the early staff that have come and gone (and anyone who’s ever started something great!) would agree with me – starting something this big, and this important, is a tremendous experience. But the energy you need to put in to make it fly just can’t be maintained forever.
Through all the tremendous ups and downs, joys and frustrations, victories and defeats, I am left with one overwhelming feeling – gratitude. Gratitude for everyone I worked with, and gratitude to the land that fed my family, was a vast playground for my child, and nourished my soul. Today, when I take my daughter Helen to the garden and look out on those 11 acres, ever-evolving and blooming, I still pinch myself – it can’t be real, can it? I will forever feel blessed to have been a part of something so magical and extraordinary.
Yesterday I went to the world premiere of America The Beautiful: The Thin Commandments by extraordinary filmmaker Darryl Roberts. In it, Roberts is newly diagnosed with heart arrhythmia and high blood pressure, and told to go on multiple medications (that cause, ahem, erectile dysfunction). Undaunted and unwilling to take the cocktail of anti-party pills, Darryl embarks on a good-humored journey to find out if there is an alternative.
From there we get to see Darryl as he jumps from diet to diet, believing (as most Americans do) that quick, go-for-broke weight loss is the holy grail of health and vitality. Without spoiling the comedy, loving questioning, and grace of the film for you, let’s just say that Darryl doesn’t drop the pounds but he does find the holy grail… and it’s not weight loss. In the course of his journey, we meet many women in Darryl’s life. They range from super-sized to dangerously thin, and not one of them is immune from the terrible consequences of a society that equates human value with a number on a scale. For Darryl himself, he becomes aware that his own body’s health and resilience and ability to heal is there, inside him, despite the fact he is not, and probably never will be, a thin man. His doctors? They are forced to confront the surprising fact that a fat man can cure himself of high blood pressure and heart disease… and still be fat.
Then there was the panel afterwards. Other than the indomitable Deb Burgard and open-minded R.D. April Winslow, the panel looked like a bunch of startled sheep that have just been told that the world is ending. See, the screening was sponsored by several large eating disorder clinics in the Bay Area, and I don’t know that these clinics had any idea what Darryl’s conclusions would be when they agreed to sponsor the screening. The idea that BMI (which was developed as epidemiological tool to study populations – it has no proven correlation with individual health) would be challenged was clearly unexpected by members of the panel. I think I heard chirping crickets coming from a few of the panelists’ brainpans.
One panelist (who shall remain nameless) in particular seemed beyond baffled — she seemed angry. A prominent pediatrician running weight-loss programs that single out fat kids at earlier and earlier ages, she defended her use of BMI to track kids over time – too see if they “fall off the curve, or accelerate their curve unnaturally”. This is the point where my body started shaking – not with anger at her exactly, but at being confronted with the harsh reality that she firmly believed this was legitimate medicine, legitimate science. That she really thought that it was helping the kids she treated to put them on the scale, to put them on their first, second, third, fourth, or twentieth diet before they even hit puberty.
Well, every cell in my body got ready to shout out my expertise, my research, my proving points that showed her she was wrong, wrong wrong wrong. Yet, Deb Burgard, Linda Bacon, and a few fabulous women I’d never met before did a fine job of doing just that.
When the mic finally came to my outstretched hand, something else entirely came out. I shared something I’d never shared before – my personal story of being a chubby teen who was congratulated for having an eating disorder by multiple doctors, doctors who tracked my BMI on a curve and thought it was fabulous when my curve dropped off a cliff. No one asked me how I’d done it. I just got a high-five – while seeing my hair fall out of my scalp every morning, while being dizzy in the locker room, while hiding what and when I ate from everyone in my life – I got a “way to go” from the medical establishment.
You see, being fat is sooooo bad in the medical establishment that no one stops to ask HOW weight should be lost, or even whether it should be lost at all. My chubby body got me through 5-10 mile runs in cross country, my chubby body pulled me through the water at astounding speeds, my chubby body got me through my day with energy to spare. My skinny body couldn’t do any of those things. But the very people who were charged with monitoring my health just didn’t care. It’s a direct contrast to Health At Every Size – it’s Weight Loss At Any Cost.
But I wasn’t done there. Voice still shaking, I fast forwarded to my early 20s – I felt possessed to say it; possessed to make this woman understand what she was doing. This time I’m in college, and I pack on 60 pounds in 3 short months. Again, my BMI chart takes a steep curve – upward this time. I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs, I couldn’t think straight, I couldn’t function. My doctors? And believe me, I saw many of them – I was completely freaked out by the changes taking place, and felt at night like I was dying a slow death. My doctors told me that I was lazy, or depressed, or compulsive – and that the weight gain was all my fault. I was recommended diets, therapy, and anti-anxiety pills.
Almost 2 years later, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Because of being dismissed, I spent two years letting the cancer grow. I had 2 surgeries, 3 rounds of radiation, and countless rounds of invasive, intensive intervention. It saved my life.
I am forever grateful to the doctors that saved my life, but I am also forever left with the question – why was I to blame for my symptoms? Now that I’ve done research into fat discrimination, I know the answer – because I was fat. Fatness was equated with lazy, depressed, complaining, and undeserving patients. Fatness was a cause for dismissal in and of itself. If I’d been my former thin- or mildly chubby self, and I’d come in saying my brain feels like jello and I can’t climb a flight of stairs without feeling like I’m dying – the battery of tests would have been whipped out in an instant.
For me, the two incidents are linked by the use of BMI as a tool to wantonly discriminate, and a tool to speciously congratulate. It’s a quickie shortcut from the actual act of practicing medicine, the actual time and energy and careful thought that it takes to look at a person as a whole and to treat them as an individual.
And so I had my say, as much as I could through the nerves running through my veins. And I have Darryl Roberts to thank for it – for speaking his mind so beautifully, and sharing his journey with the world, and being brave enough to stand up and say I AM HEALTHY – fat and all. I don’t know that everyone was able to hear his truth (or mine), but I sure feel better for having had the strength to speak my mind.
Until fat stigma is consciously removed from medical practice, there will be no way in the world that doctors can honestly say they “do no harm”.
With a graduate degree from Oxford, I think I have proven myself exceptionally good at “the testing game”. I have no anxiety around tests – but I strongly object to the sense of self-worth that these test scores represented for me for the first 20+ years of my life. It’s a lot to unlearn.
This year, we’re enrolling Ms. H in a homeschool charter school program. It will give us some much-needed funds to spend on the classes and supplies we are already utilizing. The only hitch? After age 7, they require that Ms. H take the STAR tests. I’ll let her make her own judgement call on whether or not to participate, but I hope that she will sit the test, but refuse to be tested — to be a ‘testing refusenik’.This is not because I want to game the system. The term ’refusenik’ is purposeful – it’s not taking the tests as a form of protest, as a way of saying that the tests themselves should not be the litmus test by which we judge our children, or our schools.
Homeschool charters have some of the lowest API’s in the state – but does that say anything, anything at all, about the value of homeschooling or what those kids are learning? I’ve taught at low-API schools and seen creative geniuses and future scientists languishing thanks to punitive funding cuts. I’ve seen kids attempt suicide at high-pressure schools thanks to the beliefs that low test scores correlate with life-long failure. Alfie Kohn has a great list of why standardized testing doesn’t serve kids or schools – so I will just say this: everything about testing and how it’s carried out in neighborhoods – rich and poor – is anathema to the development of human intellect and spirit.
The term ‘testing refusenik’ actually comes from education reformer John Taylor Gatto. He makes a passionate case that if enough kids/parents were testing ‘refuseniks’, our government would have to find a new way to measure the value of an education. He suggests just writing down your name, and then putting across the top “I refuse to take this test on the grounds that it does not measure my worth as a student or a human being.”
I wish I could go back in time and organize a refusenik campaign at my alma matter - Gunn High in Palo Alto. Maybe if there’d been a stress-reduction revolution when I was there, there wouldn’t have been all those kids jumping in front of trains these past few years.
As for Ms. H, I have no doubt that if someday she would like to become a doctor, or a graduate student, or get her driver’s license, or anything else she sets her mind to – that she will be fully capable of jumping through the requisite hoops. I just want her to jump knowing that’s what they are — hoops. When I jumped through mine, I thought that those scores measured my value as a person. That belief was damaging to my growth – whether the scores were good or bad.
On the other hand, I appreciate very much what homeschool charters are doing — putting educational decision-making and spending into the hands of parents. If I thought that this kind of protest would hurt them, I would allow Ms. H to take the test and just do her best. On the other hand, her scores would go in the shredder, unopened.
I would be very happy if Ms. H could make it through college without ever taking a standardized test. But who knows, she could have other ideas. Regardless, I really would like to make sure that she knows that test scores and the wonder that is human achievement are two VERY different things.
Yesterday, I watched Ms. H have her friend R teach her how to crochet. Sitting on a bench at a local park, the two girls were rapt with concentration as Ms. H’s fingers slowly but surely figured out how to loop and pull. Her movements were clumsy, her results loose and ill-formed. I cringed at her frustration, reminded painfully of myself, of my childhood. “I’m just not good at this!” she announced, starting to walk away. I drew her onto my lap and we tried again, two sets of not-so-deft hands moving together. Finally, a chain started to form, and her face lit up like the sun. “I did it!” she cried. I hugged her tight, relieved, as she continued to bend that spool of blue yarn to her will.
The rest of this article can be read at Natural Life Magazine.
A movement is unfurling...
Fresh food for family, friends and neighbors. A verdant garden in a city blighted by foreclosure. Neighborhood kids picking sun-ripened tomatoes. A prison sentence.
Sing it with me: one of these things is not like the other one, which one could it be?
For one mom, gardening in her front yard has landed her a jury trial, and possible 93-day stint in jail! The city planning department staff of Oak Park, Michigan are the geniuses behind this epic failure of common sense.
The best part? It’s the city that ripped up her lawn in the first place! Mom of 6 Julie Bass decided to replace her lawn with vegetables only AFTER the city did some sewer line work, tearing up her grass and leaving it up to her to replace it. The raised-bed garden has been producing tomatoes, squash, beans, and melons – and has been a big hit with neighborhood kids, who stop by to snack and help tend the plants.
So what’s up with Oak Park, Michigan? For starters, it’s not some gated Agrestic-style place with tons of manicured emerald-green lawns on display. It’s a town in the grips of economic trouble, with foreclosures and shortened workdays all around. It’s the kind of place where home-based food production can make the difference between eating well or not eating at all. It’s the kind of place where community health workers spend whole lifetimes trying to get kids to eat their veggies. The cognitive dissonance here boggles the mind.
Which brings me to my next question — what exactly is going on in Michigan? This story, the violent closure of Catherine Ferguson Academy, a farm-based school for pregnant teens in Detroit (fortunately with a recent happy ending), and also the gross violation of one parent’s right to choose to NOT give her 13 year old antipsychotic (and dangerous) drugs.
All of these incidents, taken together, paint the picture of a society that is both poised for dramatic cultural change (farm-based schools! front yard gardens! holistic medicine!) and is fighting an old guard violently opposed (arrest! detain! charge! kidnap!) to social transformation. I keep coming back to Paul Hawken’s book, Blessed Unrest. It’s like watching his words unfold. Hawken writes: “The movement can’t be divided because it is so atomized – a collection of small pieces, loosely joined. It forms, dissipates, and then regathers quickly, without central leadership, command, or control. Rather than seeking dominance, this unnamed movement strives to disperse concentrations of power. It has been capable of bringing down governments, companies, and leaders through witnessing, informing, and massing… Its clout resides in its ideas, not in force.”
It’s that clout of thought, of urgent and widespread cultural change, that is riding to a crest in Michigan. I only hope that it can reform, regroup, and ultimately – survive.
A quick note to the (rightly) incensed masses: please take a look at Julie Bass’ plea that all the support remain calm, collected, and NOT personal. It would be a shame to have any Oak Park official feel unsafe – when what we really want these folks to feel is transformed.
As part of my new position with FIRST 5 Santa Clara County, I had the privilege of speaking to the program manager of Maine Senior Farmshare. They generously extended their time to share information about this incredibly innovative program, which will eventually be published as one of several case studies that will be used to create a free guide for anyone wanting to increase food access to low-income customers using the CSA (community supported agriculture) model.
Maine Senior Farmshare serves over 18,000 low-income seniors every growing season. Funded by USDA grants, it provides individual farms $50 at the start of the season for each senior enrolled. Farms range in size from having 1 senior to having 400+ participants. The seniors themselves can spend the $50 any way they like – they can hit the farmstand every week, use it toward a CSA share, or buy their favorite vegetables as soon as they become available. Most of the folks involved use the farms well beyond the $50 — developing a relationship with the farmer in the process.
There are ‘voucher’ programs all across the country that incentivize shopping at farmers’ markets and local farms. But this is the first time I’ve seen a state-level program that puts the process of attracting and enrolling low-income consumers into the hands of the farms. So simple, yet brilliant. Anyone who’s worked in food access can tell you how hard it can be to get enrolled in food assistance programs. Here in Santa Clara County, only 46% of eligible households receive CalFresh (food stamp) benefits. It’s a multi-faceted problem, but part of it is the difficulty of outreach. I could see a program like this giving small local farms, and larger CSA programs, and even more distant vendors at local farmers’ markets, the incentive to market directly to low-income consumers in our urban centers. And for the farms that participate, income up front would be guaranteed – modeling the simplicity and risk-reduction that CSAs bring.
So now my big question is – how could such a program be modeled here in Santa Clara County? Whether for seniors or for families with young children, I could see a program modeled on Maine Senior Farmshare where farms in Santa Clara and San Benito counties could sign up low-income consumers for an upfront chunk of change. Dollar for dollar, I’d guess that it would do more to increase fresh fruit and vegetable access for the most vulnerable households than any program in existence today. It’s not just a season’s worth of fresh produce, it’s a season’s worth of contact with a local farmer, a season’s worth of home cooking, a season’s worth of trips to the farmstand — in short, it’s building a healthy, empowered relationship with food — well worth the $50 price tag.