Food and Health: Our Story
Back in 2008, when I first began working on the Local Food book, I found myself straddling two very different worlds. On the one hand, through speaking to local food project collaborators and hearing their stories of actualised visions and ideas, I was happily immersed in the hopeful creativity of the burgeoning local food movement. This was a place where change was (and is) mushrooming across the globe and where connections between our air, water, food, soil, wildlife, and personal health were being remade.
At the same time, I was becoming intimately familiar with a culture that seemed to me to be premised on a denial of these connections, and that was (and is) breezily marching towards many painful ends – the culture of the modern healthcare system.
My daughter Meli (who was eight at the time) was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukaemia (ALL) in January 2008. She was hospitalised hours after huge blood bruises appeared on her legs and we remained there for a long 6 weeks – what was to be the beginning of 2 and a half years of chemotherapy, transfusions and surgery. I’m very happy to report that she is now 12, completely recovered, with a full head of bouncy curls, and a restored love of being on the stage. I am of course deeply grateful for the role allopathic medicine played in saving Meli’s life and for the tireless support of the many nurses, doctors, surgeons and consultants that carried us through. But experiencing what I’d always known but never before had to face – that the medical definition of health barely acknowledges the role of food, or even the full implications of lifestyle – petrifies me to the core. It is a world where these connections appear to be severed, and it couldn’t be further removed from the thriving display of busy interconnectedness, on show in any organic veg plot.
Nowhere is the food-health link more clearly absent, than in a paediatric oncology ward. We would visit these wards regularly for Meli’s intrathecal chemotherapy doses, medicine collection and check ups. Often I would see other bald, withered and skeletal children sitting in their post-op beds, tucking in to the food provided by the hospital kitchen – including chips, burgers, ice-cream, coke. I wanted to shake the parents, nurses and doctors and remind them that children on these aggressive treatments can and do die from secondary fungal infections, and that sugar is the very last thing that should be on their plates. But cries of ‘Let them eat biodynamic brassicas!’ wouldn’t have gone down too well. And anyway my focus was Meli, who was already embarrassed by having a mother that would never let her touch hospital food, use hospital cutlery or drink anything other than our home-purified water. And that was just the tip of a big get-Meli-well health drive.
Our main hospital was in fact better than most, in that it actually had a working kitchen on the premises – a couple of the others we spent time in (in between transferring from the West country to the South East) even outsourced their food prep and procurement. This is apparently the national norm, with 80-90% of hospitals in the country doing the same. Pre-made meals arrived (from some industrial kitchen somewhere in the country) to be heated in vast microwaves and ovens before being served up to the in-patients. This was dry, unfresh and largely processed food that I would never consider giving to a healthy person, let alone young children with brain tumours and rapidly multiplying blood cells, struggling to stay alive. Even the live-in parents of in-patient children didn’t have access to a proper kitchen – what we did have was a shared fridge and a microwave. The cooker was thrown out because of ‘health and safety issues’! So at that time, Meli’s Dad and my mother prepared all of her food at home and brought it in.
It became clear to me, through spending a lot of time observing the hospital food culture, that one of medical science’s major points of departure from recognising that food can nourish or conversely damage a human body, is in measuring a patient’s weight. Doctors love a chubby child. When Meli was a baby, I remember being puzzled by health visitors that would compare her weight (as a breast fed child) with that of bottle fed babies and conclude that her health must be suffering if she wasn’t putting on weight as quickly. There are obviously important reasons why gaining weight is seen as an indicator of health in growing children, but it is hugely simplistic to assume that weight gain can only be a healthy thing. The Marsden cancer hospital in Surrey hands out leaflets to its patients – children and adults – about the recommended diet to follow whilst being on treatment. It includes images of burgers, milkshakes and liquorice allsorts and the main emphasis is on keeping one’s weight up. This could be done by gorging on Happy Meals and foraging through the snack shelves of newsagents and service stations – as long as the scales are happy then so is the doctor (at least in the short term).
The gap between Meli’s diet and that recommended by the doctors (if questioned) and hospital dieticians was huge. Everything she ate was, and still is, organic, yeast-free, sugar-free, cow-dairy free and as local as possible. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she didn’t spend a single night in hospital during the last 18 months of her treatment, while many other young leukaemia sufferers were in and out of their hospital cells on an almost weekly basis. Understandably, the official medical take on food and health has to somehow squeeze the notion of ‘acceptable diets for ill people’ into what the hospital kitchens can and do provide, (leaving very little space then!). One consideration here is that the NHS budget (approx £2.50 per patient’s food, per day) couldn’t stretch to accommodate all the individually tailored and thoroughly researched diet plans that each patient really deserves.
But like many Transition folk – I don’t tend to see money constraints as a valid enough reason for allowing unhealthy and nutritionally unsustainable behaviours to go unchallenged! At one Soil Association conference I attended, I was overjoyed to hear about the Better Hospital Food Project, set up by the government in 2000 and supported by Sustain and the Soil Association, that has had lasting success in 3 hospitals in Cornwall. There, Mike Pearson, (the head of hotel services) has overseen a dramatic shift to 75 % of food is fresh and unprocessed and 50% is locally sourced. So huge improvements to the food-status-quo in hospitals up and down the UK, are possible! And as ever, often sparked by the vision of one pro-active individual. It is a shame that this programme wasn’t rolled out more widely, or used to inspire more other hospitals in to making similar changes. But it’s an important beginning.
The irony of all of this is that it could well have been the same ignorance of food-health connections that threw us into the clutches of medical science in the first place. When Meli was diagnosed, we had been living for over two years directly next to pesticide sprayed fields. During this time, I had known these fields weren’t organic but my girl was eating a healthy, fresh diet and many other children lived nearby who were perfectly healthy so no alarm bells were ringing in my mind. After Meli’s diagnosis, a community nurse in the area told us that at one time, no less than 3 children were being treated for leuakaemia at the primary school across the (sprayed) field from our home. This is a number way above the national average for childhood leukaemia incidence in a local area. Tests showed that Meli also had high levels of antimony in her system soon after diagnosis and this is a compound that is present in some pesticides. (Incidentally – I did contact the farmer of these fields and he shared the list of applications he uses on the field and also agreed to hold off the spraying each weekend we stayed in the area for visits. I recommend other rural residents expressing concern and doing the same!) I will never know for certain if our proximity to chemically prepared fields was a factor in Meli’s illness, but even the possibility that it was is more than enough for me to now be very cautious about where we live. Through my research, I came across the work of the amazingly dynamic pesticides campaigner Georgina Downs, (see her website http://www.pesticidescampaign.co.uk). I remain in contact with her and she has shared a number of stories with me of farmers and rural residents suffering from leukaemia and other horrific conditions as a result of pesticide exposure. Once Meli’s treatment had come to an end, I spent months researching a place that would be as healthy as possible for us to move to – we now live in a village surrounded by woodland and biodynamic farmland.
Our experience has highlighted, for me, the direct impact that chemically-based agriculture can have on human health. Prior to Meli’s illness, I admit that it hadn’t been at the forefront of my mind that the farming methods busy damaging our land not only harm the soil, wildlife and waterways, and skew our weather patterns – they can also dangerously turn our own bodies against us. In protecting our children’s health from the perils of chemical agriculture, simply growing or buying organic isn’t enough.
As Meli and I have moved away from the sprayed fields, via numerous hospital wards, to the safer, intelligently-managed fields that surround our new home and community, we are certainly more wide-eyed, but deeply wary of a food culture that inflicts wide-scale suffering all over the globe - and one that we never chose to be a part of. I am acutely aware of how lucky we have been. The fact that we have even been able to look into and find the nutritional, environmental and medical support and conditions that could bring Meli back to health should ideally be a human right, but is an inaccessible luxury to many parents in similar positions.
My focus here has mainly been to touch on the medical approach to food and health, but I think that both this and the pesticides issue are symptoms of the same, wide disconnect that lurks in fridges, fields and factories around the world – that the further removed we are from the consequences of our behaviour, the further removed we are from ourselves. For me, the success of a vision that can reunite food and health and re-acknowledge the social, ecological and biological ties that do and always will bind us, lies in the diligent, steady work of people on the ground, growing, picking, producing, preparing, cooking and enjoying food that feeds us and our planet. We each have our niche to carve out.
I am very keen to explore ideas of how to improve access to fresh, safe food for young cancer patients and would love to hear from anyone interested in brainstorming and collaborating on this.
I want to end with a diagram devised by the wonderful Julie Brown, of Growing Communities in Hackney, that sums this vision up well. An earlier version of these food zones appeared in the Local Food book, but this one comes complete with the principles, action plan and explanation of the diagram. I include it here because it seems to me to be the most realistic, concise and clear projection of a local food system that I have come across. You can see it below or download the full size .pdf here.
I read it, and my hope is restored.
Photos: TP-1 Our young friend Thom, bonding with a pumpkin at the recent Transition camp in Sussex; Meli harvesting her strawberries during her treatment; Meli this summer, enjoying her first trip to her other home country (Italy) since her diagnosis.