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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.

 girl with strawberry plantOur 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.

food zone diagram

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.

 

Comments

Caroline Jackson's picture

Food and health

Tamzin's blog was sobering, especially for someone whose children were both born in a country village where the crop spraying plane was known to spray so close to back gardens that the spray fell onto prams and washing on lines.  That's 25 years ago and yes, we made a fuss, but I don't think we knew how serious it was.  And now I look back, I remember the swimming pool attendant saying that my child was the only one in the class without an asthma inhaler at the age of ten. The village was known for the number of children who were asthmatics.  

My children and most of their friends too, are away now, down south "in the smoke".  I notice they are always tired, often suffer from digestive complaints, feel depressed.  They are drawn to the medical answer, tests and tablets.  They take my remedies, fresh food and exercise, in their long suffering way, as just the crankiness of mother. 

What will it take to get this generation to understand "you are what you eat, eat well"?

Tamzin Pinkerton's picture

 Yes it's sad that it takes

 Yes it's sad that it takes our health to be dangerously threatened before we start to value it - a metaphor for so many other things not Transition-unrelated too!  But I think and hope that stories like ours can at least encourage the asking of many more questions around these issues.  

One small silver lining of Meli's illness is that it's been much easier to be the health-pusher mother when the consequences of ill health are so familiar to your child - Meli can be annoyed or embarrassed by her 'different' diet and lifestyle, even now, but she doesn't question the fundamental importance of it.  I know from our pre-leukaemia days that mere preventative health drives, (in the absence of any real health threat) doesn't carry the same clout for little ones.  But still, I'm a firm believer that bringing children up with lots of good, safe, fresh food - and minimal or no junk - establishes a food 'home' for them that they can always return to, despite teenage and student straying that may occur! 

 

 

Ben Brangwyn's picture

The content of this article

The content of this article and the quality of writing is what I'd expect to see in an in-depth report in a national broadsheet or something done by the BBC.

Tamzin, you write like a seasoned journo. Am totally impressed.

And Meli is one lucky girl to have you as a mum. 

Hugs. Ben.

Tamzin Pinkerton's picture

Thank you Ben!  Watch this

Thank you Ben!  Watch this space - I'm not done with my ramblings yet!

Hugs to you too

X

 

Marella Fyffe's picture

Modern health care

 Superbly expressed... and what a hard difficult journey you had to undertake to gain such an insight into the workings of the modern health care system. Fantastic writing.

vanilla beer's picture

wider readership

well written and carrying a message of importance - needs a much wider readership IMHO.

How about sending to the many doctor-journals that exist? To Farmers Weekly? (if there is such a thing -) The national press?

Keep at it anyway ...

 

 

Paul Hanson's picture

Food and Health: Our story

 Great article Tamzin. I was also diagnosed with leukemia (hairy cell) 3 years ago and my experiences and thoughts on the subject almost exactly mirror your own. 

Although i have been told by the doctors that my condition is chronic, i believe that through lifestyle and diet changes I am on the way to full recovery. I would be interested to discuss in more detail with you about lifestyle and diet and also to support any attempts to spread the message to a wider audience

Georgina Downs's picture

A policy shift towards non-chemical farming is urgently needed

 

Fantastic article Tamzin! As you so rightly recognise chemical agriculture is not just about pesticides and other chemicals ending up on the food that is ingested but about the exposure of citizens to those same pesticides and chemicals sprayed on crops all over the countryside. Therefore as you say it is simply not enough just to buy and eat organic as it is a fundamental policy shift away from the dependence on pesticides altogether by utilizing truly sustainable non-chemical farming methods that is needed. Therefore it is a complete paradigm shift that is needed to a non-chemical food production system, as it is the whole structure of the pesticide reliant system for agriculture that needs to change. One of the main objectives/aims of the new European pesticides legislation includes shifting policy towards the utilisation of non-chemical farming methods in order to reduce dependency on pesticides and therefore non-chemical methods must be utilized by Member State Governments in their agricultural policies for the proper protection of humans, and the wider environment.

It is now beyond dispute that pesticides can have a wide range of acute and chronic adverse effects on human health. The European Commission itself, in pressing the case for the aforementioned new EU legislation, clearly acknowledged that pesticides can have various acute and chronic adverse effects on human health. It also recognised the higher risk of incidence of various chronic (including irreversible/permanent) effects, illnesses and diseases for people exposed to pesticides over the long term, such as rural residents. For example, one EC statement stated that, “Long term exposure to pesticides can lead to serious disturbances to the immune system, sexual disorders, cancers, sterility, birth defects, damage to the nervous system and genetic damage.” (Source: http://europa.eu/rapid/pressReleasesAction.do?reference=MEMO/06/278&form...).

There has been a significant increase in recent years of a number of these chronic health conditions. According to cancer statistics, an estimated 12.7 million new cancer cases and 7.6 million deaths occurred worldwide in 2008. There are around 298,000 new cases of cancer (excluding non-melanoma skin cancer) diagnosed each year in the UK alone, and more than 1 in 3 people will develop some form of cancer during their lifetime. In 2008, there were more than 156,000 cancer deaths in the UK, and one in four (27%) of all deaths in the UK were due to cancer. The cost to the UK economy in relation to just cancer alone is massive. For example, in 2008 cancer cost £5.13 billion in terms of NHS costs alone, and the total costs to society in England was estimated to be a staggering £18.33 billion, with these costs predicted to increase to £24.72 billion by 2020.

Although there are a number of different causes for various cancers, even if pesticides are only causing a proportion, the costs would still be enormous, particularly when added up with all the health costs of other related conditions, along with all the environmental costs.

Therefore it is clear that chemical farming is costing the country billions of pounds every year. Obviously it goes without saying that the personal and human costs to those suffering chronic diseases and damage cannot be calculated in financial terms. The significance of these consequences requires the adoption of a preventative approach, to make sure that the protection of public health is (which it has not been to date) the overriding priority of the Government’s policy.

As you highlighted in your article I have continued to campaign against the UK Government over its failure to protect the public from exposure to pesticides. Successive Governments’ have continued to base policy decisions in relation to pesticides on the protection of industry and big business interests as opposed to what is absolutely required as the number one priority of such policy and regulation – to protect public health and the environment. It is clear from the text of both the long standing European Directive on pesticides (Directive 91/414) and the new European legislation consisting of a new pesticides Regulation and new Directive that in a legal framework such as this there must be no balancing of interests when it comes to public health protection, as the protection of public health must be paramount.

Yet despite the fact that pesticide spraying has been a dominant feature of agricultural food production for over 50 years there has never been anything in the UK Government's existing policy and approach for the protection of residents and other UK citizens from the widely recognised risks and acute and chronic adverse health effects of these highly toxic chemicals.

This situation is scandalous. The coalition Government needs to take urgent and very long overdue action to prohibit completely the use of any pesticides in the locality of residents’ homes, schools, children’s playgrounds, hospitals, and public areas, as considering the risk of harm to human health then the spraying of pesticides should never have been permitted in the locality of any such areas in the first place.

Well done again Tamzin for such an excellent and cogently argued article and fingers crossed that you can get it into a national for wider readership.

Love Georgina x

Georgina Downs FRSA.

UK Pesticides Campaign.

www.pesticidescampaign.co.uk