By Francis Koster, Ed.D.
As modern food processing has expanded its reach, a shrinking portion of our diet is in its original form of fruits and vegetables. Medical professionals moan about the fact that most of us do not get a “balanced” diet. For maximum health, the nutrition experts at the U.S. Department of Agriculture urge all adults to eat at least two to four servings of fruits a day and three to five servings of vegetables — but Centers for Disease Control surveys show that less than a third of all Americans do that.
This helps explain some of the nation’s rising healthcare bill.
If you eat like most Americans, your grandmother would not be happy with you — you are supposed be a role model, she would say.
Part of this unhealthy consumption pattern is due to price signals. We can buy more food volume for less money if we buy processed food than if we buy fresh fruits or vegetables. This volume may not be as healthy, but often appears more filling for less money.
As a nation, when we confront the significant present and future issues around obesity and public health, the challenge facing our country is to produce fresh foods at a cost and availability competitive with processed foods.
One reason that fruits and vegetables are sometimes so expensive in many parts of the country, including North Carolina, is that seasons change — and local farmers can only grow leafy greens or tomatoes for a few months a year outdoors. This means they pay for the land and taxes for 12 months, but get income from it only a portion of the year, so they have to charge more.
We can cheaply “import” food grown elsewhere only if two things hold true. First, it has to be cheap to move the produce from one climate zone to the other (think about the cost of flying bibb lettuce from California to North Carolina). Second, the continual use of the land depletes it, so increasing amounts of fertilizer and pesticides must be applied. To make food affordable, these fuels and chemicals have to remain cheap. And for the past few years, their price has risen — and is expected to continue to do so indefinitely.
You can see that we might want to have an alternative system in place to provide us with reliable, available safe food grown close to home, regardless of the time of year.
Wearing my futurist hat, I am pleased to say there is an alternative system. It is called hydroponics, and it is coming along nicely.
Imagine a piece of styrofoam floating in a bathtub full of water outdoors. The styrofoam has holes in it about as big as a quarter, and in those holes are bits of spongy stuff that seeds are placed in. The seeds sprout, and the roots reach down to the water. You add fertilizer (can be organic) to the water, and the plant grows wonderfully. Move the bathtub indoors in a greenhouse or garage with skylights or artificial light, and the plants often grow better because of the lack of bugs. You don’t need to use chemicals to spray — costs go down, and health goes up.
Hydroponics facilities not only grow plants “off season” but do so with only one-fifth as much water as traditional agriculture. And clever use of waste heat and natural lighting can cut otherwise expensive energy use.
There are currently only half a dozen commercial growers using hydroponics in North Carolina. One such commercial scale pioneer is Dew Drop Farm in Mocksville. They produce delicious tomatoes for market through the fall, winter and spring when traditional methods do not work.
Restoring a healthy diet should be a matter of national urgency. With one-third of our population suffering the health effects of obesity and another third significantly overweight, many people will end their days with a sickly decade and die early at great private suffering and expense unless we change the way things are done.
One thing you can do is examine the quality of lettuce and other products at the supermarket and compare the hydroponic product to the regular product — and make your own decision. Another is to build a small “do-it-yourself” hydroponic system. If you Google “DIY hydroponics” you will find simple, cheap ways to get started. And a quick trip to YouTube (YouTube hydroponics) will show you exactly how to do it.
With commercial expansion, hydroponics can create local, year-round employment, protect the environment and provide secure local food supply in troubled times.
We can solve many of the problems facing society if we just look for good ideas already in use, and literally bring them home to our families.