BY LEE WARREN
The recent announcement about the proposed sale of Mission Health to for-profit hospital empire HCA Healthcare has the community abuzz with questions and concerns. The focus of attention on the Dogwood Health Trust, a newly formed foundation, has been understandably significant. The fact that the mission of the trust is to “dramatically improve the health and well-being of all people and communities in Western North Carolina” — primarily through funding partnerships with the local nonprofit community — provides remarkable opportunity.
But how do we think about this strategically and from a systems perspective? First, we’ll need to ask ourselves about the causes of ill health and the less-than-ideal well-being of our people and our community. Due to the overwhelming needs around us, we tend to throw money at solutions that deal with the symptoms instead of the causes. For example, we feed the hungry and shelter the homeless, which are crucial services in times of crisis and stress, but rarely solve the root causes of hunger and homelessness.
Complex social issues are wicked problems that involve wealth disparities, lack of education, racial injustice, unresolved and historical trauma, corporate agendas and the disintegration of community. But we can probably all agree that at least some of the causes of ill health in our community have to do with our food choices and our challenged food system. And as you’ll see, this all boils down to our relationship with soil.
By way of example, let me tell you the story of Rain Parker. Eight years ago, Rain weighed 300 pounds, suffered from numerous ailments, including anxiety and depression, and felt desperate and stuck. Her life consisted of working as a teacher, watching television and eating junk food. Worrying about her weight added to the cycle of depression, which added to the ill health, which added to the weight. It was a no-win cycle.
Rain tells her story and the evolution of her farm on her blog, Eight Owls Farmstead, where she shares her journey toward becoming a farmer and, in the process, achieving better health. She now owns nearly 10 acres of land in Rosman, grows much of her own food, spends much of her life outside and has stabilized her weight to between 155 and 165 pounds over the past four years. She says, “The last eight years have been the very best ones of my whole life. I know exactly where the food on my dinner plate came from because I usually put it there. I go to the garden instead of the gym or the grocery store.”
Once crushed by a lack of self-confidence, her faith in herself becomes stronger every year that she farms. “I’m still working through complex health issues,” she says. “But overall, my muscles and smiles grow bigger every day.”
What’s going on here? Certainly Rain got more exercise, but that’s not all. Research is showing that contact with soil helps release serotonin and other positive neurotransmitters in the brain that are responsible for feelings of happiness, joy, bliss and euphoria. Specifically the microbe Mycobacterium vaccae, which is nonpathogenic and lives naturally in soil, has been known to stimulate neurons that provide mind-altering effects, much like natural antidepressants. Apparently, even 10 minutes of gardening can effectively raise our mood.
Another explanation for Rain’s health turnaround may be related to improved gut health. Gut health, we’re learning, is a top indicator of overall health, both mental and physical. The organisms in our gut form a microbiome, a living ecosystem that is teeming with microbes (bacteria, fungi, viruses and others). The problem is that we’ve been destroying our microbes through processed foods, overuse of antibiotics, stressful lifestyles and a myriad of chemicals compounds found in our air, food and water. We have decimated our internal ecosystems, thus leading to disease and disharmony.
As Rain disengaged with microbe-killing activities such as a sedentary life and a junk-food diet and engaged with healthy food and direct contact with soil, she saw her health improve. Research is showing a causal link — the deterioration of our gut health mirrors the destruction of microbes in our soil. Through the ongoing use of fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, mechanized tillage and a lack of nutrient replacement, we are squandering the inheritance that took millennia to build: healthy soil. Our soil is like the digestive system of the planet: Its microbes process nutrients in order to produce plants. Soil is our largest ecosystem, with one teaspoon of healthy soil containing up to 50,000 species of organisms.
This “living” soil helps regulate climate, sequester carbon, filter water, mitigate pollution and damage, and basically make life possible. Unless it doesn’t. Because it can’t. We’re at a point now where we’ve reduced or eliminated the life of the soil so much that we have significant microbe and organic matter depletion the world over. According to Dan Kittredge from the BioNutrient Food Association, the iron content of one apple in 1950 was equivalent to 26 apples in 1998. This means that plants struggle to grow because the soil lacks the elements they need to survive and thrive. Therefore, when we eat them, we struggle as well.
At Organic Growers School, where I serve as executive director, we teach people about growing and about soil. We want more farmers on the land using organic practices and a system in which family farms can flourish. We also want a garden, an orchard and chickens in every yard. We want a pot of herbs on every apartment windowsill. And we want the average person to populate their daily life with homegrown food. In short, we want to reclaim agriculture. And we believe this reclamation will transform the health crisis. We are certain that this very act, repeated by every person in every space in our community, will raise the health and well-being in a long-term and sustainable way.
As the Dogwood Health Trust forms its board, I urge its founding members to address the underlying determinants of our failing health by investing in a local food system with soil-building at its core. From all sectors, research is showing that sustainable agriculture, in the form of agroecology and resilient local food systems, offers promise for addressing these failed food systems. The United Nations Human Rights Council is calling for the world’s food system to be “radically and democratically redesigned,” and it recommends “mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems.”
To optimize the significant funding that will likely be infused into the community through the creation of the Dogwood Health Trust, we need to invest in systemic solutions. Specifically, that means we need a strong advocate and active voice for soil health and food-system reform on the Dogwood Health Trust board. I see a coalition of regional agricultural organizations as central, dynamic and vital partners in realizing this vision. I want to see this coalition come together to nominate these board members who can advocate for real solutions and long-term health. Further, I want to see this coalition act as allies who advocate for, invest in and create living soils as the best possible strategy for ultimate well-being. Together, we can both imagine and create thriving farms, living soils, healthy people and engaged communities.
Lee Warren is the executive director of Organic Growers School, which provides practical and affordable organic education in the Southern Appalachians and aims to build a vibrant food and farming community by boosting the success of organic home growers and farmers in our region.