The Dirt in Your Food May Actually Save Your Life

In a city where skyscrapers and massive buildings outnumber arable land, community gardens are hard to come by. Those that are fortunate to plant a few crops in their backyards rarely do so, leaving millions of residents scoping for processed food at their local supermarkets. Some products contain chemicals that the average consumer has little knowledge of and they may do more harm than good.

At least, that’s what the New York Times seems to point out.

Op-ed contributor Jeff D. Leach convincingly argues that not enough attention is being paid to the dirt used to grow our food. Contrary to popular perception, Leach says that the dirt’s microbial organisms that we think are damaging to our health can, in fact, help our immune systems. “Increasing evidence suggests that the alarming rise in allergic and autoimmune disorders during the past few decades is at least partly attributable to our lack of exposure to microorganisms that once covered our food and us,” he writes. According to a recent study, reintroducing some of the organisms found in our mud and water can help prevent our immune systems from overreacting and contributing to certain chronic diseases, such as inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. Leach suggests that our tendency to eat processed food has stopped our immune systems from properly evolving. As diseases become more complex, he asserts that we must allow our bodies to naturally adjust to the ecological changes that take place.

“The destruction of our inner ecosystem surely deserves more attention as global populations run gut-first into the buzz saw of globalization and its microbial scrubbing diet,” Leach notes. “But more important, we should seriously consider making evolutionary biology a basic science for medicine, or making its core principles compulsory in secondary education. Currently they are not.”

As controversial (or, rather, as compelling) as his piece may be, Leach has been lauded by some for finally revealing the truth. Karen Washington, a resident of the Bronx and president of the New York City Community Garden Coalition, said that much more needs to be done in order to encourage consumers to eat healthy.

“A lot of the health-related illnesses that we have that are associated to the food that we eat, it’s not sustainable,” she said. “We’re spending billions and billions of dollars on these health problems that can be remedied by the food we eat. We’re putting too much money on treatment and not enough emphasis and money on prevention.”

One way to prevent such problems, Washington said, is to promote the idea of community gardens. “If I have a community garden and urban farm, you’re teaching people a method of healthy eating,” she explained. Washington has been growing food for over 25 years, but she admitted that she initially had no idea what to do. It wasn’t until she moved to the Bronx that she decided to plant a couple seeds in her backyard.  She soon became heavily interesting in growing food, transforming a vacant lot across the street into a community garden. In the 1990s, when Mayor Rudy Giuliani attempted to auction off several community gardens, she joined other activists in a stand to protect them.

“I’ve been helping people with gardening,” she said. “I’ve traveled across the country, really being an activist for food justice and social justice and really trying to stem the evils of hunger and poverty in this country and around the world.”

Washington, like many advocates of urban farming, believes that education is key to living a healthier lifestyle.

“I think we can all be conscientious consumers, and that starts by reading [food] labels,” she said. “I tell people if you look at a package and you can’t pronounce it, there’s something wrong. That shouldn’t be going into your system.”

Photos courtesy of Ari Moore and RDPixelShop