I'll confess: I was a teenage vegetarian. I wasn't really trying to rebel; in fact, my dietary explorations were no big deal to my parents who, as hippies, made alternative eating habits into standard fare. My mom Hillary, now a massage therapist, kept a copy of Diet for a Small Planet on the bookshelf next to her Betty Crocker cookbook; she still occasionally waxes nostalgic about her days baking whole-wheat bread for a Eugene co-op. One of my earliest and fondest memories is of eating that bread with steaming-hot lentil soup.
The power food has over me can be overwhelming. Maybe that's why, over the years, I've tried some seemingly extreme diets: veganism, macrobiotics and juice fasting, to name a few. My tendency to use food to deal with hypochondria (and other ailments) apparently runs in the family; when my great-grandmother was diagnosed with cancer at 83, she was so angry and disillusioned that she tossed out her well-used Champion juicer, along with her extensive alternative health library.
I'm not sure what she expected of fresh carrot juice and raw honey, but we're certainly not the only ones to desire more from food than vitamins and calorie counts. The ever-increasing array of different dietary regimens and food fads, as well as recent booms in organic foods, supplements and alternative medicine, suggest that more Americans are searching for physical well-being outside the mainstream.
Which leads to the question: Who is ultimately the authority on eating well? Should eating be considered simply a matter of individual preference? After all, most of us know (or have been) the sole vegetarian (or vegan, or person allergic to shellfish) at a social event—the guest at the wedding banquet who gets the special plate of some delectable/unpalatable item before/after everyone else's food arrives.
Taste buds aside, food comes wrapped in emotional issues (as anyone who has ever eaten a pint of Ben and Jerry's in a fit of depression knows). To complicate things even further, more and more people—vegans, organic foodies and, most recently, the local food movement—claim that there are socio-economic and environmental ramifications to our dietary practices. How does what we eat affect not only our individual health, but also our community's health? All this questioning left me hungry for answers. So I went on a quest, to map out what locals are doing about the universal issue of "eating right."
What is "healthy eating" anyway?
I began my health-food odyssey by speaking with alternative-healing expert, Dr. Brent Mathieu, N.D. A graduate of Portland's National College of Naturopathic Medicine, Mathieu has been practicing naturopathic medicine for 27 years—15 of those in Boise. Naturopathy integrates herbal, nutritional and homeopathic remedies with knowledge of human physiology. In contrast to conventional doctors, naturopaths help patients maintain their health through natural means, by stimulating the body's innate healing ability.
In his practice, Mathieu says, he starts by listening. This way, he can understand the patient's lifestyle and routine—the context of the illness—as well as what the patient is willing to change. After that, his main tool for enabling patients to change their lifestyles is a diet diary, which increases accountability for, and awareness of, eating habits, thereby motivating lasting change.
Mathieu's recommendations for healthy eating are clear-cut: a low-glycemic diet, which requires eating food in a wholesome state with minimal processing. This diet avoids the unhealthy fluctuations in blood sugar common in the standard American diet, which is high in refined carbohydrates (like white flour and potatoes) and simple sugars (such as corn syrup and fructose)—and which has been implicated in diseases like diabetes. On a low-glycemic diet, people can eat unlimited amounts of non-starchy vegetables such as cabbage, chard and kale, as well as whole grains and legumes. Smaller portions of oily foods are also included in the low-glycemic diet since some fats are essential to health—notably, the omega-3 oils, which have anti-inflammatory and other vital effects on the body.
Local and organic foods are ideal for preserving your physical health, says Mathieu, since they have more nutritional value. They are distributed at the peak of ripeness, and are untainted by chemical preservatives. Grass-fed beef and free-range chicken, in addition to being more humanely treated, provide higher quality protein and have more beneficial oils.
Nutritional supplements are often a part of a naturopathic approach to health care: from vitamins, minerals and medicinal herbs to homeopathic remedies and nutraceuticals. But these supplements are just one part of a holistic regime that seeks to heal the person. Naturopathy seems to have more in common with traditional methods of healing than with conventional Western medicine.
The next step in my health quest led me to April Crowell, co-founder of Boise's Health and Wellness Cooperative and instructor at The Wellspring School for the Healing Arts. With more than 13 years of experience in Asian bodywork, Chinese medicine and holistic nutrition, Crowell has a lot to say about the role of food in maintaining health. Wellspring's program integrates Western models of nutrition with an energetic perspective based in traditional Chinese medicine. According to Crowell, in Asian medical traditions, chi, or universal life force, forms the basis of health and vitality; therefore, eating correctly cannot be done through supplementation alone.
Wellspring's dietary approach, like Mathieu's naturopathic one, eschews processed and refined food. However, for Crowell, an equally important part of healthy eating is choosing foods appropriate to the season, the region and individual physical state. Since the act of balancing our bodies is always in flux, a balanced diet is never constant. To this nutritional base, Chinese herbal formulas are added to the health regimen. But if the body isn't digesting, it may be unable to properly assimilate the healing herbs—thus, this approach also emphasizes healthy digestive processes.
Considering the individual's constitution is key, Crowell says, because the same diet is not right for everyone. Different foods have different energetic qualities. For example, both tofu and lamb are considered protein sources in Western models of nutrition. However, from an Asian perspective, tofu is cold in nature, while lamb warms the human system. According to Oriental medicine, all foods have "post-metabolic phenomena," specific effects on the body of warming or cooling, moistening or drying.
- Joyce Alexander
- Elizabeth Solosball: "Why eat foods that have lost their goodness?"
Perhaps most interestingly, Crowell's approach also factors in mental, emotional and social components of eating. For example, how fast or under what emotional conditions you eat can determine how food affects your body. For that reason, Crowell recommends that her patients strive to eat well 80 percent of the time, leaving 20 percent of their diets for social purposes—and sheer enjoyment. Furthermore, plants and animals have energetic life and vitality that is essential to our own basic energy. Since chemical additives and processed foods don't contain this vitality, people may overeat in search of an unattainable feeling of satisfaction.
Food in its context
Satisfaction? At this point in my odyssey, I needed to indulge in a stroll down memory lane. At age 17, I stopped eating meat because the ethical implications were problematic; after eight years, I became a carnivore again because eating meat made me feel better. But now, over a decade later, I have yet to find a satisfactory resolution to the contradictions, that my physical well-being relies on the death of other living creatures. While my own uneasy solution is to try to eat only humanely treated animals, I wanted to talk to someone who had successfully rejected the contradiction altogether. Enter Clintron Shirley.
I've known Shirley (or rather, he's known me) since I was a baby—about the same time he became a vegetarian. Shirley spent his childhood on a farm eating meat raised by his family. But health problems, as well as his search for higher consciousness, led to him to give up meat for three months. After that, a burger he ate "as an experiment" led to both physical and emotional distress.
"This sucks," he thought. Since then, he's lived ahppilyon a diet of fruit, vegetables, nuts, grains and milk. Shirley doesn't see meat-eating as bad per se.
"Vegetarianism is not for everyone," he said. But he insists that the ecological, spiritual and economic effects of our dietary choices be examined. Shirley is adamantly against having someone else "do my dirty work for me"—namely, the job of slaughtering animals—which he sees as ensuring a state of denial about the sources of our food in a system in which "someone is forced economically to dedicate their life to killing for you." It's easy to see how he found his calling.
Shirley has spent decades promoting vegetarian and natural cuisine in Boise. He started the Changes Teahouse at 10th and Front in the early 1970s, continued through the '80s and '90s with Earth Food Energy People, a vegetarian catering service/cafe, and capped off his experience as a restaurateur with the Kulture Klatsch, which brought natural foods to a new height in Boise. The closure of the Klatsch in 2004, after seven years of providing three meals a day, seven days a week, 25 concerts a month, a multicultural menu and a juice bar with herbal elixirs—and the then-largest selection of organic beers in the state—left a void in Boise's eating scene. Why is no one filling the gap left by the Klatsch's closure?
"We figured when the restaurant closed, someone would pick up the ball and run with it," Shirley said. However, he said, vegetarian options now exist at mainstream restaurants, some of which are excellent. So people who want to avoid eating meat can visit such establishments, along with their carnivorous friends.
But it's not just about food. Shirley says the Klatsch closed because "the community didn't make the activist effort to support the business." For Shirley, there is no other kind of eating; picking up a fork and knife is a political act. And a vegetarian restaurant can provide more than culinary variety on its menu; it can also create a safe space for what Shirley calls "the emotional connection of people who are on the same page."
Think globally, eat locally
Shirley is not the only passionate eater I met on my food odyssey. Like Shirley, Elizabeth Solosball sees food as a personal and political issue. She refuses to buy imported produce, insisting that there's plenty of good food close to home: "The closer, the better," she said. Her stance has evolved over years of personal experience, starting with her move to Boise from Juneau, Alaska, in 1945 at age 22. She grew up with no experience of locally grown vegetables; here in the Treasure Valley, Solosball learned to appreciate how much better fresh food tastes.
"Why eat foods that have lost their goodness?" she said. "I'd rather eat canned tomatoes than store-bought 'fresh' tomatoes."
Not only does she observe the increasing frequency of reports of "bad food" (like E. coli in spinach), Solosball objects to the "ridiculousness" of shipping food vast distances: "It's a waste of resources." Her recommendation is simple, echoing the ancient wisdom of China: "Everyone needs to find the foods that suit them."
And for many people, both in Idaho and across the country, locally grown is the best choice. For some, it's a matter of economics: Supporting local growers and producers keeps local dollars within the local community. For others, it's ecological, a way to decrease fossil fuel emissions. Some even see it as a strategy for safeguarding the food supply from contamination—accidental or otherwise. Whatever the reason, farmers' markets and community-sponsored agriculture programs are booming.
One sunny Saturday, I made a trip to Kuna to visit one of Treasure Valley's newest local markets. Located at the west end of Main Street, Kuna's tidy farmers' market, organized by Cheryl McCord and Bill Clark, is in its third season. On the day I visited, the folks from Vogel Farms were preparing breakfast sandwiches of their free-range eggs and farm-fresh sausage. All sorts of people gathered under the American flags: established organic growers from Cabalo's Orchards, local gardeners selling their surpluses retirees sharing the fruits of their green thumbs and the dreadlocked young farmers Chris Brewer and Anna Picanco, who started their certified organic Good Eat'n Gardens this year.
Though not exactly in my neighborhood, the 20-minute drive made a nice morning outing, while the $1 organic cantaloupe paid for the gas I used getting there to buy it. And while the jury is still out on the absolute resource-efficiency of eating locally (a New Zealand study suggests that other factors besides distance must be considered), the satisfaction of buying inexpensive, pesticide-free blackberries from a chatty Kuna housewife is second only to picking plums from a neighborhood tree.
The lure of the local is so strong that even multinational corporations have entered the fray; Whole Foods may soon rival the Boise Co-op as the area's largest health-food store and supplier of local products.
Confused by the irony of a grocery chain committed to supporting local producers, I e-mailed Jen Marshall, spokesperson for the Texas-based supermarket chain. She explained their strategy: "Whole Foods makes [local] contacts through the state agriculture department well before the store opens ... Long before a store opens, the team will visit the area to meet and share the Whole Foods mission, including why organic and local food is important to them and their customers. As the opening of the store grows closer, they will hold a local vendor fair to meet the local suppliers, farmers and food artisans and answer all their questions in person." Although Whole Foods' definition of "local" has been criticized for being too slack, clearly, it's doing something right according to the laws of supply and demand.
However, glitches in the logic of "local" remain. What if area restaurants and grocery stores don't provide food that's healthy? What if people in my community prefer chains? Even more distressingly, what if the food grown in my community is harmful to the environment?
Local vs. organic: Ecology is destiny
The Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides is solving exactly this problem. Jen Miller, with NWCAP's Boise-based sustainable agriculture program, works with Idaho farmers to create healthier farms and foods. The organization's mission to "promote ecologically sound practices to build soil health and control crop pests" focuses on potatoes, the most chemical- intensive crop grown in the region. According to Miller, prior to NWCAP's Fort Hall Demonstration Project, the 140,000 acres of potato farms on the Shoshone-Bannock Reservation—some of the best potato-producing land in the world—suffered extreme water contamination and soil degradation. Organic farming methods, which require no synthetic fertilizers or toxic pesticides, cleaned up the soil, fortifying the community—and the health of its members.
- Joyce Alexander
- The Peaceful Belly booth at the Capital City Market
As heartening—and indisputable—as NWCAP's successes in the region have been, there remains no scientific consensus on the superiority of organic growing methods. Some studies claim that organic fruits and vegetables contain more nutrients, particularly trace minerals. And the dangers of chemical-intensive growing? On the one hand, some risks are well-known: for example, the "blue baby syndrome" is caused by nitrate build-up in well water, which results from the use of chemical fertilizers. Nearly half a century after the publication of Rachel Carson's ground-breaking Silent Spring, which resulted in the banning of DDT from U.S. crops, studies continue to suggest that synthetic pesticides cause maladies like cancer and Parkinson's disease—not to mention freakishly deformed amphibians.
However, there is no definitive study of the deleterious effects of chemical residues—either on human health or on the health of our environment. The so-called "cocktail effect," the synergistic effect of tiny amounts of multiple pesticides, also remains unexamined.
I can only take this to mean that no one knows what will happen when living creatures (like frogs and humans) are exposed long-term to the hundreds of chemicals now in common use. I support scientific experimentation. But in this case, I prefer to be my own guinea pig.
Making "health" a community value
So in the end, I set out to find a forum for the discussion of these vital community issues (preferably a forum that meets around a dinner table). It seemed only right that I finish my quest talking to a teacher. Enter Becky Morgan of the Boise Urban Garden School—better known as BUGS.
Since 2003, BUGS has been providing summer classes in organic gardening to kids ages 11 to 16. The young people in the seven-week program (many of whom receive scholarships to cover the cost of the program) learn hands-on skills: composting, grinding grain, baking in a solar oven and designing native plant gardens. The students of BUGS practice problem-solving, literacy skills and critical thinking, while learning such neglected fundamentals as nutrition, conservation, sustainability and building local food economies. BUGS helps them to grow up smarter about food and its place in the world than I did. So maybe these kids will find the answers to some of my remaining questions about the safest use of pesticides, whether organic food is worth the extra cost, if eating local food can save the environment. And why Boise can't sustain a vegetarian/organic restaurant.
One thing became clear to me in my quest: Giant profit-driven institutions—the medical mainstream, pharmaceutical and chemical companies, factory farms and global fast-food chains—cannot provide definitive answers that suit me, an individual living in this small, specific place and time. To support my health, and that of my environment, I must continue to listen to those around me—while learning to heed the needs and reactions of my own body.
The other day, my 12-year-old nephew asked if it were possible to live without eating meat. I was pleased to be able to tell him, "Yes. Let me show you how." Just as some of the tastiest food is home-cooked, some of the most useful knowledge is local.