Why Organic Practice is Health Equity: 2019 National Summit

Kelly Damewood, CEO, California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF)

We understand that we need food to survive and we understand healthy food improves our health, but we don’t always discuss where our food comes from and how that impacts our health. Kelly Damewood, CEO of California Certified Organic Farmers (CCOF) and presenters at the Root Cause Coalition’s Fourth Annual National Summit on the Social Determinants of Health, would argue that without a sustainable earth, health equity is not sustainable. She would also argue that everyone, regardless of ZIP code, should have the opportunity to access healthy food, the same way everyone deserves access to quality care. As many believe food is medicine, restricting access to quality food is equivalent to receiving low quality medical care. She joined other health equity leaders in a summit Breakout Session to share how organic foods can support health equity goals and methods for successful food procurement standards.

A way to achieve equal access to healthy food lies in the ground beneath us. “We can’t talk about health equity without talking about soil,” Damewood said.

But why should we care about soil? Because degraded soil minimizes our capability to grow food. About half of the world’s soil is degraded, and deforestation, drought and excessive use of chemicals in farming is to blame. “When soil degrades, the rich minerals to which carbon binds break down, and end up leaking back into the atmosphere. That release of additional carbon will only further contribute to global warming,” Ellie Anzilott writes for Fast Company. “With changing climate conditions, our farmers are witnessing more floods, more wildfires, more persistent pests and disease issues than ever before,” Damewood said. Healthier soil adapts best to these changing conditions, meaning soil is a key to food quality and overall health. Although human activity is causing this degradation, we have the power to reverse it.

Reversing these negative impacts on our soil can be achieved through organic farming, which Damewood says can promote job growth, lowering poverty rates. “I’m not talking about lots of people shopping at Whole Foods. That’s not what we mean by high levels of organic activity,” Damewood said. “We’re talking about organic agriculture, organic food manufacturers, organic farming lands…This correlation between poverty rates and household median income is not found in just any agricultural area, but specifically in areas of organic activity.”

Although there are many social and biological benefits related to organic food, there are also increasing challenges with cost and access. Challenges exist with distribution of organic food to lower income communities, schools, and hospitals, as well as transitioning conventional land to organic land. Communities in food deserts also present a challenge, where convenient access to healthy food becomes a transportation access issue. Other challenges include keeping organic food affordable, while keeping organic farmers in business, so they may continue to grow organically.

Anchor institutions like hospitals can drive market change and influence other institutions to follow suit by advocating for organically sourced foods through a process with the least damaging environmental impact. Dignity Health, a Root Cause Coalition Inaugural Partner, prioritizes purchasing of local organic produce, in collaboration with US Foods for its patients. Kaiser Permanente is also an institution that has made a commitment to source 100% of its food locally and sustainably by 2025, showing its commitment to healthy foods’ impact on health.

It is important to view human nature in cooperation with our natural environment, as human disruption impacts nature, inevitably impacting our overall health. “The health effects of these disruptions include increased respiratory and cardiovascular disease, injuries and premature deaths related to extreme weather events, changes in the prevalence and geographical distribution of food — and water-borne illnesses and other infectious diseases, and threats to mental health,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Achieving health equity is often a challenge of opportunity, access and collaboration. Damewood underlines that organic practice is not about access for the privileged but is a movement across sectors. The wellbeing of the earth and our wellbeing depends on it. “When you’re thinking about diet-related diseases and health equity, also think about this paradox of a farming and food system where organic is just the niche small portion of our overall agricultural production, and how much opportunity we have to work together to increase health equity by advancing organic agriculture and access to organic foods,” Damewood said.