COVID-19 gratitude post

COVID-19 should be the biggest wake-up call people have ever gotten. Like: ring, ring! “Hello it’s your planet calling. Can you please continue with the very much reduced fossil fuel use, please, my children? It’s been a nice break. Thank-you!”

Doctorow/wikimedia

Seriously though. This COVID-19 isolation has been an eye-opener.

What did we all do when threatened? I mean, besides go out in panicked droves buying toilet paper 🙂 Well, we did what we had to do to survive. We stayed home and hunkered down with our loved ones.

And we were ok. Some of us were even better than ok. We could do stuff we hadn’t done in years, fun stuff like read and listen to music and play games and paint and write and play with our kids. We used modern tools to stay in touch with each other and to get work done. We learned that the ways we had been living our lives weren’t inevitable or written in stone.

We found out that we don’t NEED to be running around all day long and aging ourselves prematurely with stress. We found out that kids survive without dance and piano and swimming. We took- wait for it- NAPS! Delicious mid-afternoon naps.

I personally found out that if you just sit with the people you live with- just sit with them and a nice cup of tea- eventually these things called “words” form in your brain, and you use your tongue, teeth, and lips to speak them! Then your family members do the same back to you! Sometimes this tickly thing forms in your belly and kind of splurges out of your throat. It’s called “laughing.” I found it quite pleasurable. I wanted more of it!

Certain things turned out to be essential- safety, food, water, shelter, love. Everything else we could literally do without.

And didn’t the outdoors get super-precious? Like, denied of it, we wanted that fresh air and the sounds of birds and breezes.

COVID-19 boiled life down to its essence and its essentials. Faced with the threat of suffering and death, we reduced our attentions to what we needed to do to remain alive and healthy, and to protect our loved ones.

And we learned that we are dependent upon certain outside forces to live. And that some of those forces are not all that benevolent. Some of them couldn’t be trusted to act humanely and responsibly when a threat bore down upon us. I learned this about our provincial government. Some learned this about not only their government, but also about their landlords, the utility companies, their employers, their creditors. Those entities became predatory when people became vulnerable through no fault of their own. They took advantage of a communal threat to become threats themselves. They made things much, much worse for some of our friends, neighbours, and fellow citizens. And that inhumane behaviour is continuing.

But, we discovered, MOST people are just like ourselves. They want to keep their families safe, they want to live in a way that makes them happy, they want peace and quiet and health. Most people, in other words, are good and responsible and willing to do what it takes to help their communities. They will take accurate information and turn it into rational decisions and actions. They will act in ways that benefit not only themselves but also their fellow humans.

Tom Ackroyd/wikimedia

These lessons, I would argue, are exactly what we- all of us, myself included- needed to learn. We needed to learn these things because we needed to know that the way we had been living is not the only way or even the best way. We can find ways to “slow down.”

And we needed to affirm that there really is an “us,” when it comes right down to it: faced with a threat, the majority of us do what is in the best interests of our communities. We protect our vulnerable and we look out for each other. Human connections and well-being are still what truly and profoundly matter to 99% of us. And we needed to know that when it comes time, we can meet demands on the tribe. We can get through a crisis.

And we’ll need those lessons in the days ahead. Because many of us will need to continue to lean on the strength of the collective. Compassion, reason, and generosity of heart and mind will remain necessary to ensure everyone can be fed, clothed, housed, and made to feel like part of “us.”

I have no doubt we’ll all continue rising to challenges. And here I acknowledge and thank all of those who continued working while COVID-19 was an active and little-known threat: nurses, doctors, emergency responders, grocery store personnel, police, cleaners, pharmacists, delivery people, postal workers, and everyone else I missed. I know all good folk join me in thanking you for your selfless work and for putting yourselves in harm’s way for your community. You are extraordinary humans!

The takeaways from this post are: 1- we have much to be grateful for. Our families, our friends, our communities are precious. They’re made up of hardworking, responsible, kind, and generous human beings.

2- there are better ways of doing everything society does. We’re born into the structure that other people made. We fit ourselves into it. We’re socialized to it, and rarely question its normality. In fact, we’ll die to preserve it! We’re taught that it’s not only the best way, it’s the ONLY way. Every other way is foreign, unnatural, too big of a change, too expensive… yadda yadda. People make the structure, and then the structure makes the people.

But this COVID-19 time has shown us that there are other possibilities, and that the truly precious parts of life aren’t material or work-related. We of this time haven’t ever, as a society, decided how we want to live or be governed. What we consider truly important, what values we want to guide our functioning. It’s come to that time when we have to re-evaluate what we’re doing, the why’s & how’s, the structure of society and whether it serves all of us fairly, or even promotes our well-being.

Thomas Jefferson said that “every generation needs a new revolution.” He was right. Democracies need to be updated frequently. They need to look inward and assess whether, and how well, they’re serving the truly valuable part of societies, the people. It’s time we had our revolution. It need not be a violent one, but it does need to be a “green” one. Because when we take care of our planet, and our democracies, we are also taking care of ourselves.

Plant a garden? But, why?

To me, Spring is the best time of the year. Trees and bushes come back to life, the robins return and sing me awake, and daffodils, tulips, and dandelions bloom. The eye and the brain are delighted by the colors and signs of life after the months of dull greys and browns. Young people’s thoughts turn to love, they say.

My thoughts turn in earnest towards my garden (and love, too, haha)!

Jim Linwood/wikimedia

The joyful part is thinking about new foods to grow and store to provide calories, nutrition, and a variety of tastes and textures for the long months of winter. But I must make room, of course, for the old staples because they’ve proven themselves reliable. Every year I grow potatoes, onions, garlic, basil, carrots, tomatoes, beets, and squash, especially zucchini. These are the foods that’ve succeeded year after year, and that I know my family will eat.

This year, the newbies will include a variety of beans, including Fava beans from a friend. Dried beans, I’ve learned, are a protein-rich food that is simple to dry (just leave them out on a screen), great for long-term storage, and very light in weight, and therefore portable.

So I’m one of those very enthusiastic gardeners. I don’t think there’s a better choice for promoting one’s and one’s loved ones’ health. In fact, other than growing food, the actions for which you get the biggest bang for your buck are storing water, and securing power through solar and/or wind generation. People can live without toiletries and electronic entertainment, but we wouldn’t survive long without food, water, and access to heat and shelter.

A garden harvest sure helps meet that need for food…

www.pnosa.com/wikimedia

And my personal experience has shown me that the old phrase, “you are what you eat,” is 100% accurate. When I stick to a home-grown diet, I feel like a different person. It’s dramatic. When I “fall off,” I rapidly get achy, grouchy, tired, and down. It’s gotten so that now I realize that indulging in “treats” like chocolate and ice cream is not worth the health consequences. And the process of getting “back on the wagon” involves a few days of carb craving (sugar is the mind-killer!) during which I berate myself for having to learn the lesson again! But, in the grand scheme of things, eating ice cream is a minor sin, so I don’t “punish” myself for long.

Besides, our culture encourages us to indulge every whim and fancy so that someone makes money, and the manipulation works very well. There’s a bunch of study behind it! So if you’re trying to improve your diet, and fall off, just get back on again as quickly as you can, knowing that each time you do re-dedicate yourself to your health, you’ve learned something. And to be honest, I’ve found that if your diet fulfills your nutritional needs, as a homegrown garden helps to do, cravings decrease dramatically. It’s like, given the choice, my body prefers healthy food, but when given a taste of dopamine-eliciting goodies, my brain wants more of them! Silly, silly brain, froot loops are for kids 😊.

So I thought in this post, I’d explore WHY home-grown organic food is nutritionally superior to store-bought food, and even more, to fast food, convenient “snacks,” and sugary junk! What is it that food you grow yourself has that store-bought food does not?

zinc

In a word, nutrients. Macro nutrients (carbohydrates, fats, and proteins), micro nutrients (vitamins, all sorts of important minerals, and fiber), and “secret” ones too (see below!).

Turns out that growing food for grocery stores is very different from growing food in gardens. First, commercial growing has developed crops that are ideal for appearing edible after prolonged transportation, storage, bumping, and handling. The breeding of that sort of fruit and veg ended up with produce with decreased nutrient levels:

Commercial produce breeders often develop new varieties based on high yields and fast growth or the ability to withstand shipping. Sometimes, flavor and nutrients are inadvertently lost. Many modern varieties offer fewer nutrients than varieties did decades ago… High-yielding, fast-growing plants may not process nutrients at the same fast rate, so they have fewer nutrients compared to lower yield, slower-growing varieties…

looks good…

[Also] many commercial crops are picked early and ripen on the way to stores. But… even when they do ripen in color… they may not “ripen” in nutrient levels the way they would have if picking was postponed. Mechanical pickers and bulk commercial handling often cause more stress and bruising, which speed up nutrient losses. In your own garden, you can keep crops on the vine until fully ripe and handle them gently. You’ll be rewarded in taste and nutrient content.”

Eating the food I’ve grown makes me feel so much better that I’m convinced there’s something magic about the alchemy between soil, sunshine, rain, and plants. And indeed, there are chemicals in garden produce that are being studied for their health benefits. These include polyphenols, carotenoids, glucosinolates, and flavonoids. They sound like dangerous chemicals, but they’re actually natural compounds that give fruit and veg their unique tastes, textures, and colors. And they’re garden produce’s secret health-promoting compounds, because they act as antioxidants, which prevent and help repair damage to our cells.

I’ve noticed that my garden produce has more complex flavors and fragrances then store-bought, and this is attributable, I’m sure, to these less well-understood compounds that quickly degrade in storage. For example, you can dig up a carrot from your garden and just smell the difference from store-bought. Then you bite into it and there are layers upon delicate layers of carroty goodness going on. It’s hard to explain, but once you experience it, you’ll be hooked. Fresh garden produce just tastes better. It’s akin to a spiritual experience, a fresh tomato or kale leaf or raspberry straight from the plant. Everyone on this planet should experience it, especially kids.

Last, there’s garden soil. If it’s healthy- regularly renewed with compost you can make at home– it contains a rich network of organisms, including bacteria, that are essential for the proper growth and nutrition of garden plants. These are the bacteria we require in our gut to digest food properly. Ever wonder where that internal biome came from? It comes from our soil. Tiny living things from the dirt end up being ingested, and inside of us they do very important work. We are soil, and soil is us. Without those soil bacteria within, we cannot be healthy.

So is home-grown produce better than fast and/or “convenient” store-bought food?

Well, yes… fast and highly-processed food actually has very little nutritional value. The “prep” it goes through- any natural part being mixed with chemicals and boiled/fried/steamed/dried until there’s no life in it- renders it practically nutrient-free. Even the “fresh” veg on a burger is of the store-bought variety and therefore less nutritious. Chips, cheese spreads, margarine, pop-tarts, white bread, flavored crackers… all contain next to no nutrients and are teeming with chemicals and artificial dyes. I think of these now as cardboard sprinkled with salt. That’s literally what I see myself chewing on when I think about these foods.

Now let’s talk about sugary junk!

Modern “food” developers make use of unnatural sweeteners that wreak havoc on our bodies. These are “refined sugars including corn syrup, high fructose corn syrup, dextrose” and artificial sweeteners like aspartame and sucralose. These latter are suspect to me and I never use them. They may also be addictive.

There are three naturally-occurring sugars: fructose, and sucrose (glucose plus fructose), both found in fruit, and lactose, found in milk. Science has found ways to convert these natural sugars into super-concentrated forms that are then used to sweeten everything from tomato sauce to packaged cookies to soups to “healthy” cereal. The big problem with unnatural sugars is that they break down very quickly to glucose, the form of sugar our body needs. So you get a rapid and very high concentration of sugar in your blood followed by a crash. Our bodies didn’t evolve to handle that kind of instant sugar load. By contrast, natural sugars break down slowly, thereby providing a constant, steady dose of glucose energy.

This rapid, large dosing of sugar over time is linked to all kinds of health problems including obesity, diabetes, a weakened immune system, cancer, heart attack, strokes, generalized inflammation, and metabolic syndrome.

I’ve had this discussion with my son over and over. He has kids. I’ll buy them ice cream for the occasional treat. He buys them Slurpees, candy, and pop. Then when I criticize his choices, he’ll say, “there’s no difference between the treats I buy them and the ice cream you offer them.”

But he could not be more wrong. And the type of sugar is the main culprit. Pop and candy are basically high fructose corn syrup, water, and dyes. But the milk products used to make ice cream at the very least give the kids some calcium and vitamins. And the fat in it slows down the absorption of the sugars, a lot of which is admittedly refined. Of course if I wanted to give them a truly healthy dessert, I’d offer them some berries, fresh from the garden! Or watermelon, a mango, or even a banana split with home-made ice cream sweetened with Stevia. But I’m only one Grandma, what can I say?

So now you know that home-grown food is factually healthier than store-bought. But while doing the research for this post, I came across many additional advantages to garden produce:

1- you save a bunch of money! Gardening is cost-effective. And if you save your seeds, as I do for tomatoes, chard, beets, carrots, and basil, it’s even easier on the chequebook. My chives, rhubarb, and garlic come back every year without fail. My strawberries should, but I’ve had some trouble there.

Organiponico crop- Jengod/wikimedia

2- gardens improve food security- “with the fall of communism in Russia, food prices spiked and many urban dwellers responded by using vacant land for food production. This land now produces 30 percent of all food grown in the country and 80 percent of the vegetables.” Cubans, too, during the difficult ’90’s, used any vacant land, and developed intensive urban gardens (organiponicos), to supply people with food. With financial aid from Venezuela, Cubans stopped gardening as much, and are now experiencing food shortages.

3, 4, 5 and 6- “From an environmental perspective, urban gardens and farms do much more than beautify vacant land. They help to attract and repair habitats for pollinator species such as bees to urban areas, in a time when the bee population is in crisis. They provide stormwater capture through the installation of rainbarrel systems. Finally the addition of plants to an urban environment provides necessary cooling effects to an area often surrounded by pavement and concrete.”

7- it’s easy- ” ‘Growing food is very simple,’ says Kathleen Frith, managing director of the Center for Health and the Global Environment (CHGE) at Harvard Medical School. ‘It takes a little time, but things like tomatoes, lettuce, peppers — basic kitchen crops — are very forgiving. Really, anyone can learn to grow food pretty easily.’ “

8- it makes healthier kids- “Poor eating impacts people throughout their lives, from fatigue and concentration problems at school and work to behavioral and medical problems in both children and adults… Active gardeners have reported increased consumption of vegetables and decreased consumption of less nutritious sweet foods and drinks as a result of growing their own food.”

9- it connects you to our planet and increases gratitude- ” ‘Backyard gardening can inspire you to take an interest in the origins of your food…’ says Dr. Helen Delichatsios, an internist at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. ‘When you grow your own food, you savor it more because of the effort it took to get to the table.’ “

10- it gets you outside and is great exercise- in fact, gardening burns more calories than walking an equivalent time, can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and depression, and strengthen your bones (sunshine stimulates Vitamin D production).

If all that doesn’t convince you that you should plant a garden this year, I don’t know what will! You can start off very small, and work your way into a bigger, more diverse garden. And you can buy plants which makes things very simple- just place them in good soil with enough space and sun, water them, and watch them produce a lovely harvest for you and your family. You won’t believe how healthy and empowered you’ll feel. Happy planting!

Addendum: here are two excellent talks on the harmful effects of high fructose corn syrup and the resulting sky-high (and increasing) costs to society. Dr. Lustig is a brilliant endocrinologist, and recently took legal training just to fight the commercial food lobby that hides the truth about HFCS.

Dr. Lustig 2013
Dr. Lustig 2009