An Ounce of Prevention

Health
May 1, 2020
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By Farmer Skip

Long ago, another lifetime it seems, my world orbited around disease and its prevention. Speechwriting at the Centers for Disease Control was a daily immersion into the silent, unseen threats lurking around the globe. Whenever they reared their ugly heads (or crowns), CDC was there, identifying the source, giving it a name, sending out the protective messages. Part of my job was to help craft those messages, clearly and forcefully, to a public too busy or complacent to take much notice until the threat was knocking at the door.

SARS and bird flu were the terrors of the day when I worked across the hall from Julie Gerberding, the CDC director at the time. In the wake of 9-11, bioterrorism also was on everyone’s mind. Billions suddenly flowed to the outmoded agency, completely modernizing its headquarters and ailing labs. I went from working in a drab office complex — built when polio was terrorizing the country —to the top floor of a glass tower overlooking the Atlanta skyline.

I was writing speeches about every imaginable topic in public health, from the emerging obesity epidemic to AIDS, from lead poisoning to autism. I was ghostwriting opinion pieces for leading medical journals. I got to sit near luminaries as varied as Elton John, Alice Waters, and Michael Dell. I befriended and came to admire the dedicated scientists who made CDC the gold standard of public health protection.

Then one day I gave it all up, moved to Texas, and became a farmer. Family, friends, and colleagues assumed I had lost my mind. I had, in the same way one loses their skin every seven years, and I never looked back.

Until this week.

This week, sitting down with my family in our farm cottage for the PBS  News Hour, I was watching a moment in history unlike any I had witnessed in my 63 years. Another one of those silent, unseen threats was knocking at my own door. Suddenly, unimaginably, we were being told to keep that door shut.

I was speechless. More than afraid, I was angry. The agency once considered the best in the world had stumbled. Its testing mis-steps and blunders had left us vulnerable. Its preparedness was as lacking as were masks and protective equipment. The relentless funding cuts that began before I left CDC had finally taken their toll. And what an unimaginable toll we now face, all because prevention and preparedness — those orphans of public health — had been adandoned in an era of complacency and distrust.  

The making of Green Gate Farms was the bold mission that grew out the writing on the wall that Erin and I had seen when working in public health at the turn of the century. I was writing about the obesity epidemic while she was also promoting prevention at the American Cancer Society. With frustration bordering on hopelessness, we preached how most poor health outcomes were influenced by physical activity and what we ate. And so much of what we ate was being consumed as mindlessly and expediently as it was being produced.

Ever-widening food deserts, built environments that served commerce instead of people, politics meddling in the public health agenda — these were some of the drivers behind our decision to get back to the land. We wanted to be part of something that was resilient, low-impact, and most of all, community building. We wanted a life that was more elemental and essential — one where as little as possible got between good food and good health. By going small not big, local not global, our family would join a one-bite-at-a-time intervention that could restore health both to our bodies and our farmland. The elegant model that fit the bill was the CSA — community supported agriculture.

It took Erin’s communication skills and my dogged determination to create the fertile space and conditions for a vibrant community to flourish on our east Austin farm. We built connections around food and farm-based education, around the strange notion that a farm should be more public, more diverse, more sharing. These characteristics proved essential to help save our farm from constant threats, both natural and man-made. Now, 15 years later, that resilience is making it possible, for now at least, to keep growing food and connecting in the most essential way with our community. 

In the aftermath of 9-11, many hours were spent on scenarios of bioterrorism striking our food system. Then HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson was chided for saying he was surprised it hadn’t already happened. Today, the vulnerability of our global food system is once again on everyone’s mind, only more pronounced and widespread. Isolated behind our doors, anxious over a growing threat, thoughts about food and health are our constant companions. Never has our Spring CSA vegetable membership filled so fast as in the past week. (Note: We do have room for new members in our spring flower CSA and our summer vegetable CSA.) We are grateful we can still do our job when so many friends have lost theirs. 

As fields turn blue and yellow with wildflowers and swallows build nests in the barnyard, the coronavirus threat seems distant, something on television rather than in our back yard. Yet the farmer is constantly reminded that viruses live among us. Four hundred row feet of our New Girl tomatoes contracted leaf-curl virus spread by white flies in the greenhouse last month. Now we must pull them out, one by one, and start over.

Starting over and learning something from nature and our shortsightedness is what farming teaches you season after season. What we will learn from COVID-19 is hard to grasp right now. I wish my grandparents were still alive so I could ask them — what did you learn from living through the Spanish flu pandemic? 

For now, we will focus on washing our hands. Eating well. Trusting our scientists. Reaching out to our neighbors. Maybe the first lessons are the simple, most basic ones. Maybe from this will come the answers.

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