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Healthy Body, Healthy Mind Rooted in Healthy Soil



 

During my recent travels to various cities, I noticed that urban farming and urban agriculture is popular. I wanted to learn more about this. Last month, I had the privilege of interviewing two environmental health experts Donnel–Brown, Tri County Community Action Neighborhood Revitalization outreach coordinator, and Noel Soto, natural resource conservationist for the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. I learned a lot about how a healthy body and mind are rooted in healthy soil. Here’s what they had to say.

According to Brown and Soto, we all have our ideas of what a healthy life is: free-range chicken our mom cooked for us, red juicy tomatoes from our yard, barefoot strolls on the green grass, breathing the fresh air coming from the north. Residents in rural areas may still be enjoying these and many other forms of a healthy life. But, for city dwellers, things are different. Buildings have replaced tress, the hot pavement will burn the sole of your feet, the air may not be as fresh and the moos and cock-a-doodle-doos have been replaced by the car horns and train whistles.

In the midst of the city hustle and bustle, an old thing is becoming the new trend – farming. It is referred to as urban farming or urban agriculture. Big and small cities are practicing it. So much is the desire for farming in the city that the federal government through its 2018 farm bill recognizes it as an important production activity. Several reasons make urban farming a good goal to pursue, and most, if not all, are related to a healthy life. For many years, society has been asking for foods produced in a more natural way with less chemical inputs. This is one of the reasons why organic production has grown so much in recent years. People are also looking to buy food that is produced closer to home since it is regarded as fresher, more environmentally friendly and supportive of the local economy. Urban farming takes place in vacant lots where a house or building once existed as well as churches and backyards, parks and even on roofs. Most of these farmers and gardeners grow using organic or natural techniques. They also pick the crops and fruits at the right stage of maturity, and the produce is sold in close proximity to customers. No one doubts that a red, juicy tomato grown in the garden or local farm tastes better than the pink supermarket tomato.

The majority of urban farmers use conservation practices to improve the health of the soil. A healthy soil holds more water for the plants, provides more nutrients to the crops and improves the population of good organisms that help plants fight diseases and pests. Thus, a healthier plant is produced. Healthy plants produce healthy food that is richer in compounds that promote good health, such as lycopene and carotenoids, which are antioxidants that enhance the immune system.

Many city families live in areas called “food deserts.” These are areas where people, especially low-income people, experience challenges in accessing nutritious foods. Sometimes, there are no supermarkets in the area or are too far away for people to easily access. Sometimes, when a grocery store moves out of an area, it adds a clause to the closing agreement that stops any other grocery store from using the building for many years. The lack of access to nutritious food forces people to rely on less healthy options This increases obesity and other conditions, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels and diabetes. In Harrisburg, a significant portion of the area is considered a food desert by the USDA. In the Allison Hill community, 14 percent of individuals eat less than one serving of fruits and vegetables a day compared to 8 percent at the national level. Health issues may also affect the life expectancy of the people living in the area. Some have said that the length of your life may be determined by your zip code. Some people living in urban, particularly low-income settings are dying sooner than their peers. Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) have an influence on how long people live and the diseases they live with while they are alive.

According to the World Health Organization, “SDoH are conditions in the social environment in which people are born, live, learn, work and play that affect a wide range of health, functioning and quality-of-life outcomes and risks. These include socioeconomic deprivation, educational opportunity, access to healthy foods/good nutrition and access quality health care services.”

Urban farming producing fresh fruits and veggies in these food deserts are a way to help reduce the negative effects of a poor diet. Local groups and other entities, such as the USDA-NRCS, support urban farming by providing technical assistance and financial assistance. The USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service offers assistance with the installation of high tunnels, structures to grow crops that extend the growing season thus extending the availability of fresh produce in the neighborhood. Another group is the HomeGrown Harrisburg, a network of urban gardeners and farmers that is working to address the healthy food, good nutrition and the economic insecurity aspects of social determinants of health. Currently, there are 15 community gardens involved in HomeGrown Harrisburg, and at this year’s seed and plant giveaway (attended by over 300 people), they gave away more than 750 plants, including pollinator plants and over 4,000 seed packets. The event offered different workshops to help new and experienced gardeners gain more skills to grow their own food.

In addition to physical health, the opportunity offered by urban farming to spend time outdoors and the socialization that happens has been said to have a positive effect on mental health, too. A small urban farm or garden is the place to enjoy open space that is so limited in cities. You can walk bare-footed on the grass or soil. It offers a connection with nature. Friends are easy to find among people who share similar interests.

Since many, if not all, urban farms donate a portion of the produce to soup kitchens, church food pantries and the like, they also offer an opportunity to volunteer and serve the community, bringing a sense of belonging to a bigger cause and having a purpose in life. Farms and gardens help beautify the city by converting abandoned areas into clean, nice areas full of color and life. This also helps improve the morale of neighbors and have shown to reduce crime.

The benefits of urban farming are numerous. Have your own garden, join a community garden or start an urban farm. For starting an urban farm, the USDA offers, free of charge, the publication “Urban Agriculture Toolkit,” which you can download from the USDANRCS webpage at nrcs.usda.gov or contact the local USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service office.

Please send your questions to .Hola Oralia! at dr.oralia@gmail.com. Together, we can keep Pennsylvanians safe and healthy! •

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