How to help make your clients and the planet healthier.
Recent public concerns about food quality, safety and the environment have sparked a major trend toward eating healthier foods and have introduced the term sustainable farming into the American lexicon. Consumers are buying more organic foods grown locally by farmers using sustainable and socially responsible practices in an effort to preserve the earth’s precious resources.
According to Gail Feenstra, EdD, RD, food systems analyst for the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program at the University of California, Davis, consumers can change their health and also help the environment through their personal actions. She says people should make the choice to eat “lower on the food chain” by consuming more whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables and by decreasing their consumption of meat.
“Our children need to grow up in a world where they have the option to change the current state of the food system. One way we can begin to make those personal changes is to establish relationships with the people who grow our food, learning from them and working with them,” says Feenstra. She believes that our food choices impact important decisions made about a wide range of serious concerns, such as saving water resources, energy sources and farmland and improving citizens’ overall health and wellness.
According to Feenstra, sustainable farming is a multifaceted system that must meet certain criteria. She defines a “sustainable farm” as one that is “economically viable, meaning it has to be profitable, environmentally sound [energy efficient, nonpolluting, with no soil erosion], as well as socially responsible.” This last component is important because it addresses other areas of the food system, including fair pay and good working conditions for farm and other food system workers. “We want to make sure everyone has access to an affordable, nutritious food supply from their region,” she says. “All these concepts are part of the framework of a sustainable food system.”
Feenstra says the benefits of eating a more regional and sustainable diet extend well beyond improving your health. “Shopping, eating and cooking fresh, wholesome [foods] with minimally processed ingredients is significant. The social and environmental benefit goes beyond one’s own personal health.” She points to the way this kind of diet can benefit the local economy, the community, the farmer and the environment.
Feenstra says you can exercise your purchasing power by shopping at local farmers’ markets or at Community Supported Agriculture farms (known as CSAs) that sell locally grown produce and other food products.
Using a CSA is an easy way to become a “locavore,” or someone who ardently seeks out local food products, typically grown within a 100-mile radius of one’s home. One of the easiest ways to find a local CSA is to use a website called LocalHarvest (www.localharvest.org), which boasts a database of more than 17,000 members throughout the United States and posts a nationwide directory of small farms, farmers’ markets and other local food sources.
According to the website’s director, Erin Barnett, CSAs typically offer consumers a certain number of “shares” for fresh produce and sometimes include other products, such as eggs, bread, nuts, butter and olive oil. In return for their monetary and personal support, shareholders receive a box of seasonal produce each week throughout the growing season.
“There are so many advantages when you buy directly from farmers,” says Barnett. “You eat ultra-fresh food with all the flavor and vitamin benefits; you are exposed to new vegetables and new ways of cooking; and you build a relationship with the person growing your food that enriches your own life.”
Another aspect of a sustainable food system is organic farming. Feenstra says that whether farming is organic or not is denoted by how the food is grown and whether the farming involves sustainable practices. “The idea is to reduce pesticides in the environment, especially the ones that are not safe. Organic farming is regenerative and encourages recycling and composting materials by using cover crops and working them back into the soil as a green manure. It takes into account everything that’s happening in nature and works in concert with it,” she explains.
Earthbound Farm®, the largest grower of organic produce in the U.S., supports a 30-acre research and development farm in Carmel Valley, California. The test farm manager, Mark Marino, a 26-year veteran and passionate organic advocate, says that one of his mantras is “Feed the soil, not the plant.” Marino likens the soil to your personal bank account and says you always want to make sure you put more in than you take out. “Organic soil is alive and has all the components you need to grow good plants.” He also draws a link between sustainable organic farming practices and overall health, fitness and wellness. “Plants are like people,” says Marino. “If you give healthy plants good food and put them in the right conditions, they’re not going to get sick; they’re going to be healthy and happy.”
Marino urges health and fitness professionals to communicate to their clients the benefits of eating organically and sustainably. “Organic farming reduces the toxic load on the earth, and that’s what you want to do to your body. You can lower your pesticide exposure as much as 80% by avoiding the top 12 contaminated fruits and vegetables [peaches, apples, nectarines, strawberries, cherries, pears, imported grapes, sweet bell peppers, celery, kale, lettuce and carrots (see Environmental Working Group under “Additional Resources”)]. It’s about education; and it starts with your own system—what you eat, how you live your life and what stress levels you want involved in your life.”
Barnett agrees that there are many ways for fitness pros to join forces with the sustainable farming movement to benefit both businesses. “They can explore our extensive online directory looking for resources in their own area and pass the information on to their clients,” she says. The LocalHarvest website provides free advice on how to shop at a farmers’ market and has a high-resolution map of members in the continental U.S. and Canada, along with directions on how to find the closest farms.
You can also educate your clients who worry about the perceived higher cost of sustainable foods. “The unexamined assumption is that local food costs more, but my own take on that complex question is that real food overall costs less than processed food,” says Barnett. “A diet that consists mainly of things from the center of the grocery store is going to run higher [in price]. Any time fitness professionals are able to encourage others to avail themselves of local produce and products, it helps everyone—the farmer, the client and the environment.”
Feenstra believes that there are a number of resources that fitness professionals can explore both regionally and locally. “I get e-mails every day from people [who are] putting together conferences, new Internet sites and new farmers’ markets. I think it is getting easier and more important to become connected with these venues.” Feenstra also recommends that fitness facilities, studios and gyms set up partnerships with environmental and community organizations and farming cooperatives. For example, fitness professionals could invite local farmers to their exercise facilities and offer clients a sampling of seasonal produce in exchange for handing out information on the farms’ products or programs. In addition, studios could become weekly pickup sites for the CSA in their area.
“There are opportunities here, especially with issues like skyrocketing childhood obesity, diabetes and our sedentary lifestyle,” says Feenstra. “We need to move toward a sense of diversity and resilience in our food system. It’s going to take a commitment to making personal changes by many people; trying new models or new habits for eating, purchasing and cooking. And doing all this in conjunction with physical fitness seems like a very good marriage.”