By Sara Keough MS, CNS, LDN - Eco-Nutritionist

“People are fed by the food industry, which pays no attention to health, and are treated by the health industry which pays no attention to food.” -Wendell Berry

It may have been this quote from one of my heroes, farmer and activist Wendell Berry, that inspired me years ago to become a healthcare practitioner and to start on a quest to investigate our food and healthcare systems.  I remember thinking to myself in astonishment, “How can two obviously related industries continue to endure in a state of complete disconnection from one another?”

The answers now are all too apparent, as financial gains from the commodification of food are most valued by corporations and retailers as they “pay no attention to health” and have created an industrial food system that diminishes our small-scale farmers that produce true nourishment.  Furthermore, our healthcare system exhibits very little understanding of what nutrient-dense food actually means and what role it plays in the foundation of health and wellness.

Perhaps Mr. Berry’s reflection of missing values among the food and healthcare industries is now even more profoundly poignant in light of the coronavirus pandemic and the new challenges imposed upon them.  We are currently witnessing the frailties of our industrial food system under the pressures of a national lockdown as supermarket retailers are unable to meet the demand for staple items like meat and dairy, primarily due to interruption of supply chains.  Day by day, there are more and more headlines about the closing of meat processing facilities leading to tens of thousands of livestock animals being euthanized and how the closures of cafeterias, restaurants, and schools has led to roughly 3.7 million gallons of milk being dumped each day.

While this is clearly an important topic of conversation among the agricultural communities, I’ve noticed that virtually no one among the healthcare field seems to be concerned about these issues. Why? Perhaps because we truly do have a “health industry that pays no attention to food.”  And while our healthcare system can be praised for its advancements in crisis situations, it has lost sight of the fact that 75% of chronic disease is lifestyle related, of which food quality is fundamental.

In my field of integrative medicine there’s an important focus right now on supporting immunity in patients, especially those considered at high risk of COVID-19 complications and death.  As I read blogs and newsletters from other practitioners, there’s a lot of information going out about “protocols” that include high doses of vitamins and minerals to boost immune function, all of which I fully support. Yet there seems to be little emphasis on consuming real, whole, nutrient-dense food and how to source such items.  It’s as if food and proper nourishment are nothing more than an afterthought, or something optional that takes a backseat to the nutraceutical supplements, when it should truly be the other way around. A nutrient-dense diet will ultimately help patients truly heal and regenerate their immune systems, and there should be so much more talk about this and what is occurring in the food system.

This is a huge failure on behalf of the healthcare community and this is one of the many reasons we will continue to see a rise in epidemics of chronic disease as well as complications from any future viral pandemics.  As health care practitioners, it is our responsibility to educate patients on the critical importance of food as the foundation for their health and to support our local farming communities.

Here are some of the common concerns being expressed right now by patients in my practice during the COVID -19 crisis:

  • “I’m having difficulty sourcing good quality food, so I’ve been letting myself eat more ‘bad’ foods until everything passes with the virus.”
  • “My stress levels are so high and I can’t stop emotional eating! Cookies and chips have been my weakness.”
  • “I’m trying to support local restaurants, so I’ve been eating out more often and not sticking to my diet goals.”
  • “I can’t afford much right now so I have to resort to buying some cheaper processed foods.”

These are all very real and understandable concerns, and these challenges create new opportunities for us as clinicians to grow and learn to come up with ways to best support our patients. I’m thankful to have cultivated relationships over the years with many members of the regenerative agriculture communities and the knowledge I have gained from them. This has allowed me to help support my patients in sourcing affordable and good quality food directly from local, small-scale farmers during the pandemic.  This is empowering for patients as it keeps them motivated to continue working on their health goals despite the stressors of the lockdown.

Another wonderful resource that’s helped some of my patients with food sourcing is a local buying club called Grassfed on the Hill here in the Maryland/Washington D.C. area run by my good friend Liz Reitzig.  Customers can shop online from Liz’s club, choosing various products from local farms, and then pay online and pick up their order from a nearby drop point. Regional food hubs like this support diverse, small-scale, local farmers and help support the health of our community, all while being completely independent of the industrial food system.

Of course, not everyone has access to a buying club like Liz’s and there are many areas where people struggle with food deserts, such as inner cities or even rural areas where they are surrounded only by factory farms. But what if we had more services like buying clubs available to connect consumers directly to local farmers, especially if we are to face another pandemic?  What if we had more local regenerative farmers that were truly thriving and restoring ecosystem health and providing nourishment for their local communities? What if we had healthcare practitioners referring patients to these farms for fresh, nutrient-dense foods to improve their health and bolster immunity?

And this is just one example of real solution to the problems faced within the current food system.  There are so many other ideas and strategies we can develop as healthcare practitioners, consumers, and farmers if we all work together in supporting the same mission. So, this is a call to action among all of these groups to consider what they can do to play a part in rebuilding our food system and regenerating human health.

Healthcare practitioners – it is your duty and responsibility to take time to learn about our food system and the challenges faced in our agricultural communities as this is intricately connected to the health of your patients.  No matter what kind of doctor or practitioner you are, you play a crucial role in the health and wellness of every single human being that steps foot into your office, and food and diet should be given a prominent seat at the table.  Even simple suggestions can be powerful, but if coaching patients in diet is not part of your skillset, then connect with a nutritionist or similarly qualified clinician in your area to refer patients to for additional support.

Consumers – this message is ultimately for everyone because we are all consumers and we all have the power to drive change within the food system.  It is incumbent upon each of us to think about where our food truly comes from and how our vegetables are grown or how our animals are raised. We should also be thinking beyond what food does for our bodies, but also what farming practices support healthy ecosystems.  It can be overwhelming as a consumer with so many food choices and all the different diets constantly being promoted such as, paleo, vegan, carnivore, pescatarian, etc.  However, I’m a big believer in variety and striving for nutrient density in our diets as much as possible.  Nutrient-dense foods come from pasture-raised animals and whole foods grown in healthy soils teeming with microbial life.  Strive to learn about what is happening in our food industry, our local farmers, and our soil health by watching documentaries, reading books, and online blogs from experts in this field.  Build relationships with your local farmers at the markets, take your family to visit the farms, and support local restaurants that source food from small-scale farmers.  Even if you only hit a few things on that list you are creating change by becoming aware and you can pass on this powerful knowledge to others.

Farmers – the world needs you now more than ever and you are ultimately the true healers of this planet.  The healthcare community can help support and facilitate the healing process for patients and become the bridge to connect them with farmers, but it is ultimately you farmers who will provide us nourishment. You are also capable of restoring ecological health with regenerative farming practices, which is a critically important and growing concern among consumers. Even if you are not a fully regenerative farmer, I am grateful that you are taking the time to read this and I applaud you for being open minded in learning how to transition into regenerative agriculture. Stay educated on human health and nutrient density as much as you can as this will also help you in understanding the requests and needs of your consumers. Always strive to build lasting and meaningful relationships with your customers based on trust and transparency, as building community is what will help us all to truly thrive.

I hope you will join me for my upcoming webinar next week in which I dive a little deeper into the topic of nutrient density and why this makes a difference for farmers and consumers in regenerating our health.I hope you will join me for my upcoming webinar next week in which I dive a little deeper into the topic of nutrient density and why this makes a difference for farmers and consumers in regenerating our health.

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