Money and health issues certainly seem to dominate the news these days. Articles are filled with strategies to save money, reduce energy use and improve our diet. My wife and I were both interested to read the March 4 Bangor Daily News article about the top 10 heart-healthy foods as we sat down for breakfast. Most of the foods recommended — fish with high levels of omega 3 oils, olive oil, beans, berries and even Brussels sprouts — were fairly predictable. But the article left me thinking that there was something missing.
For the past few years, I have tried to direct my research and University of Maine Cooperative Extension education programs in areas where local agriculture and human health overlap. I have been interested in getting people actively engaged in local foods, buying food at farmers markets, getting to know their local growers and purchasing shares from community supported agriculture and fishery projects. These systems promote consumption of Maine-grown foods and reduce the distance food has to travel, which has a whole other set of likely benefits.
Seeing people shopping outdoors in the dead of winter at the Orono Farmers Market is something this southerner finds most amazing. But those shoppers get it; they understand the connection and see the importance of eating local, healthy food. Supporting Maine agriculture will help our health and the health of our farms and fisheries because when we do this, we are acting as “co-producers”; our farmers grow it, but we have to complete the cycle and support them by buying it.
The other key piece missing in the article is that heart-healthy foods require some of your time. I think the balance of food and health got off-track when our government chose to promote a cheap food policy and Americans took the easier, faster food route. We chose to buy more processed foods from the middle of the grocery store and eat millions of “happy” meals because it was easy. That, combined with an increasingly sedentary lifestyle, has taken its toll with high rates of obesity, diabetes and related problems.
Most heart-healthy foods require a commitment to cook. Salmon, Brussels sprouts, and roasted potatoes would make a perfect heart-healthy dinner, but these types of meals require us to cook, and hopefully sit down and enjoy the meal with family or friends. Maine potatoes are an excellent source of fiber, energy, vitamins and heart-healthy antioxidants, but are we willing to take a half-hour to cook them?
As we look forward to spring and summer, can we commit to cooking and eating three meals a week with mostly Maine-grown food? Can we commit to teach our children one simple kitchen skill a week? Taking these kinds of steps is how we can start to take on our ever-growing health problems and keep more of our food dollars here in Maine.
By returning to the table, we may find food does more than just sustain us; dinner may become the highlight of our day.
John Jemison is a water quality and soils specialist with the University of Maine Cooperative Extension.