Connecting local food, nutrition with mental health

Mental health affects us all. In fact, one in five adults in the United States experiences mental illness in any given year. It is very likely you or someone you know has dealt with the effects of mental illness to some varying degree.

Some experience debilitating and severe mental illnesses, while other individuals’ conditions interfere less in their daily lives. Either way, we know that the brain is an organ, and it’s just as sensitive to what we eat and drink as the heart, stomach and liver. Despite a growing body of evidence worldwide that links nutrition and mental health, the connection often is overlooked in today’s methods of treatment. It’s time we, as a community, advocate for nutrition as a form of mental health care and emphasize this need throughout our area.

Evidence shows that diet plays an important contributory role in preventing and treating specific mental health conditions such as ADHD, depression, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. More generally, researchers have found that high and low mental well-being typically are associated with a participant’s fruit and vegetable intake. In other words, a diet higher in fruits and vegetables can improve one’s mental well-being.

 The sugary, processed foods that make up our western diet have been linked to poor mental health outcomes when compared to a diet rich in fresh fruit and leafy green vegetables. Yet these processed foods often are much more accessible. That makes healthy eating decisions more difficult.

An overwhelming majority of Americans with mental and psychosocial disabilities live in poverty and lack access to fresh, healthy food — a need that often is overlooked. As a result, this already vulnerable population experiences poor physical health. Can we improve both physical and mental health for our community by providing access to healthy food? Better yet, can we do this while simultaneously creating new markets for our local farmers?

Two local community mental health clubs, with help from a Building Healthy Communities Grant facilitated by Taste the Local Difference, have in the last several months made great strides toward achieving these goals. They have improved access for club members to healthy, fruits and vegetables grown in northwest Michigan.

 Traverse House and Club Cadillac are two of more than 50 participating sites taking part in this healthy food initiative. The funds have helped them purchase juicers and water pitchers to promote healthy beverage options, a greenhouse to increase the availability of fresh produce already grown onsite, a refrigerated salad bar for local veggies, nutrition education for club members — and more. Each clubhouse has incorporated more locally-grown seasonal fruits and vegetables into its foodservice, and this already has resulted in exciting behavioral changes for club members.

The impact of nutrition on mental health is clear. Dynamic solutions like these should become integral methods of care. If we pair local agriculture with the responsibility to improve community mental health by way of nutrition, we will experience the clear economic benefits of growing our local food system — and witness a stronger and more resilient community that benefits us all.