Good local food for good local health

Public health, sometimes called population health, aims to improve the health of groups of people, such as children, women, men, the elderly, people living in a specific region or state, or the entire human population.

Public health works locally, for instance when food licensing and inspections prevent the spread of food-borne diseases. Public health works on a state-wide level, as with Michigan’s law prohibiting smoking in workplaces, and nationally, as with funding for emergency preparedness, children’s nutrition, and health insurance programs for seniors and low income families. And it works on a global scale, as with the eradication of smallpox and efforts to prevent polio, malaria and other diseases.

Sometimes we work with individuals to make gains in the health of populations, as with immunization. Vaccines are delivered one needle, one person at a time, but immunize most individuals and you end up protecting the entire population.

Other times we do the reverse, as with clean indoor air laws. The intervention is made at the community level, but the effects are seen in individuals. People working in smoke-free environments are less likely to develop heart disease or cancer.

The development and promotion of a local, sustainable food system in an example of a community-level initiative that could yield long-term health improvements among individuals through improved access to affordable and healthy foods, better nutrition, and even as an indirect benefit of regional economic development.

To that end, Western U.P. Health Department, the public health agency serving the 70,000 residents of Baraga, Gogebic, Houghton, Keweenaw and Ontonagon counties, is a partner in the U.P. Food Exchange (UPFE), an organization that coordinates and supports local food activities in the Upper Peninsula.

UPFE serves as a resource for farmers, businesses, and individuals looking to connect with and actively participate in their local food system. The food exchange operates an on-line marketplace that connects local farmers and food producers with institutional buyers like stores, restaurants and schools. UPFE also provides training on farm food safety and other topics to area farmers and the general public.

In three weeks, on Saturday, July 30, UPFE will host an all-day local food conference at the MSU Upper Peninsula Research and Extension Center in Chatham, about 30 miles southeast of Marquette. The conference, titled “Together at the Farm,” is for farmers and food producers, food buyers like restaurant and retailers, local planners and community leaders, and, as the posters say, “all who eat are invited to attend.”

The conference schedule features morning and afternoon workshops on farming, livestock, composting, cooking, canning and dozens of other topics, a lunch prepared with locally sourced foods, and even a barn dance in the evening.

For many, a highlight will be keynote speaker and well-known author Eliot Coleman. Coleman has been involved in organic farming since 1966. He has 50 years’ experience in field vegetables, greenhouse vegetables, rotational grazing of livestock, and range poultry. He is the author of The New Organic Grower, The Four Season Harvest, and The Winter Harvest Handbook, and co-author of The Four Season Farm Gardener’s Cookbook.

With his wife Barbara Damrosch, Coleman owns and operates Four Season Farm, a year-round market garden in Maine, where they produce exceptional food, study how to make their production practices more sustainable every year, and design scale-appropriate equipment to aid other small farmers in achieving greater efficiency. In 2016 Eliot received a lifetime Leadership Award from the James Beard Foundation.

To learn more about the U.P. Food Exchange or to register for Together at the Farm, visit upfoodexchange.com.

Ray Sharp is manager of community planning and preparedness at Western U.P. Health Department.