Our Wellness Obsession Doesn’t Do Much For People Who Have No Access to Real Produce
True wellness is not just about the individual person.
From the street, it looks like just another empty lot in Brooklyn, framed by a vacant storefront, a liquor store, a tax prep business, and a tobacco shop. I step through an opening in a chain link fence, past a large white tent and I’m immersed in greenery, the buzzing of insects, and walking on soft dirt instead of sidewalk.
Yemi Amu calls out a greeting and welcomes me to the farm—yes, a farm—that has a 2,500-square-foot aquaponics system, and grows, among other things, rice, lemongrass, mint, okra, peppers, spinach, garlic, chamomile, tomatoes, and eggplant, all on the basketball court-sized lot. Amu is the manager of Moore Street Farm, on the border of Bushwick and East Williamsburg, and the co-founder of OKO Farms, her urban aquaculture and education company.
It’s mid-morning and I can tell she’s already been working for a few hours. Beads of sweat bejewel her forehead, and her clothes are slightly dusted with soil. “This is our fish tank,” she says, pointing to a water-filled hole in the ground. It’s filled with orange and silver shiny bodies of koi, goldfish, and carp. There are some catfish in there too, Amu tells me, but they’re hiding at the bottom.
The water that the fish swim in is the same water that the plants sink their roots into. It circulates between the two like an inhale and exhale. The plants filter out the fish’s waste, and the waste acts like a kind of fertilizer for the plants.
“It's symbiosis,” Amu says. “It’s a really simple thing, it's what happens in the ocean.”
Simple. That’s why I was here, to try and reclaim a simple idea of what wellness means. I saw Amu speak on a panel about food justice at an event earlier this year hosted by Healthyish, Bon Appetit’s wellness site. There, she argued that our current wellness space was driven by product mania, and an obsession with how to make individuals healthier, not communities. What wellness was leaving behind was the basics of food justice: Access for all to fruits and vegetables, knowledge of how to prepare our own foods, and access to land and nature.
While higher-income communities debate over ketogenic and vegan diets, many people are fighting just to be able to access healthy produce. Around 23.5 million people live in food deserts, or areas where there isn’t a place nearby to buy produce—no fresh apples or broccoli. Around 2.2 percent of US households live in low-income and rural areas that are more than 10 miles from a supermarket.
About half of the children who come to OKO Farms, especially the ones with less money, don’t know where food comes from. (And they live in New York, just miles from the latest pop-ups with moon dust or drinking vinegar.) When Amu asks, some kids say fruit and vegetables come from the supermarket, or the internet. She prods them further: how did it get to the internet? Then, they’re stumped.
The wellness world is doing a bad job at advocating for these basic tenets of health: The simple idea that everyone should able able to get fresh, healthy food in their community. Why is this wellness culture’s problem at all? Because this what they claim to be passionate about: Health through food, food as fuel, nutrition as a key ingredient to physical and mental success.
What’s in vogue instead are health-ified snack foods, probably because they’re a lot easier to market and profit from. Protein bars with no sugar, ice cream made from bananas and avocado, or pizza crust made from cauliflower. These products dominate the market and promise to be the "clean" alternatives to the processed foods making us fat and unwell.
It’s an allure I’m not immune to. My recent orders on Amazon include a vegan, high-fiber, low-sugar version of Swedish fish, yellow split pea and Himalayan pink salt chips, and a golden milk mix—a blend of turmeric, ginger, ashwaganda, and probiotics. For me, when I developed an adult-onset soy allergy, I realized how many fillers were in foods that didn’t need to be there. Did you know there’s not a single frozen waffles brand that’s soy-free? Or that Ritz crackers have soy in them? And tortillas? And most chocolate bars?
My allergy pushed me in the direction of orthorexia, which is the obsession with clean eating. I wanted food that only had the ingredients that were “supposed” to be in them. Tortillas should be made from corn, flour, and lime. Waffles should have flour, yeast, water, and baking powder. I don’t want flavorings and additives, preservatives and added sugars and oils.
And so I turned to Instagram. Where women who did yoga also filled their bodies with clean products, and they promoted small-batch chocolate bars only sweetened with dates, or nut butters without palm oil.
While this world of clean food products promises to make things simpler, it can quickly become the opposite. Do you need to eat adaptogens to be healthy? Bone broth? Collagen? Food can alternately feel like a savior, and a poison. Foods are labeled as good, bad; or superfood, toxin—and in that mania, it can be easy to think that your life will get better if only you had better, “cleaner” things to put in your body each day.
I went to the urban farm to prepare for my visit to one of the meccas of wellness: an event called Natural Products Expo East. I’d been intrigued about Natural Products Expo East since I first saw my favorite Instagram wellness influencers attend last year. Held in Baltimore, with a “West” counterpart in LA, it’s a huge convention of all the latest and greatest natural products.
Instagram made it seem fun; a convention-center sized place to wander around and nibble all the newest healthy products before they were released. It would be the opposite of my experience in grocery stores where I peered at ingredient labels, looking for snacks that didn’t have soy and added sugars. On Instagram, people showed off huge bags filled with samples, and happy and full bellies from tasting all the treats. As I wandered the aisles of lentil chips, raw chocolate, and hemp tempeh, I didn't find the oasis for my personal wellness desires that I thought I would. Instead, I found marketing tactics promoting all the latest dietary fads.
There was protein water and protein croutons; signs that told me the “fat was back,” or “sugar was out,” or “soup was in.” I noticed a lot of the language that Amu told me at the farm she felt was problematic. “Mango is a superfruit,” one stall proclaimed. Another advertised their dehydrated meals as: “Beans and rice: the original, old world superfood.”
There was a tendency to promote how few ingredients your product has as a mark of “clean-ness”: only 5 ingredients, oh this one only has 4! One supplement claimed it was the “purest supplement in the world,” because it was tested for more than 950 contaminants. Great, I thought, now I have 950 more things to worry about being in my foods, in all the brands that don’t test for those contaminants.
There were energy products to wake you up, and make you feel energized, using adaptogens, caffeine, or antioxidants. And then there were CBD and reishi mushrooms to calm you down. Some of the adaptogens being advertised are mushrooms used from traditional Chinese medicine. Turmeric—the star ingredient in golden milk—has been an Indian custom for centuries. (Sadly, I felt like the booths run by people of color had less people crowded around them.)
After a full day of walking around and trying samples, I went back to my hotel feeling a little nauseous. I ended up being sick most of the night, probably from the odd combination of various health foods mixing in my stomach.
"Adding protein to a brownie doesn't make it any healthier,” says Margo Wootan, the vice president for nutrition at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
I called her up to ask her about my experience at Expo East, and why even when surrounded by clean products, I ended up feeling so yucky. “It's still a brownie. Adding vitamin C to gummy bears and calling it a fruit snack, putting pictures of fruit on the package, is all about trying to make candy look like an alternative to fruit. Generally, a good rule of thumb is adding the hot nutrient of the day to junk food doesn't make it better.”
Wootan tells me that despite all the products and choices people are faced with, what constitutes a healthy diet and good nutrition is largely unchanged since she was an undergraduate in nutrition more than 30 years ago—and she mostly echoed what Amu had told me. “A healthy diet is still one that is chock full of fruits and vegetables as the base of your diet, half your plate, with a side of whole grains and a lean protein,” she says.
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shows that only 1 in 10 adults meet the federal fruit or vegetable recommendations, which by the way, is not a lot. They recommend 1½ to 2 cups per day of fruit and 2 to 3 cups per day of vegetables. In 2015, only 9 percent of adults ate their vegetables, as low as 6 percent in West Virginia and only reaching as high as 12 percent in Alaska. Just 12 percent of adults ate enough fruit, the lowest being 7 percent in West Virginia and the highest at 16 percent in Washington, DC. “Results showed that consumption was lower among men, young adults, and adults living in poverty, ” the CDC wrote.
To be fair, Expo East is a trade show. It exists to sell products to retailers. But it represents a greater problem in nutrition and wellness—we’re all hungry not for real food, but for a single product to rescue our health. Amu used to be a nutritionist, but she quickly got tired of it. She says it was difficult for her to talk to people about how to eat, because we’re getting it all wrong.
“People get all these messages from the media,” she says. “None of it makes sense, none of it is nuanced. It’s all about the single food product that’s going to make you healthy, and how many calories you eat a day. Getting people away from that mindset was so difficult that I ended up thinking: growing food is easier.”
Growing food makes people excited about food, she explains. Recently, she tried growing rice, well knowing that white rice has often been demonized. You’re supposed to eat brown rice, or better yet: quinoa. But if you grow your own rice, plant it into the ground (or water, in Amu’s case), watch it grow, fight off the birds, peel out each grain by hand, hang it up to dry, and then cook it—you’re not going to worry about if it’s white or brown, sprouted or not, she says. You’re going to eat the rice you worked for. It doesn’t make it a superfood, it just makes it food.
Our problem with health isn’t that we need healthier packaged food; that’s not the void that needs to be filled. Is it a fantasy that a group of people—the wellness community—who deeply advocates for health through food, should be better about advocating for food justice and access to plants? Why can’t influencers use the privilege that comes with getting paid to promote healthy junk food—stevia-sweetened chocolate or cauliflower pretzels—to help people who are fighting to get any healthy food at all?
Recently, the Instagram wellness world decided it was against plastic straws. Partially as a result of immense social pressure, many businesses switched to eco-friendly straws, or stopped giving them out all together. It was one of the first instances I could see where this world came together to advocate for something.
Some have argued that their choice was problematic and minuscule—but for me, I saw the power that was there. They wanted straws eradicated and now it's happening. It made me wonder what they could be capable of if more influencers demanded donations for local food advocacy groups, or land given to communities for growing food.
Amu is skeptical. “The problem with that is, most people are coming from a place of privilege,” she tells me. “Their communities are not being bombarded with environmental pollution, or garbage. They're not living in environments that are suffering, so their perspective is very different. At the same time, they're also the ones that have the voice and power.”
Gwyneth Paltrow has a huge voice. What if she used it to advocate for wellness programs in schools? Preventing junk food near checkouts at stores? Farmland given back to indigenous communities?
Like the symbiosis between the fish and the plants that live in Amu’s farm, there needs to be a relationship between individual wellness and group wellness.
“Real wellness, true wellness is not just about the individual person's wellness,” Amu says. “It's really not. You're not well your neighborhood isn't well, if your community isn't well, if people in your country aren't doing well, if the air isn't clean, if the animals are dying. Your individual wellness means nothing.”
Instead of buying that extra vegan chickpea cookie, perhaps donate to a food justice group in your city, or find ways to support people doing the hard work of bringing wellness outside of Whole Foods’ doors.
I’m trying to fill my days with more snacks bought from the farmer’s market rather than Amazon. I spent a little time researching advocacy groups in New York, and picked a couple to give money to. I also signed up to be a vegan mentor, part of a program that pairs young people interested in plant-based eating with someone who has been part of the lifestyle for a while, so they can ask questions about how to get the right nutrients, and how to grocery shop and cook.
It’s not as sexy as a green powder that promises to cure you of every discomfort in your body, but it still makes me feel pretty good.
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