What's Food Got To Do With It?

We had 30+ people in our home this Thanksgiving with enough food to feed twice as many. Yes, I ate way more than I should have, but I worked it off at the gym. The whole process got me thinking since I briefly mentioned my desire to move my career into good, healthy food in my last posting, the holidays are all about food, and my struggle with diet has been a huge part of my journey I thought... "Well Santa Claus, you fat bastard..." Ok, not really, but a holiday message about what we eat? Yes, it just might work!

My family never had a whole lot by material standards growing up. We weren't poor mind you, but it always seemed there was a crisis or another financial fire to put out. I am sure there are many reading this that know what I'm talking about. Holidays seemed stressful on my parents and after my injury even more so. We had two things that always seemed to make things right. Hope for next year and few traditions that really weren't traditions, just a good excuse to do what we always did throughout the year... cook, and cook a lot of food for others. We may not have thrown lavish parties or bought tons of gifts, but both my Mom and Dad had spent years in and out of restaurants, enjoyed cooking and it was a natural progression to share what we had. So having people over to eat, especially on holidays, was just what we did. If you're reading this and you grew up in Saint Augustine, FL in the 90s chances are you ate something... probably Italian... at our house at some point.

Of course my brothers and I picked many things along the way. My first job at the tender age of 16 was as a Bus Boy and lunch delivery driver for Creekside Diner (again my Saint Augustine peeps know what I'm talkin' about). Ethan and Chris worked in bakeries, kitchens and served at more places than I'm sure they care to count. We all took away what we could catch and now we takeover a few holidays out of the year, and let me tell you, it keeps getting better. The food and the camaraderie.

In 2002 when I went back to college it was my first time really out in the world in a place where people did not know me before my injury. I was already wrestling with the effects of post-traumatic stress on the digestive system. Also, constantly moving from class to class keeping up with my college courses I would often suddenly become literally dizzy with hunger. It was such a physically uncomfortable feeling that I'd stuff anything in my mouth I had immediate access to just to make it go away. This included processed snack foods and fast food. Which is strange, because growing up we were not fed junk. Whole, home-cooked meals, Dad always had a garden, soda was only on special occasions and candy was hardly ever around. I can only attribute it to being in control of my own food for the first time I just ate... well... whatever.

Post-traumatic stress can be an elusive thing and it can find strange ways to manifest. For me it was depression, panic attacks, serious digestive issues and nervous eating. I didn't reach for the weed or booze or antidepressants, but potato chips were never far away. I gained weight. The weight gain coupled with body image issues triggered depression which triggered more eating and around and around it went. Finally the physical discomfort became too much. I had to do something. Blood pressure, cholesterol, fat on the organs and diabetes can wreak havoc with a spinal cord injury.

Many people just make a drastic change. I took it in stages. First, eliminating fast food. McDonalds, Burger King, Wendys, Taco Bell, KFC and on and on... no longer existed in my world. Soda too. Insert more fruits and vegetables. A funny thing happened, I obviously wanted to enjoy what I ate, so I began to study food. I started reading about cultures through food. I discovered that most of history from wars, to floods, to famines, to feasts and prosperity largely depended on our acquiring, preparing and storing food.

The next thing I noticed is that in more modern times we began abandoning simple processes in nature in favor big, better and faster. However instead of making more healthy food for 7 billion people we'd created shortage and consumerism, chemical-based processed foods and over-packaging. Instead of respecting grandpa's backyard tomato garden we'd found a way to "save time and money" by putting in a patio, swimming pool and bar-b-que grill only to gorge ourselves on genetically modified tomatoes and lettuce, high-fructose corn syrup and burger buns made from pesticide-filled wheat. You know the old adage "you are what you eat?" Do a little research on how Monsanto and other major agricultural companies alter the DNA of our most basic food crops and you'll gain fast insight into why cancer, heart disease, obesity, Celiac's Disease, food allergies, auto-immune disorders and other new diseases are rising at an alarming rate.

So what does all this have to do with stem cell treatment? As someone with a high-level spinal cord injury my metabolism moves slowly. Obviously exercise and activity helps keep it active, but without the continuous contracting of normal abdominal muscles my food just does not breakdown as fast. Along with the weight-gain I had developed digestive issues. What started as a regular case of heartburn became non-stop, excruciating stomach pain, cramping, vomiting and a host of other symptoms that had me seriously afraid for my life. The cause? Gluten. What the hell is Gluten? Gluten is a protein composite found in foods made from wheat. It is the ingredient that gives dough its elasticity and helps it rise. It's what makes bread chewy. Your body does not process gluten. It is naturally eliminated. We have eaten gluten for centuries with no problem. The reason allergies are now cropping up is due to the commercial processes and pesticides used on wheat the body isn't even recognizing the final product a food and can't break it down. It in turn sits in the intestines blocking the absorption of any other nutrients the body needs, often causing disastrous results.

When this revelation hit me I had to make a change. With those changes came the realization that all of us, if we want to survive as a species need to make a fundamental change in how we view the production, preparation and consumption of what we put into our bodies. If we don't, no amount of stem cells, medicines, specialty diets, insurance programs and every other band-aid we concoct will save us. So what did I do? First, we planted a garden. You'd be shocked what you can grow in your own backyard. Second, we stopped buying hormone-injected, antibiotic filled over-the-counter meat. Third, began eating simpler meals with less complex ingredients when possible. Fourth, removed the snack foods en masse. Fifth, increased homemade foods and decreased prepackaged. Sixth, we began to get to know our local farmers and support them, buying their meat, produce and eggs as often as possible. Finally, we began surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who are taking their health and their family's health very seriously.

It's not the easiest set of decisions for a family to make, but it has made a huge difference. It was one that paved the way for stem cell treatment and has profoundly affected my approach to recovery and physical therapy. We are given these bodies as a gift and we must take care of them. We are given this planet and we must take care of it. We are given each other. At this time of year where so much revolves around food and family I ask all of you to really make a commitment to being part of the solution and not the problem.

I am going to close today with a recent conversation I had with my friend Kassata Bollman, owner of Farm 2 Kitchen Long Island about the state of things. Farm 2 Kitchen is an online farmer's market that distributes local raised, healthy food from farms on the east end of Long Island.

Why local food?
In the industrial food system produce travels on trucks and planes, then sits in warehouses for weeks before you even have access to it. During that time produce tends to lose important nutrients that your body needs. From a food safety standpoint accountability is lost on some level during this process. So many people are handling your food over an extended amount of time. Supporting local farms means you have access to fresh, safe produce packed with vital nutrients.

Why is preserving farms and supporting farmers so vital to the economy?
We always hear complaints about the high cost of food (high prices tend to account for items that are shipped across country) but if you want quality produce at a lower cost, start supporting local farms. If everyone bought local items this would provide struggling farmers with a stable customer base and it would decrease costs for consumers. Farmland contributes to job creation, and supports businesses which is vital to our economy.

Do you feel the future is bright for foodies and farmers for starting new businesses?
In the last decade this industry has been flooded with artisans and new small farmers of all kinds. Now we have hundreds of similar businesses and some are struggling. I'd like to see people work together and create a financially viable system. We're still in this odd in-between stage of small scale artisans/farmers and the industrial food system. We need to create a successful model for this in-between stage i.e. provide these people with the tools for success. This means distribution, meat processing facilities, affordable kitchen & bottling space etc.

If you had a magic wand and could change the face of agriculture overnight what would you fix 1st?
I would start connecting the older traditional farmers with the new small farmers and create year-round, indoor growing operations. We could put rooftop farms on many buildings here on the East End of Long Island and provide affordable year-round produce. From January to June the East End does not grow any substantial crops, yet consumers demand it. We could be farming indoors during that time and catering to the demand. This is successfully being done by many. Two of my favorite examples are Lufa Farms in Montreal and Gotham Greens in Brooklyn. Here are a few of the benefits:
- It provides landlords with a revenue source for a previously empty space and vegetation also provides building insulation, leading to lower heating and cooling costs.
- You are using less water and energy, plus you're not contributing any pollution to our water supply (a concern by many).
- The food remains fresher and has a longer shelf-life.
- You're making use of space that would otherwise remain under-utilized.
- The produce is grown in optimum conditions where temperature, air and hydration are all monitored.
- The crops that are grown in protected greenhouses with monitored temperatures and water levels are not affected by the various weather patterns.
Thanks for reading and special thanks to Farm 2 Kitchen for their support.

Happy Holidays Everyone!


  1. just this past Sunday, Robert, via EarthWE hosted a whole day about these very issues...you would have loved...we eat very well, but Xander has decided that home cooked food messes with his digestion...and almost exclusively eats out...worrisome, for sure...hopefully he will come back round...soon (tho he does eat relatively healthy even when out...)


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