For Now, We Are On Our Own. In Kentucky, That Can Be Good News.

Exquisite summer peppers from McMaine Farm, KY

Exquisite summer peppers from McMaine Farm, KY

As millions of us who have some version of health care do annually, I followed instructions. I ate nothing after midnight and visited a lab one recent morning for the Ritual Annual Drawing of the Blood. If the lab had offered a Personality Transplant option, I would have taken it. I wanted to be transformed into  Norma Rae, with the courage to stand in the middle of the ridiculous waiting room (20 chairs, 27 people) and say, "People! Is this the health care system we value about all others? Is this the system we are afraid to change? Do we love not being allowed to make appointments so we can all wait together in crowded rooms with too few chairs? Do we delight in wondering whether anyone, anywhere, has thought through a system for delivering this particular part of health care?"

Michael Pollan comforted me, though. Not in his physical person, which I'm sure is at least as comforting as warm homemade applesauce, but through his pungent words in a recent column:

But so far, food system reform has not figured in the national conversation about health care reform. And so the government is poised to go on encouraging America's fast-food diet with its farm policies even as it takes on added responsibilities for covering the medical costs of that diet. To put it more bluntly, the government is putting itself in the uncomfortable position of subsidizing both the costs of treating Type 2 diabetes and the consumption of high-fructose corn syrup.

I take perverse comfort in the idea that even the most far-reaching health care reform -- which is not even under consideration -- could not, by itself, improve health in the United States of America as long as the corporate hawkers of artificially cheap artificial foodstuffs continue to have our government's help and our mega-dollars. I am not expecting any kind of health care reform that passes this year to  fix the situation my fellow (im)patients and I shared in the poorly run  lab this morning, but with insights like Pollan's, maybe some other beneficial change can be set in motion.

Good health is not the same as good health care. If we acknowledge that we are the main caretakers of our own health, with no hope any time soon that a Giant Rescue Plan will deliver good health in the form of tests, pills, and procedures,  we may decide to live in ways that improve our health and increase our happiness anyway.

For example, we could choose to eat the amazing, wonderful, healthy, beautiful food farmers near us grow, instead of eating the thousand forms of corn and soy  our tax dollars help corporate food companies process beyond recognition, and then petro-power to us. Right now, in Kentucky, I recommend the beans, peppers, squashes, raspberries, apples, pears, pork, eggs, chicken, ducks, beef, lamb, kale, lettuces, radishes, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and late tomatoes that grow all around us. We are a food-rich place.

When we make our own wise choices about food, movement, and (not) smoking, the actions of the government and health care industry matter a bit less.  On our own, we can make some difference in the "longevity gap" John Tierney of the New York Times describes in a story about research by University of Pennsylvania researchers asserting that health care failures in the United States cannot be the sole reason our people live less long than residents in many other countries.

Sidebar: On September 22, 2009, The Central Intelligence Agency ranks the United States as 50th in life expectancy worldwide, behind the usual European countries, and also well behind Macau, Singapore, Hong Kong, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Jordan, Iceland, and South Korea, and many others.

To reprise "We're on our own" one more time in this post, I recommend you search "E Coli Path Shows Flaws in Beef Inspection," the grim cover story from the Sunday, October 4 New York Times; look for any evidence that the growers, processors, packagers and grocers who mass produce hamburger hold your personal health and safety as their main focus. Unless you buy your burgers only at  Costco, you will find only evidence that every time you eat a hamburger of unknown origin you risk life-threatening illness and death.

I am not being  dramatic for its own sake. I dislike "ain't it awful" news stories, and avoid most on the grounds that I can make no difference in the situation described in the story. in this case, though, we can take action. At the very least, we can choose not to endanger our health by eating burgers of unknown origin.

I have eaten -- and enjoyed -- a fantastic burger since I read this stomach-churning, heartbreaking story. I ate my perfectly grilled ground round with perfect ease because I knew the growers of the pastured, certified organic Angus beef, knew the land 23 minutes from my door, and trusted the growers' trust in the processors. I put my trust in the relationships I have with the people at Elmwood Stock Farm who grow this beef. I also trust  that every person involved in the small scale, appropriately paced processing of Elmwood Stock Farm beef has the time and skill to think about the end user's health and well-being.

Yes, Elmwood's ground round costs more than mass produced boxes of burger patties from a discount grocery. I eat fewer burgers as a result - and that may also contribute to excellent health.

I cannot change the health care system, and I do not look for the health care system to change in a direction that will, by itself, make me healthier. Thanks to the amazing food Kentucky growers produce all around me, I can take other steps toward good health. Choosing sustainably grown local food from known producers amounts to prudent self care for now.

I hope and trust Michael Pollan is correct in suggesting that the minute insurers are required to cover all of us, no matter how sick, those insurers are going to jump into the work of improving the healthfulness of what all of us eat. Perhaps only insurers have the heft, capital, and motive to take on industrial agriculture for the health of us all. In "Big Food vs. Big Insurance," Pollan says:

Even under the weaker versions of health care reform now on offer, health insurers would be required to take everyone at the same rates, provide a standard level of coverage and keep people on their rolls regardless of their health. Terms like 'pre-existing conditions' and 'underwriting' would vanish from the health insurance rulebook, and, when they do, the relationship between the health insurance industry and the food industry will undergo a sea change. The moment these new rules take effect, health insurance companies will promptly discover they have a powerful interest in reducing rates of obesity and chronic diseases linked to diet.... Suddenly, every can of soda or Happy Meal or chicken nugget on a school lunch menu will look like a threat to future profits. When health insurers can no longer evade much of the cost of treating the collateral damage of the American diet, the movement to reform the food system, everything from farm policy to food marketing and school lunches, will acquire a powerful and wealthy ally, something it hasn't really ever had before.

Maybe we don't need Norma Rae, now that we have Michael Pollan.