February was flying by and before we knew it, it was the weekend of February 16th, which marked the 37th annual NOFA-VT Winter Conference. The conference highlights local farmers, gardeners and homesteaders and offers over 80 educational workshops, roundtable discussions, film screenings, and much more.
The theme this year was Food Traditions, focusing on celebrating and honoring our agricultural roots. Leah Penniman opened the conference with a powerful keynote. Leah is a Black/Kreyol educator, farmer and author. She is the co-founder of Soul Fire Farm in Grafton, NY and published “Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm’s Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land.” During her keynote she talked about all of the different projects happening at Soul Fire Farm, including farmer training programs and a subsidized CSA program where farm shares are distributed on a sliding scale! Leah and her work to address racism and injustice in our food system through Soul Fire Farm is an inspiration to all.
After the keynote there was a heartfelt tribute to the longtime NOFA-VT Executive Director, Enid Wonnacott, a beloved figure in Vermont agriculture. She left quite a legacy and will be remembered for her passion, love and open-minded approach to furthering the organic farming and agriculture movement in Vermont.
From there, the conference continued with the first session of workshops. From Hunting Wild Mushrooms in the Northeast to The Yin and Yang of the Climate Crisis, there were so many great topics to choose from. I landed on one titled Epigenetics, Our Gut Biome, Phytochemical and More: A Closer Look at Whole Foods. The presenter, Allison Van Akkeren, is a professor at Sterling College in Sustainable Food Systems & Outdoor Education. She prefaced the workshop by saying that one of the complicated things about nutrition is that it is a science that is constantly changing. I’m sure we have all experienced this in one way or another. Fad foods and diets will flow in and out of popular culture and it can be hard to keep up with what is deemed “healthy.” So, even before diving into the content of the presentation, Allison warned the room that everything she was saying was not going to be black and white.
With all of this in mind, she began by talking about the importance of our gut health, and how closely related it is to our overall wellness. Healthy gut = Happy body. To support gut health, it is important to eat a variety of both pro and pre biotics. Here is a chart that can be helpful with distinguishing the two.
After everyone was clear on the difference between pro and pre biotics, we moved onto phytochemicals. Phytochemicals are substances found in food that benefit long-term health. You might have heard of some before like Tannins, which are found in wine, lentils and tea and act as antioxidants. Or Carotenoids, which are found in vibrant colored fruits and vegetables, like sweet potatoes, carrots and broccoli and have been linked to reducing risks of cancer and other diseases. So what is the main takeaway? Again, it is important to eat a variety of fruits and vegetables with different textures and colors which contain a diversity of phytochemicals that support our overall health!
The second half of the workshop was dedicated to this newish term, Epigenetics. Epigenetics is the study of changes in biological traits that may have resulted from external/environmental factors. Allison played this short video to help describe this nature vs nurture phenomenon. So, how is this related to food? Well, it has been shown that certain nutrients have the power to switch on and off certain genes, and as a result can affect our health and wellbeing. To further explain this concept, Allison passed out an article from the International Journal of Molecular Sciences titled “The Impact of Nutrition and Environmental Epigenetics on Human Health and Disease.” One of the examples in the article was broccoli. Broccoli contains a nutrient, sulforaphane, which has an epigenetic role of increasing histone acetylation, which has been linked to turning off anti-cancer genes. And that is just one example! Here is an infographic that might be helpful in breaking some of this down.
Now, before you go and eat only sweet potatoes and broccoli for the rest of your life, eating more of any food product does not necessarily mean it will reduce your risk for disease. Instead it is all about balance. I’ve said it before but in conclusion, making sure you consume a variety of all kinds of foods, is truly what is most important. I think Michael Pollan said it best, “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants.”