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Monday, July 1,2013

The search for balance between healthy and affordable food goes on

By Anne Li, Athens NEWS Contributor

Fruits and vegetables don't make the cut anymore. Organic - and if you're serious about your food, local - is the new, non-official healthy.

The social "healthy eating" bar has risen. The Organic Trade Associate projects an increase of nine percent or higher in organic sales for 2013. In 2012 organic sales represented 4.2 percent of all food sales.

But a higher bar means higher prices too. And for many Americans, the decision to go organic, local or nonorganic is influenced by the price tag, which is often higher for organic goods. Fortunately, according to Dr. Francie Astrom, the nutrition counselor at Ohio University's wellness program, WellWorks, eating nutritiously is much easier if one recognizes that eating healthy doesn't necessarily mean eating organically or locally.

And technically, according to Mayo Clinic, "organic" refers to how crops are grown, not their nutrition content.

"I recommend that if you have small, rapidly growing children in the home that you look for the vegetables and fruits that are on the Dirty Dozen list as organic and don't worry about organic for the ones that are on the Clean 15 list," Astrom said in an email interview.

The Dirty Dozen is the Environmental Working Group's annual list of fruits and vegetables - including apples and potatoes - that are most pesticide heavy, whether organic or nonorganic. Conversely, the Clean 15 comprises produce that are the least pesticide-heavy.

Astrom noted that if fresh vegetables aren't an option, there's no harm in going for the canned vegetables so long as no salt has been added (canned, diced unsalted tomatoes make a great soup base, she said).

Even on-the-go Americans, who depend on fast food for their meals, can eat healthy, with a little planning.

"That means packing lunches the night before, packing snacks or even a meal to take to the children's soccer game and getting food for dinner tomorrow out the freezer the evening prior so it will be defrosted when time to prepare dinner," Astrom said.

Still, to go organic or to go nonorganic is an irrelevant question for many Americans - and many Athens residents. To go healthy or to go unhealthy - that is the question.

"You can get a lot more pop for the same amount of money you can get milk for," Keith Wasserman, executive director of Good Works, said.

Good Works is a Christian community in Athens County that provides assistance for those struggling with homelessness and poverty in rural Appalachia. Each year, they provide about 21,000 meals for the members of their community, whom they call "neighbors."

For a long time, Good Works went along with the "beggars can't be choosy" idiom, accepting mostly processed, high-in-fructose and high-in-sodium foods from donors. But about 10 years ago, Good Works began to push for healthier donations that don't necessarily have the longest shelf life.

"Buy what's in season, planning ahead, buying what's on sale," Meg Bruno, Good Works wellness director, advised as cheap ways to obtain healthy foods. She suggested the Chesterhill Produce Auction to sponsors interested in donating large quantities of farm fresh whole foods.

But healthy food prices themselves aren't the only obstacles between some and healthy food. Good Works Agricultural Coordinator Doug Schmaltz spoke of "food desert conditions" that are occurring around the county. In towns like Coolville and Millfield, the economic bases for grocery stores are dropping out and stores are closing, meaning area residents have to go further, and have access to transportation, to buy affordable fresh foods.

"If you're coming from an outlying community like New Marshfield or Coolville, you're paying almost $4 in gas just to get where you need to go," Schmaltz said.

And Good Works is figuring out ways fight the deserts and the prices. Through programs geared towards kids and adults, they're teaching neighbors to shop, grow, cook and eat healthy and affordably. Good Works even has money-saving tricks up its sleeve, like rinsing canned vegetables to reduce the sodium content.

The search for solutions is ongoing. Every Friday, donors provide meals for about 250 neighbors in a weekly meal called Friday Night Life.

Asked how to provide so many healthy without breaking the bank, Bruno replied, "I'm working on the answer to that question."


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