When the annual Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society’s Healthy Farms Conference fires up at Mahoney State Park Conference Center this weekend, there won’t be a better chance to shake hands with a person who grows your food until farmers markets open this spring.

If believe in healthful eating, you realize that wholesome food is the major key to health. The doctor tells you that. The media tells you that and, hopefully, your mom told you that. And you’re doing your best to follow up. Is your best good enough to make a difference?

The fact of the matter is, it’s increasingly difficult to find safe, healthful food if you’re still shopping in the everyday supermarket. Why? Because most of the food in a supermarket is processed and has very little information about what’s in it or how it was produced. Where did it come from? Who (and how many) handled it? What did it look like on the production line? Why does it need so many unpronounceable additives in order to make it appear palatable? Does it have GMOs? (What are GMOs?)

Edible doesn’t mean credible. A hundred years ago, most of us got our food from our own gardens, yards or from someone we knew very well. A roast, goose or chicken purchased at the corner butcher shop came from within a few miles, raised by a farmer the butcher knew by first name. Now, almost everything found in a modern supermarket came from hundreds of miles away, handled by dozens of people or more, and processed by faceless folks or robots. As James Surowiecki points out in a New Yorker article, “The more complex a supply chain, the more chances there are for something to go wrong.” And a lot goes wrong along the American food chain: Nearly 5 million were sickened by food in the ten-year period ending 2008. Who knows how many will die from strange carcinogenic substances in food that take a longer time frame to kill us?

Almost all the edibles available in the average supermarket are processed and packaged. Most processed food-like items contain ingredients that can barely be considered as food. Just because processed food-like stuff has a flavor (of sorts), can be eaten without causing instant death, doesn’t mean it is nourishing — or safe in the long run.

In this 21st century, even seemingly unadulterated foods like produce and meats are a far cry from what was grown or raised in our grandparents’ time. Radically hybridized fruits, grains and vegetables, genetically modified ingredients and super-sized meat animals didn’t exist even fifty years ago. Nature develops change in a slow and subtle manner, allowing our human metabolism to keep pace. On the other hand, manmade engineering and manipulation short-circuits the relationship and results in foods that the human body has never grown accustomed to. Some food ingredients we’re eating never even existed 10 years ago. That’s not enough time for the human digestive system to adapt.

The Educated Eater. While it’s increasingly difficult to find real food in a supermarket, it’s becoming surprisingly easier to find food from a better source. Avenues of acquisition that mimic the way our ancestors got their food are becoming more available.

Becoming an informed consumer is the best way to find food that’s better than that offered by the corporate food cartel. Making the rounds at this weekend’s NSAS conference and learning from real farmers who grow real food is a good way to start. NSAS is not a Johnny-join-the-trend, come-lately. It’s been around since 1974 and was founded by local farmers who were well respected in organic food circles even back then.

The conference is a two-day affair with each hour offering at least three presentation options included as part of the conference admission fee. Hardcore farmers will get their share of information but there is also added interest this year in presentations geared to consumer education and urban food production as well.

For city folk thinking of growing some food on the home front, there is a presentation on Saturday by Big Muddy Urban Farm out of Omaha, a collective of urban farmers, to help you get started. Also on Saturday, there are two presentations by expert homeopath Ellen Bench of Montana who explains the use of natural remedies for animal health. Homeopathy is increasingly used in livestock operations to cut down on overuse of antibiotics. There are children’s programs during each hour, so the conference is a great place to bring the family on a day outing.

Friday is filled with hourly presentations with topics like Community Food Systems, a Climate Change Panel Discussion featuring UN-L meteorologists, Cooking Local/Eating Healthy, and culminating with an All-Nebraska Dinner with local-sourced food. The highlight of the evening will be the Annual NSAS Live Auction. Full details are at NebSusAg.org.

Anyone serious about food, its quality and where it comes from — which should be all of us — will benefit from a day well-spent rubbing elbows with folks who know what it takes to make it so.

Be well.

Heartland Healing is a New Age polemic describing alternatives to conventional methods of healing the body, mind and planet. It is provided as information and entertainment, certainly not medical advice. It is not an endorsement of any particular therapy, either by the writer or The Reader. Visit HeartlandHealing.com for more information.

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