Are we creating a two-class food system? If a family has the means to purchase organic or naturally grown food and another does not, is it ok for the less affluent child to be exposed to myriad farm chemicals while others are able to grow free from that exposure?

We live in a country where conventional farmers are allowed to externalize the cost to society of dealing with the environmental and human effects of  “modern” agricultural chemical applications. They can cause cancer but are not required to pay the cost of the resulting medical bills.

Commodity food programs, food pantries, food shelves, free community meals and school nutrition programs are not required to choose foods that are free from pesticides and other chemical residues. People who are more well off can buy organically grown food for their families, so why are less affluent, often working, families in a position of having to choose between healthy food for their children and paying the rent or putting gas in their cars? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I know it’s not right that people have to make that choice.

I was forced to recognize this growing class divide when at a recent school nutrition conference I asked, “Are we teaching children how to choose healthy food? Are they learning about which fruits and vegetables are most likely to be contaminated with pesticides while they are being grown, or fungicides prior to shipping?” The horrified looks I received in response were enough to tell me I had stepped on some kind of sacred ground. These good people were trying to make sure others didn’t go hungry; how could I dare to ask that they consider the quality of the food they were providing as well?

Surely every child has the right to eat nutrient-dense foods grown on mineral-rich soils with the benefit of compost so that they don’t need to be doused with chemicals. Among the reasons this is important is the horrifying increase in childhood cancer rates; another is the rapid increase in male infertility that results at least in part from chemical exposure.

Herbicides and other pesticides commonly used in agriculture are thought to be partly responsible for the rapid increase in male infertility, as are chemicals released from plastics used in packaging. Use of a common herbicide has also recently been tied to incidence of cancer.

Rather than being overwhelmed by this, could we engage students in more programs like a California program founded to help build a more sustainable, healthy, and just local food system? This program draws together a variety of initiatives into a web of integrated, food- and community-focused efforts. It uses seven school and community gardens and small farms to teach and employ people to grow, distribute, cook, and consume thousands of pounds of local produce each year, to create a more equitable and just food system within a healthier and more self-sufficient community. We can do this.

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