I once had the responsibility of teaching health and nutrition to incoming students at Job Corps. This residential program run by the Department of Labor offers impoverished youth from ages 16 to 24 …
I once had the responsibility of teaching health and nutrition to incoming students at Job Corps. This residential program run by the Department of Labor offers impoverished youth from ages 16 to 24 education and trade skills. Each week, I faced a new group of older teens and young adults who had just left the comforts of home and various degrees of drugs, sex, late nights, loud music and sleeping until noon. It was my job to teach them how to take charge of their own wellness. Junk food would be their lone remaining vice and last comfort. At the onset of this drastic life change, I was about to nag teenagers to eat their vegetables. This seemed dismal.
First, I needed to get the attention of my target audience. “Health & Nutrition” sounded like something boring we’ve all heard in high school. I had to rebrand, so I went with a formative scare tactic: “The How NOT to Get Cancer Workshop.” It soon became a campus favorite. But the true success depended on the takeaway knowledge they would leave with, to apply forevermore. The curriculum had to be reduced to the most basic principles that students could comprehend despite their culture, economy, or education. I began the lecture by describing the 30 percent increase of the cancer rate in my lifetime, as cancer is correlated with chemicals, notably those found in processed foods. The workshop concluded with this practical advice: The healthiest dietary choices to make are foods that are “closest to the source.” I managed to convey the principle that the fresher the food is that we put in our bodies, the better we are for it. I could measure the success of the workshop afterward by the number of students choosing yogurt berry parfait at McDonald’s instead of fries. If students identify healthier food choices that they enjoy, it has far-reaching benefits.
The quality of fresh food is not measured simply by the amount of time since harvest but also by its living properties. These are further compromised by distance and processing. This living property in food can be described by the Sanskrit word “prana,” the word for breath. This translates as “life force” or “vital principle” in the holistic healing practice of Ayurveda. Food has both nutritional properties and medicinal properties. Food provides the fuel for our bodies to function, and fresh whole foods contain elements that ameliorate illness. Permaculture is an ecological design based on indigenous and traditional knowledge of sustainability. It speaks to our need to eat foods grown in the regions where we live because local foods provide what our bodies need for local climates. Nature knows best! And freshness is critical. Once whole foods have been harvested, their quality begins to diminish, and medicinal properties die within days. Pre-packaged processed food is lifeless. Hospital food can be deadly! Forget flowers when visiting loved ones in the hospital. Bring a home-cooked meal! It is guaranteed to bring joy and help an ailing body build healthy cells.
Although I grew up on a small ranch, I had taken our own permaculture for granted until the summer I was 13, visiting my maternal grandmother in upstate NY. Milagros (Spanish for miracles) bought her meat from the town butcher and fresh bread from the local baker, both of whom she knew by name. She bought the freshest possible produce from unmanned farm stands on the roadside where she left cash in an unlocked box. I was amazed. In my small hometown, we needed to lock the car at the supermarket, where we never even saw the butchers and bakers. There was something friendly and old-world about closer-to-the-source grocers. It all was hygge. I decided then, “When I grow up, I want this: meat from the butcher, bread from the baker and produce directly from the local farm.” The appeal was multi-faceted. Everything tasted better. Not just fresh, but the special attention each artisan paid to their craft made a difference. The apparent care and connection between the producer and the product translated like a powerful taste I could see and smell in a profound sensory experience. Coming from Southern California, I knew plenty of sunshine and increasingly dry hot days but knew nothing of a summer that acts like one of four seasons. That glorious northeastern summer I could taste it all: cattle grazing on lush green hillsides, rushing streams, passing showers, radiant sunshine, rainbows and fresh air. I think I could taste prana.
I think fresh bread smells like prana. Thanks to Milagros, I now buy my baked goods from Beach Lake Bakery. Grandma’s influence has motivated my lifestyle here to the degree where I surpassed even my original dream at 13. I was once an accidental homesteader. At a farm in Wayne County for more than eight years, my partner and I came to produce roughly 85 percent of the food we consumed: chickens, eggs, hogs, rabbits, goats, milk and a substantial garden. Not to mention canning, freezing, pickling and making jam. It was labor-intensive, but even the smallest effort is worth it. I highly recommend chickens. The investment is high early on because they deserve a decent coop, but chickens are some of the easiest pets to keep, and so generous. My hens each give me an egg a day. Miraculously, they seem to recycle last night’s leftovers into tomorrow’s fresh breakfast bounty. For those who don’t have time or energy to keep bees or weed gardens, there are plenty of delightful farmers’ markets nearby to get fresh honey and local veggies. Better yet, farm-shop, direct. Our region hosts a cornucopia of local farms where you can shop on-premises. Hardler Farm is where I buy my milk and Mike Hardler is my butcher. Their superior products are as good as they are because they care as much as they do. Prana is apparent at Hardler farm and to me it looks a little like heaven.
Living locally is not a trendy catchphrase. Eating locally has unparalleled benefits to our physical selves like shopping locally has economic benefits to our communities. Living locally is something good for your body, your soul and your community. Plus, it’s good for the planet. Living closer to the source has many far-reaching benefits.