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If we want children to know that money doesn’t grow on trees, they should know also that food often does. Although bought in stores, food grows on trees, in fields, on farms, and in forests and wild places. Despite any difference in price (sometimes there is none, sometimes the price is better, and sometimes you have to shop around), buying local encourages organic food production -- a better market lowers prices, and meanwhile, the food actually is fresh.

My interest springs from the fact that when my son was three he was not a good child, or not perfect. He was noticeably insolent, disobedient, hyper, constantly testing....

We now know that buying organic makes sense for children’s meals: the fewer pesticides and chemicals they ingest now, the better off they will be later. All research reinforces the idea that the Western diet is unhealthy: our food is fertilized with chemicals, sprayed for pests. stripped of nutrients, and then shipped for days. Forty years ago that was not so obvious.

Since my son had been such a lovely baby, I initially blamed my parenting. I had let television be his baby-sitter and set few guidelines for what we as a family ate. I was doing my best, cooking from scratch, buying on sale whenever I could: boxed cereals, enriched flour and cornmeal, Heinz catsup, white sugar, marshmallow treats,-- and we always had ice cream in the freezer. I probably served white bread. And there was too much candy -- lollipop treats, Halloween booty, an annual gingerbread house decorated with M&M’s, occasional Double Bubble -- routine indulgences.

When I started paying attention, I came upon Ben Feingold’s book, Why Your Child is Hyperactive (still available from Amazon starting at $2 and change. It alerted me to chemicals in foods and was the start of a long journey.

I began to read labels: I learned that BHT is butylated hydroxytoluene, still used to make cereal seem fresh, but it made my son fresh, too, in that other sense. It turns out that not all FDA approved food coloring is truly innocuous (sorry, but M&M’s electric blue doesn’t even look it).

It was time to find out for myself, so I experimented with avoiding (or forbidding) foods with such ingredients and saw immediate improvements in my son’s behavior. Whether the improvement was due more to my finally taking charge or to the specific change in diet, I’ll never know for sure, but I myself slowly became sensitized to flavor and food quality -- to zingy-fresh vs. flat and empty. I learned also to doubt restaurants, as I realized that many of them served prepared foods that they just served up hot -- “pies baked on premises” but created elsewhere.

The problem is worse now than it was forty years ago, when I was a young parent. The food industry has become wily. For instance, with labeling now apt to be read, and sugar a villain, Kellogg’s, Post et al needn’t put sugar first on an ingredient list if sweetness is divvied up into sugar, high fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, maltodextrin, etc., -- which in turn allows for the current claim that Froot Loops are “a healthy choice,” i.e., “sugar” is not their main ingredient.

We also have frankenfoods (GMO’s), sometimes created by inserting genes from viruses such as e coli into the seed cell (see You, Me & Food in last month’s newsletter). These changes are made to prolong shelf life or allow crops to survive Monsanto’s weedkiller, Roundup (“Roundup Ready” seeds), while weeds succumb to it. They serve commercial needs, not necessarily ours or those of all farmers: entire crops have died of drought because GMO seeds were not drought resistant -- genetic modification may improve one rait at the cost of another. In addition, GMO pollen has invaded crops in neighboring, non-GMO fields, whereupon Monsanto has sued the affected farmers for “stealing” its seeds!

Agricultural research, which used to be done by universities across the US, has settled in the proprietary labs of five or six agribusinesses. These companies hold a national monopoly on our food supply by controlling seed production. Increasingly, when a farmer needs seed, he must buy from Monsanto.

What makes us think that chemicals in food can’t hurt? Europeans don’t feel that way, My gardening guru, Eliot Coleman (New Organic Grower is the least technical) quotes French market gardeners as noting decades ago that, at the very least, chemicals push growth, but they destroy flavor.

Finally, we may now be seeing the long-term effects of our unhealthy diet: diabetes, childhood and adult obesity, heart attacks and stroke more prevalent than in other countries, developed or not.

Our bodies didn’t evolve with chemical additives. Way back in prehistory it was all natural and organic because that was how it was. We survived, we prospered. Food, if preserved at all, was dried, salted or mixed with honey. Is the recent early development of breasts in pre-teens associated with hormones routinely given to chickens to encourage breasts big enough to meet the market need for white meat? Is it because chickens are chemically pushed to mature in half the time, and we all eat the chickens? I’m not against progress, but it needs to be monitored, responsibly, and big money doesn’t accept that responsibility.

Doom and gloom, like Underdog's Savoir Faire, is everywhere. What’s a parent to do?

On the bright side, it’s fun to take kids to a local farm to pick apples or berries and watch cows being milked. It’s a treat to eat carrots that actually taste sweet. Ever get tired of the bananas you buy? Try organic bananas: what a zing! Once you become sensitized, organic milk tastes best of all.

And if the Walmartization of farming doesn’t make you uncomfortable, consider this: food grown locally almost has to be fresher. What's more, you can quiz the farmer, if you like, on how he grows it and with what. You won’t get far with that at ShopRite. Believe me, I’ve tried!

Factory farming took hold in the 1980’s; early maturation in children started being noticed thereafter. Is there a link? Maybe, but ShopRite/Wakefern is not about to tell you. Non-food substances are in everything we eat: pesticide and chemical fertilizer residues, preservatives, “flavor enhancers” like high fructose corn syrup and excess salt,... and good stuff (lactobacillus, wheat germ, ...) is taken out.

For instance, I recently bought a bottle of Lea & Perrin’s Worcestershire sauce. It still looks as it did on my mother’s shelf, wrapped in brown paper up to its neck. The label shows high fructose corn syrup, which I had learned is not recognizable to the liver and thus gets stored there endlessly -- how healthy can that be?

So I called Lea & Perrins, which now turns out to be Kraft, to object. They said it was the same recipe L&P had used. I don’t think so, because high fructose corn syrup wasn’t around in my mother’s day.

So I am disillusioned and now shop organic. My goal in life is to have a vegetable garden big enough to feed my family and even my neighbors. Stay tuned.

Baby Slings

The NY Times opines that baby slings are the new stroller, or the anti-stroller: that par-ents who use strollers are actually, of course (but how many of us saw it that way?), "pushing their infants away from them." In contrast, the sling-wearer literally brings baby closer, whether to Mom or to Dad, as many dads use them, too.

This is a nice trend, and it's true about strollers: they don't create a warm and cuddly parent-child grouping. However there are rumblings about safety....

Canada's CTVcalgary has reported two Canadian deaths in several years and 14 in 20 years in the U.S.

Consumer Reports has cited about two dozen serious injuries occurring mostly when a child has fallen out of a sling and including incidents in which a caregiver fell with a child in the sling. It has also linked about seven deaths to suffocation when a child, lying against a parent's breast, smothered itself by putting its nose and mouth against the parent, thus cutting off its own air supply. In this position an infant's neck muscles are not generally strong enough to correct the situation.

Consumer Reports especially criticizes the ''SlingRider'' by Infantino, saying that the 'bag style' sling wraps around the parent's neck and cradles the child in a curved or 'C-like' position, nestling the baby below mom's chest or near her belly." It is this position that is of most concern.

In the end, experts recommend vigilance to ensure "that babies in slings remain in an upright position, with the baby's tummy facing mommy's tummy."

Bed Bugs

I do seem to like writing about bugs -- first bees, then stinkbugs, now there’s a buzz about bedbugs, so here I go.

A few weeks ago my sister-in-law cut out an article about a bedbug spray -- organic, no less -- with the thought that I might like to take some on my travels to Europe. I asked a friend who’s traveled a lot if I might need it, and he considered it unnecessary in 4-star hostels, but probably useful in 1-3 star hostels.

Then I read Wikipedia on bedbugs, learned that they are very, very small (not like cockroaches), and pack a very, very itchy bite. Somewhere I read also that a child had been bitten by bedbugs a month after friends of the family, who had been traveling in Asia, spent a night with them. Apparently it took the little critters that long to multiply sufficiently to launch a perceptible attack. Also it seems that not everyone has a reaction to their saliva. Like mosquitoes, they inject juce into our blood in order to dilute and suck it, leaving behind that itch, possibly unnoticed for a number of hours, often in a welt or in successive, neighboring bumps.

And THEN I read the New York Times article, He’ll Scratch Your Itch, about a dog in New York City trained to sniff out bedbugs -- who is lately much in demand. Apparently the global increase in travel has brought the bedbugs home (DDT essentially eradicated ours decades ago). And I am about to try out Couchsurfing, i.e., spending a night or so on the couch of a generous host here or there in Europe, in between hostels and working visits to organic farms I am (as) confident (as I can be) that my hosts themselves will not be harboring the BBs but pretty sure that inadvertent importation is randomly unavoidable: if a Couchsurfer, has been surfing in, say India, picked up a BB or two without noticing it (because s/he is not allergic, as I am apt to be -- biting-bugs love me!) and left behind a breeding bug or two somewhat before I arrive, I bet I will find those BBs almost as fast as that dog can.

In fact I know a woman who recently returned from a visit to a peasant farmstead in Belize, with 250 BB bites. It turns out that the creatures are so commonplace where she stayed (they treat the welts with Vicks Vaporub) that her hosts had failed to warn her. Back at home she remained miserable for a week or more. She confirmed that they are very tiny, almost invisible, and come upon one in the night, unfelt and unseen. My camping goods store offers sleep sacks (keywords: adult camping sleep sack on Google) to counter such invasions.

So I have added Rest Easy, sold on the Internet (keywords rest easy bed bug), to my luggage load. I bought the two-ounce spray bottle 2-pack and read the ingredients: 90% water, plus cinnamon, clove, lemongrass and mint oils. Sodium lauryl sulfate is the main active ingredient, and powerful but not known to be a problem (except for some people in toothpaste or rubbed frequently on the skin). The best price/ounce is at Bed, Bath & Beyond, and local, so no shipping charges.

I’ll do as they say: spray a circle around my bed, spray my luggage, and do my best to rest easy.
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These articles provide information of a general nature only, and should be used only to supplement your knowledge. We hope you find the articles interesting, but cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of any information contained in these articles. Nothing in these articles is intended as a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult with your own physician if you have any concerns about your own health or the health of your child.