As the debate over health care in America rages on, experts continue to agree that the best medicine to prevent (and often treat) cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity and other ills is fresh food and moderate exercise.
It's a simple formula, but to implement it in daily life proves complicated. Many believe they don't have the time and/or money to get to a gym or buy organic vegetables; others don't feel the effort is worth the effects. For those living in "food deserts" without close access to unprocessed produce and protein, a healthy lifestyle might seem unattainable.
All those rationalizations will be met with solutions at this year's Food Day Festival, taking over a massive section of Daffin Park this Saturday, Oct. 26.
Don't understand the importance of organics? Come hear it from the farmers themselves.
Want to grow a garden but live in a tiny studio? Attend a session on container gardening.
Hate exercise? It used to be called "play," and there will be plenty of opportunity for it on the City of Savannah-sponsored Play Street, taking up two blocks with a bounce house, Zumba classes, old-school parachute games and more.
And if you think you can't afford healthy food, there are plenty of organizations to show you otherwise, including a satellite of the Forsyth Farmers Market where you can learn how to double SNAP benefits. (Note: Due to regulations, EBT cards can only be used at the market's Forsyth location.)
The all-day event will also offer workshops on building your own rain barrel with city environmental services planner Margosia Jadkowski, preparing a nutritious meal in minutes with Chef Michele Jemison and composting with Kelly Lockamy, founder of the Savannah Urban Garden Alliance.
"Overall, the day is about introducing people to a lifestyle change," explains Rene Teran, who founded Savannah Food Day with his wife, Whitney.
"They can make an entry point in a lot of different ways."
The couple also publishes WellFED, a restaurant guide that highlights the local food community — a solid network of farmers, gardeners and activists working to push the momentum of accessibility of affordable, sustainable food options to a tipping point. Food Day is a national effort coordinated by Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. that lobbies for the same. Hundreds of Food Days are scheduled in almost every state this week, and believe it or not, Savannah is the biggest.
"We're the highest attended Food Day event in the country," informs Rene, adding that the participation at the first Savannah event in 2011 far surpassed anyone's hope. Ten thousand people are expected to gather on the green this Saturday.
The success can be attributed to the local food community as well as the work of the Savannah Chatham Food Policy Council, an entity that includes the Terans, Forsyth Farmers Market co-founder Teri Schell and other concerned citizens who meet regularly "to promote policies to impact equitable access, sustainable production and widespread understanding of healthy local food."
By connecting the dots between food production, social justice and the environment as well as addressing these issues at the policy level, Savannah is steps ahead of other areas of the country, according to national Food Day founder and CSPI executive director Michael Jacobson.
"It's time for nutrition advocates to start collaborating more closely with people who work to support sustainable farms, reduce hunger, reform factory farms to protect animals and the environment and support fair working conditions for food and farm workers," writes Jacobson, who will speak at in Daffin Park on Sunday.
New to the roster this year are family classes, including breastfeeding support and cloth diapering with Tater Babies.
"It's important to recognize that nutrition starts before birth," says Whitney. "If mothers adopt a healthy lifestyle now, they'll pass that on to their children."
Though the Center for Disease Control recently reported a slight decrease in childhood obesity statistics in Georgia and 17 other states, over a third of America's kids remain significantly overweight. It's an epidemic that has as much to do with emotional support as nutritional education, and Food Day dedicates space to the programs of Childhood Obesity Prevention & Education (COPE).
Run by local facilitator Sandy Baker, COPE provides free programming for overweight kids and their families. But Baker knows that education alone isn't enough to cause change in a society that diminishes personal worth based on appearances.
"Nutrition can be taught and exercise can be modeled," counsels Baker on the COPE website. "But if we don't have the behavioral skills to choose wisely, to value ourselves and our health, to put forth the effort to fulfill our potential in life, then none of that will help."
Surely one of the most insurmountable hurdles for many seeking the leafy greens and hormone-free meats touted by food activists is access and affordability. One in seven Americans receives the federal supplemental assistance known as SNAP, half of them children. Local participation in the program rose 900 percent in 2011.
This summer, Congress voted to cut the program by $40 billion over the next 10 years, and users will see their benefits reduced come Nov. 1. Social justice advocates hope to reverse the effects with Food Day and policy reform and help low-income Americans who may find themselves blocked not just from healthy food, but any food at all.
On Saturday, Oct. 12, the SNAP electronic benefits transfer (EBT) system shut down for several hours, preventing hundreds of thousands from buying food. Schell had to turn away families at the farmers market, and shoppers abandoned their carts in 16 other states around the country. The exception was Louisiana, where the glitch resulted in limitless balances on the cards, sparking a shopping frenzy that left a New Orleans-area Wal-Mart looking like the aftermath of a natural disaster.
Though the interruption was blamed on a computer malfunction, many worry that the government shutdown is a harbinger of more cuts to come. If that's the case, teaching people to grow their own food and be a part of a local food network is more important than ever, say the Terans.
Convincing people to exercise more and eat their vegetables will take a cultural shift, and they and other activists believe incorporating social equality into that shift is part of the equation.
"We're creating a venue so that all these community organizations can get their individual messages out," says Rene, noting that there is no admission cost at Food Day.
"The classes, the Play Street, the bands, it's all free," reminds Whitney.
"Everything is a carrot to get people here."
The Savannah Food Day Festival
When: Saturday, Oct. 26 11a.m.-5 p.m.
Where: Daffin Park
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