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As many of you know. I have spent the last twelve-and-a- half years educating and advocating decision makers in Washington DC and at the United Nations on issues of peace, social justice and ecology. Within the past year and a half I have also begun working with individuals as a health coach – helping them to feel better, to avoid preventable disease and to lose weight. I see these two apparently different kinds of work explicitly integrated. The real work that makes my heart sing is healing, whether I am trying to heal this broken world of ours or accompany individual persons struggling to more fully know and heal themselves.

For at least the last ten years I have spent a significant amount of my advocacy time working on the issue of food security – seeking to ensure that all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life. When I attended the World Food Summit in 2002 many of the civil society participants pushed to adopt the concept of “food sovereignty,” which in addition to demanding food security, claims the “right” of Peoples to define their own food, agriculture, livestock and fisheries systems, in contrast to having food largely subject to international corporate and market forces.

As I noted in my post about following my heart into health coaching, the real connection for me is helping people to regain a sense of control over their own health and well-being. After the food riots of 2007 and 2008, people around the world want to be assured that they not only have access to food, but that they get to determine how that food is grown, raised, or fished. They want to regain some control over the very sustenance that maintains life rather than just accepting that one U.S. corporation can be known as “the supermarket to the world.”

In the U.S. some would say that “beggars cannot be choosers.” But what this attitude fails to admit is that a number of changeable factors, including U.S. food, trade and economic policies, U.S. futures trading and U.S. corporate practices which led to the price hikes in food and fuel causing the crises. So my work in Washington is often focused on changing policies in whatever way I can – such that people have access to good nutritious food, as well as a choice about what kind of food they want to eat, grow, raise or fish.

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One aspect of living and working in Nicaragua in the mid-eighties that still stands out in my mind was the lack of variety of foods to choose from when you went to the market, or to a diner. In many cases there was food or there wasn’t and I bought whatever they had to offer – which was usually some version of rice, beans, tortilla, coffee, an occasional egg and/or fruit. Luckily these are foods that I love so I actually did quite well.

I am an introvert and many times I need to mull something over in my brain for a while before I utter what I am thinking. When I go to a restaurant here in the U.S. I take a good while to peruse the menu and let my options percolate before I place my order. For waiters in busy New York diners this is a real nuisance, but that’s just how I roll. In Nicaragua there was no looking over hundreds of options and combinations, it was just “I will have what you are serving.”

When I came to the U.S. the hardest task for me in “normal life” was going to the grocery store. There was just so much stuff. The pet food isle with its many selections of liver, beef, chicken and fish just sent my brain into overload. I remember going into a Price Chopper in a small New England town and spending 45 minutes looking for matches to light my stove. I circled the isles trying to guess where they could be and I just kept finding thousands of useless products. I ended up leaving the store empty-handed and in a cold sweat because I felt like such a failure. I stopped at the local tavern on the way home and picked up a book of matches to assist me with cooking dinner. My friends will attest that it took me a good three years to visit a grocery store without hyperventilating.

Much of the lack of variety in Nicaragua was due to a strict embargo that the U.S. had imposed during the Reagan era cold war fear of the Sandinistas. No U.S. products could be traded with Nicaragua, and the U.S. prevented ally countries from trading with Nicaragua as well. It worked like the Cuban embargo serving to isolate Nicaragua and limit their trading partners to East Germany, Russia and Cuba.

The embargo, which was meant as a punishment, gave me a new sense of freedom. I had no long deliberations at restaurants (soup? salad? sandwhich?), shopping in the market was a breeze and I did no hemming and hawing over a drink selection. In fact, when it came to soft drinks there were all kinds of fresh fruit juices that changed with the seasons. And there were two carbonated beverages: “Rojita” which was essentially a red (cherry? strawberry? raspberry?) Fanta-type-soda, and Coke. But I couldn’t order just a Coke at a restaurant because it was reserved for patrons who ordered a rum and coke.

A study done by a professor at Michigan State University called “The illusion of diversity: visualizing ownership in the soft drink industry,” vividly brought back these memories. Assistant Professor Philip H. Howard found that three firms control 89 percent of U.S. soft drink sales. We just think there’s a lot more choice because of what Steve Hannaford refers to this as “‘pseudovariety,’ or the illusion of diversity, concealing a lack of real choice.” The highest percentages of beverages sold in a typical U.S. grocery store are owned by Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper. And their products essentially amount to water and a limited number of sweeteners.

When I am traveling and stop at a gas station or a turnpike rest stop I am often faced with a familiar sense of terror – flashing back to my 45 minute fruitless visit to a New England grocery store. Of the thousands of products I pore over in the refrigerated cases including energy drinks, soda and juices– I find nothing that I want to buy. So many of them are loaded with sweeteners I cannot pronounce—dyes  and high fructose corn syrup—it  makes my teeth feel wooly just thinking about ingesting them. And then there’s the ubiquitous bottled water. It used to be that we could trust the water coming out of the tap. Isn’t potable water supposed to be our edge as a developed nation? But now we seem to believe that it’s better to trust Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper (the major bottlers of water) in looking out for the health and safety of our drinking water. Coke alone boasts on its website a “portfolio of more than 3,300 beverages, from diet and regular sparkling beverages to still beverages such as 100 percent fruit juices and fruit drinks, waters, sports and energy drinks, teas and coffees, and milk-and soy-based beverages.”

It’s a funny paradox. People thought I had sacrificed a lot by living and working in Nicaragua in the mid-eighties, but in the midst of the embargo I discovered a new sense of freedom. I was free from having to incessantly choose from among things that are essentially the same, and of questionable value to my health and welfare. Now pausing my six-hour journey on a major turnpike at a roadside stop with broken drinking fountains I stand in front of a refrigerated case of beverages trying to decide which would be the least terrible choice, knowing all the while that once I choose, I will have boosted the sales of one of three companies Coke, Pepsi, or Dr. Pepper

Health & Nutrition Counseling

An integrative approach to health and nutrition which includes Earth consciousness.

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