The Dirt on Healthy Food

He looked a little out of place in a health food store when he came up to me shyly. “The woman up front said you could help me”, he explained, “I’m Jeremy. I want to start eating healthy and I don’t know where to begin…”

I thought to myself; it’s such a misunderstood concept, with dozens of conflicting “expert” definitions. Does he really want to know what it means? Does he have an hour or more just to get started?

If he did I’d tell him that eating healthy is thinking about every step in the process of food production. It’s not just the “low fat,”  ”heart healthy,” “high fiber” claims marketers use to promote food products. And healthy eating is as much about cooking your own food at least some of the time and eating with gratitude all the time, as it is about what you eat. Actually though, if he wants to start at the beginning, Jeremy needs to know that healthy eating starts with the soil.

I’d bet Jeremy doesn’t realize that soil is more than dirt, it’s a diverse community teaming with life. In fact, soil scientists reveal that there is more life in the soil than above it. Soil is a community:  a dynamic, evolving and basically nonrenewable community that took millions of years to develop. And healthy soil is necessary to grow what we need to survive. It’s important that he knows that the microbes, bacteria, insects and invertebrates that inhabit the soil are responsible for vitamins, minerals and anti-oxidants in our food and for our very lives!

Then I have to explain that farming and ranching operations that use sustainable practices nourish the soil. The careful use of rotational grazing allows cattle to plow, plant and fertilize with their hooves and waste, and then provides rest for plants and the soil community to flourish. Organic farming uses cover crops and green manures to feed the soil, eliminating chemicals that would harm the soil’s inhabitants. Oh, and the farmers and ranchers that use sustainable practices are healthier and the water, air and grasslands around them is healthier, so, of course wildlife populations are healthier.

Of course I can’t leave out that many conventional farming and ranching practices have damaged much of our soil. And he needs to know that we all bear responsibility:  because we demand more food at cheaper prices, we drive these stewards of the land to use practices that mine the soil rather than tend it. Practices that provide cheap food at a health cost to the soil, the farmers and ranchers, the consumers, the water, the air and the planet…

Suddenly I realize I only have 10 minutes left before closing, so I just sigh and smile, “Tell me what you’re used to eating, Jeremy, and how much cooking you do, then I can show you some healthier options. If you start by choosing organic, sustainably produced food that you have to cook before eating, and no, microwaving TV dinners doesn’t count,” I added with a smile, “ you’ll be on the road to eating healthier. By the way, did you know that the health of the soil makes a big difference in the health of the food that grows in it, as well as the planet?”