This post was going to be about organic food and locavores both of which are growing trends here in America. Just last week, Michelle Obama planted an organic vegetable garden on the White House lawn – the first garden at the White House since the FDR administration.
It seems that people are starting to care more about what they eat, where it comes from and who is potentially harmed (or helped) in the process. I like that. I like that more people are curious about and buying locally grown foods. I like the idea of waiting until something is in season before adding it to a shopping cart. I especially like the idea of cutting down on the pollution involved in shipping and producing many of the foods we buy and consume today.
At home, my family tries to buy food grown, produced, caught, and slaughtered locally. I know what some of you might be thinking – how the hell does one do that while living in New York City? I thought that at first, as well. After all – I’m from Pennsylvania. Growing up, our milk was delivered by a local farmer before the sun came up. Our eggs could have rolled themselves over to our house. We got nearly everything locally. (The exception was Tang, which was made on the moon, by astronauts, and mostly of rocket fuel).
In my mind, the term “local” used to mean “in my neighborhood”. That’s not an option for the majority of New Yorkers, as so much of our food travels thousands of miles before it hits our bodegas and grocery stores, our restaurants and street meat stands. Our food is trucked in, shipped in by boat, train or plane and tends to leave behind it a long, dark carbon footprint.
For New Yorkers, “local” is a relative term and has come to mean “within a hundred-mile radius.” Since we have more farmer’s markets than you can shake a stick at, getting to some of those local foods is really easy.
Here’s how the last few days unfolded.
My son kept us up all night Sunday. He woke up every hour. His belly was tight. We thought he might have gas and constipation on top of the usual congestive rattle we’d come to know. On Monday morning, I began to realize that things were much worse than I had thought. At 3 PM he was hit with a high fever. I called the doctor. By 4 PM we were in the waiting room.
And by 5 PM we were armed with a ProNeb Ultra II, some albuterol, a more powerful round of antibiotics than he’s yet been given, and a new worry.
At that point, my husband and I did what parents do with an Internet connection: we started researching. I was looking for ways to blame myself. That’s what mothers do, right? And at first glance, my research told me that I was right. I was to blame for this—we were to blame for this. After all we live in a very polluted area. The rates of asthma in children living in North Brooklyn are on the rise.
“Ever look at dirty truck exhaust? The dirty, smoky part of that stream of exhaust is made of particle pollution. More new evidence shows that the particle pollution—like that coming from the exhaust smoke—can lead to shorter lives, heart disease, lung cancer and asthma attacks and can interfere with the growth and work of the lungs.” (American Lung Association: State Of The Air)
Fact: Emory spent the first year and a half of his life living right next to the BQE (The Brooklyn/Queens Expressway). We were so close to it, the trucks used to shake our apartment. We knew all along we were inhaling harmful toxins, but we chose to stay there. We were in a lease and rent was affordable and we thought we were leaving the area at any moment.
We used to clean an alarming amount of dark black soot from our windowsills. And it didn’t take long to build up. A few days would go by and a black film would lazily blanket every surface in our home. We used to joke about how our lungs must look. We were nervous.
Signs of Asthma include:
• rapid breathing
• labored breathing
• difficulty breathing when exercising
• chest tightness
Generally speaking, a child must first be vulnerable to airway inflammation. Everyone is vulnerable, to some degree – and often to any number of irritants. Next, the child needs an antagonist or trigger. Triggers can range from a common cold, a sinus infection, or bronchitis, all the way to secondhand smoke, smoking, cleaning agents and air pollutants. Triggers can also be as simple as getting too much exercise or experiencing too much stress, or the absurdly cold air of a NYC March day.
When I started digging in a bit further, I realized that this isn’t specific to Brooklyn. Emory probably would been diagnosed with asthma no matter where we lived especially since almost every place we’ve ever discussed living is also on the highly polluted area list. And that’s not because our list is really short. It’s that the master list is really long. Even the small, idyllic town we’ve been pining over for years has some of the worst statistics when it comes to the two types of air pollution at the root of the problem.
In Brooklyn, the biggest asthmatic culprit is exhaust from vehicles. This is why you’ll also find Los Angeles, Chicago, Atlanta, The DC Metro, and a great deal of the Northeastern corridor on that list. Pretty much every city or town near a major trucking route is seeing a rise in asthma, cancer and other related illnesses. And most large, polluting vehicles (as we used to watch from our bed) are used to transfer goods – like food – into our cities.
“Mortality rates were most strongly associated with cigarette smoking. After adjusting for smoking and other risk factors, we observed statistically significant and robust associations between air pollution and mortality. The adjusted mortality-rate ratio for the most polluted of the cities as compared with the least polluted was 1.26 (95 percent confidence interval, 1.08 to 1.47). Air pollution was positively associated with death from lung cancer and cardiopulmonary disease but not with death from other causes considered together. Mortality was most strongly associated with air pollution with fine particulates, including sulfates.”
The simple truth is that asthma rates are on the rise, as is infant mortality and in many cases we have air pollution to blame for that. And we need to do something about it. And I don’t mean we need to come up with more medicine to throw at the problem. (Though, I am really grateful for our new nebulizer.) I think we need a more preventative approach.
So, while buying organic and/or locally grown foods may cost you a bit more monetarily, I think that cost might be worth it when it comes to the greater good. Change won’t happen overnight, but it can happen if we just put our minds to it.
A funny thing happened as I was writing this post, I ended up within a hundred mile radius to the original topic.