Going Upstream: A Parable for Our Times

Going Upstream: A Parable for Our Times

Have you ever heard a story that so influenced your understanding that it changed the course of your life?

A story containing truths that were so…well, True, that hearing the story compelled you to see things differently ever after?

I heard such a story in the winter of 1996.

I had just begun my undergrad work as a Community Studies student transferring to the University of California Santa Cruz from a community college. I was on a mission (as usual!). This mission had its origins in a series of experiences I had in 1991, several years after entering recovery to heal from childhood trauma, specifically sexual trauma. As a result of my healing process, I felt a surge of creative energy. In releasing coping patterns of denial and control formerly used to keep myself feeling safe, the creativity began to pour forth in the form of original songs. These songs were an integral part of my healing, expressing the pain, hope, betrayal, terror, and ultimately the triumph of the journey.

I had never studied music, did not play any instrument, and certainly did not know how to read or produce written music, but this outpouring of lyrics and melodies through my voice reminded me that I used to sing original songs as a child as well. I had forgotten my youthful attempts to find comfort in a sometimes constant stream of make believe imagery set to upbeat, repetitive melodies. It was lovely to remember and to acknowledge the creativity and resourcefulness of the child I was, the resourcefulness that so many children muster up in the face of oppression, confusion, and abuse.

When the recovery era songs began to move through me, I started sharing my songs with others in recovery from childhood sexual trauma. I found that the messages moved them deeply, helping them to courageously touch their own pain, to connect with their internal strength, and to feel hopeful in the face of hopelessness. The mission was born. I would go back to school and study music, starting with community college. Once I obtained my Bachelors degree in music, I would get a Masters degree in music therapy so I could help other survivors heal as I was healing. I even picked out the school where I would get my Masters degree, even though attending that school would entail a move to Stockton, and I wasn’t sure if I could get healthy whole foods in Stockton!

As is often said in spiritual circles, we plan and God laughs.

My plan did give me several delightful years of studying music. This introduced me to long term friends and gave me the capacity to write chord charts for my songs so I could speak to my accompanists in their language. But an undergrad degree in music was not to be, nor was music therapy. The first glitch was finding out how poorly I fit the model of the successful music student at UCSC! As I prepared to transfer, I realized that the program was no fit for a single mother who had come to the study of music late in life. I held onto the dream, declared music as my minor, and took on the Community Studies major with the intent to use that major to focus on healing childhood trauma.

It was in my first Community Studies class, perhaps in my first week at UCSC, that I met the story that was to change the course of my life. The class was CMMU 100: Health Activism. The class was an introduction to the theory and practice of social change through the lens of issues related to health. The class introduced me to the public health model, a model that looks beyond individual choice to examine social, cultural, and other contextual factors that influence outcomes and produce trends. Without further ado, I present the story here, as I remember it. I acknowledge that I have certainly embellished upon the story over the course of the years, so I hope the original writer will forgive my liberties.

Once upon a time, a group of professionals was walking alongside a river, deeply engaged in inspiring conversation. In the group there was a doctor, a social worker, a therapist, an elected official, a minister, the director of a nonprofit agency, and many others who cared deeply about children and families and worked to make their lives better.


Suddenly, a nurse in the group spotted a child drifting by on the current, struggling mightily to keep from drowning. As the child succumbed and began to disappear beneath the surface, the nurse jumped in the river, pulled out the child, and began resuscitation procedures. Just then, another struggling child appeared in the currents, and the doctor jumped in to retrieve her. Then another came down river, then another, and another.


Pretty soon, all of the professionals were jumping into the river, pulling out the children, performing triage, and helping those they could help to the best of their abilities. But it was, in many ways, a lost cause, because the children kept pouring downstream, struggling to keep from drowning, and in many cases being pulled under to their death. The professionals simply did not have the bandwidth to save all of the children.


Finally, the minister, having just lost yet another child, stood up and loudly declared, “I’m going upstream to see what’s causing all these children to fall in the river!”

And so ends the story,

at least as I heard it in CMMU 100, and at least as the potent impetus that provoked my shift from focusing my studies on the healing of childhood trauma to prevention. That decision proved to be much more than an academic choice. It opened up a different way of thinking that ultimately led to different career choices. I never became a music therapist, but after that incident the lesson of the story had informed my rich and varied career. And eventually I did get my Masters degree, but in a different field than envisioned.

The story has deeply impacted how I think about problems in the world.

Where there are trends, there are macrocosmic causations, and the most powerful place to make change is at the level of those macros, rather than with the individual. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t fish the kids out of the river, but by all means, let us also go upstream and keep them from falling in if we can.

Fast forward to now.

That story, and the systematic approach it inspires, is now deeply embedded in me; yet, as most people enculturated in our individualistic society, I often find myself looking for the cause of things within the individual. Up until recently, when I spoke with people about the connection between food and health, I have been focusing on the individual food choices that result in disease and those that result in health.

What’s great about an individual focus is that since we do each have choice, we are empowered to make a new choice. What’s not so helpful is that in failing to acknowledge the labyrinth of contextual factors which condition and sometimes even constrain our choices, sustainable change cannot occur. Some very resourceful child or a child with proactive parents might learn how to be a super strong swimmer, and therefore survive the dunking in the river, and her act might inspire others to also learn to swim well. But the paradigm remains the same, and the majority of children are still being swept up into the treacherous currents.

This is the place where we find ourselves

in the realm of food today in the 21st century in the United States of America, and increasingly around the world as people adopt our dietary patterns.

If the minister in our story went upstream to find out what was causing so many of our “children” of every age to be drowning in the river of overweight, obesity, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, Alzheimer’s, depression, etc., she would find that the Standard American Diet is throwing the people of America into this mess. And if she looked further upstream at what was putting the Standard American Diet onto so many people’s plates and forks, she would find a complex interconnected collection of contextual factors, intentionally chosen by industries and other vested interests who are more focused on their own bottom line than on the health and well-being of those drowning in the river.

I write a little about the specific components of the web of contextual factors that condition our food choices in my post “Set Up for Disease? We CAN Overcome!”

For today’s post though, I want to return to the story of the river.

I told this story recently in one of my classes, and I got a very astute question from one of the participants. She asked what happened after the minister went upstream. In retrospect, I realize the answer I gave her was less than visionary. I told her that is where the story ended. While it is true that when I heard the story, it ended there. As a parable, that ending makes the point of the lesson, I think, because it provokes the insight that proactivity is essential, and that reactivity is unsustainable. I truly hope, however, that a river of people “drowning” as a result of the food they are eating is only the current phase, and not the end of the actual story.

If I could go back to that class, here is the ending I wish I had given:

The minister started her journey up the river, joined by the physician. Now this physician had been a very proactive and resourceful person all her life. When she was attending medical school and, like her peers, was only given one cursory nutrition class, she decided to learn more about nutrition so that she could more effectively steer her patients toward a healthful lifestyle. She completely continuing education through the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. Her friend, the minister, was also well versed in whole foods plant-based nutrition, having started on a health food path in her very early years.


When the two of them made it upstream to the cause of the trouble, neither one of them was terribly surprised to find that the Standard American Diet was throwing not just the children, but most of the people of the United States of American into a fast moving, treacherous river of disease, that was sweeping up people of every age, putting them on a fast track to death and robbing them of their vitality for the final years or even decades of their lives.


Being smart and curious professionals, the doctor and the minister decided to go upstream a little further to figure out what was causing that diet to be the choice of so many Americans. They found the first layer of causation in nutritional confusion, significant cultural pressures, and the addictive nature of so many of the food items of choice. They also noticed that the Standard American Diet with its emphasis on meat, dairy, and convenience foods, was the most accessible, normalized choice. Inquisitively, they headed upstream to see what was normalizing these toxic foods and making them the most expeditious choice.


What they found amazed them! It turned out that billions of dollars were being spent to get the American people to eat this dreadful diet! They found a cluster of individuals, groups, corporations, industries, governmental bodies, and policies that contributed to the confusion, the cultural pressures, and the food addictions. And they found that the reason these expenditures were being made is that these individuals, groups, corporations, industries, and their buddies were making trillions of dollars off of the sickness of the multitudes being swept into the river of disease! It was no accident that so many people were sick, disabled, and dying; it was entirely intentional, strategically created for the purpose of greed.


And it turned out that sweeping people into this river of disease by promoting animal-based diets was also causing the torture and death of billions of animals each year, and the destruction of our precious earth. Sadly, it was also contributing to food shortages and economic instability in third world countries.


These realizations catalyzed our dynamic duo into action! Together, they rallied all their friends. They used the power of social media, their Facebook networks, YouTube, LinkedIn, and so many other tools of connection. They spoke to all of the groups and organizations who truly cared about human health, the earth, the animals. They spearheaded a coalition of concerned parties that were stronger together than any single entity was on its own.


As this coalition earnestly set about the task of dismantling the constellation of factors that had resulted in the pervasiveness of the Standard American Diet, they also began putting in its place supports, incentives, and education that promoted consumption of whole plant foods. Their efforts began taking hold and a paradigm shift began to happen. Meat, dairy, eggs, fish, and processed food were moved to the margins of many people’s plates, and entirely off the plates and forks of many more people. Fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, and seeds began to take their rightful place at the center of the plates, and entirely filling the plates in many, many cases.


And what was happening downstream? Well, as the cause of the epidemics was being addressed, the rescue team had fewer and fewer people to pull out of the river. They were able to more effectively address the downstream victims, because the upstream measures insured that far fewer individuals were being pitched into the roiling waters of disease.


Eventually, the whole culture was changed, and those peoples around the world who had previously copied the toxic eating patterns of Americans had a new, healthy, vibrant model to emulate. Health and vitality became the norm. The earth began to recover. Mistreatment of animals ceased. It was a new age of Eden, and everyone tasted of the fruit that was good.

Is this fable possible?

I don’t know, but I do know that it is worthy of our time, love, energy, and attention. If you feel called to be part of this upstream revolution and want to go there with me, please let me know!

Set Up for Disease? We CAN Overcome!

Set Up for Disease? We CAN Overcome!

In the United States of America, we have had our psyches profoundly shaped by an enduring story of personal responsibility and individual agency. We have been steeped in the myth of the American dream, a dream that fully embodies those values. This dream, in essence, says that anyone who works hard enough, who is persistent, who uses ingenuity and will-power, can achieve the good life, a life of happiness and prosperity. This dream embodies the idea that, as individuals, we can do whatever we set out to do if we apply strengths of character that anyone can cultivate if they choose.

As a New Thought metaphysical minister, I agree that we are creative agents in our own lives and that we have tremendous personal power to shape our experience. I find that there is a potential pitfall in this way of thinking, however, because personal responsibility and individual agency are an important contributor to our experience, but they only represent part of the picture. In fact, this incomplete view of our creative capacities distorts Universal spiritual principle in a way that often results in people feeling shame and blaming themselves when their life doesn’t turn out the way they want.

One of the areas in which I notice this is the arena of physical health, especially as it relates to diet. I find that many people feel shame about what they are eating or not eating, about when they are eating, and about how much they are eating. I hear people blaming themselves for their weight, their addictive eating, their food-related chronic illness. I hear people repetitively “shoulding” on themselves, yet not being able to bring their behavior into alignment with what they know they “should” be doing. (Just for the record, my position is that eliminating “should” from the English language would be extremely liberating and empowering!)

I think we might be able make a good case for people being solely responsible for their food-related disease, if we chose to do so, if the majority of people enjoyed vibrant health and if sickness was rare, and only conferred on those who refused to follow the dominant dietary pattern. In the U.S., however, the opposite is true. We find that the majority of people contract chronic diseases that rob them of health in the last 5, 10, 15, 20 or more years of their lives, and ultimately kill them. One of the largest studies ever done on the cause of death and disability was the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study, commissioned by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. It found that in the United States, the largest cause of death and disability is food. That’s right; what’s killing and disabling the vast majority of Americans is what’s on the end of our fork.

Wait a second. Wouldn’t individual agency dictate what’s on the end of our fork? If what we are eating is killing us, couldn’t we each, as individuals, make another choice about what to put on our fork? Isn’t it just that simple?

It is true that we each can make a choice to put life-sustaining foods on the end of our fork and can, as a result, enjoy vibrant health. The evidence is clear that many of us do that. I make that choice every day, for example, and at 60 years old I’m healthier than I was in my 20s and 30s, in large part because of my dietary choices.

SADly, though, most people in our country eat some variation of the Standard American Diet (SAD), the very eating pattern that is implicated in the findings of the Global Burden of Disease Study as the number one killer in the U.S. I do not believe the reason is a lack of personal responsibility, individual agency, strength of character, or a deep intent to care for ourselves. In fact, during the course of my life, I have witnessed the incredible strength, ingenuity, resilience, and responsibility of the human spirit over and over and over again. I have witnessed adult survivors of unspeakable childhood trauma tackle their healing process with ferocious passion, ultimately emerging as victorious as they re-imagine possibilities for their lives. I have seen little children take on significant community problems and find solutions that adults had not yet envisioned. I have witnessed collective acts of courage, persistence, and agency that have resulted in mind-blowing paradigm shifts in institutions, systems, and governments that appeared to be unchangeable.

The root cause of our eating problem is not that we are inherently flawed and making poor individual choices. I am convinced that the reason most people in our country eat so much unhealthy food can be explained by a deeper look at the Universal principle that drives the creative process. Yes, each of us does have tremendous personal power to shape our experience and our destiny. Yet we are not isolated beings untouched by external influence. There is tremendous power in the collective to influence our world-view and to make certain choices easier, more expedient, and apparently more “normal” than other choices. In the U.S., although most individuals might be aware on some level that there are problems with the Standard American Diet, the fact of its ubiquity testifies to the collective acceptance of this as the normal and natural lifestyle.

In fact, we are indoctrinated into the cult of normalcy that surrounds this dietary pattern from the time we are little babies and so many of us are bottle-fed with dairy based formula, made from the mammary secretions of a cow and intended to take a baby calf from 60 pounds to about 400 pounds in a short period of time! Even if we are fortunate enough to be breastfed, when we are introduced to solid foods we will most likely progress through our developing dietary experience immersed in this SAD diet. We are too young to question what is being fed to us. We are simply hungry and we eat what we are fed. We trust our parents to care for us. And our parents, in the vast majority of cases, are trustworthy in terms of their intent to care for us in ways that reflect their best understanding of the world and how it works.

Yet our parents, like all other Americans, are making food choices in a context that not only normalizes the SAD diet, but has been intentionally constructed to make such a diet the most common choice. If we ask the question about how that food got on your fork, we could stop with the simple answer that you chose to put it there. That is insufficient to explain the disease epidemics, however, so it is imperative that we dig a little deeper. It is imperative that we uncover all of the systematic factors influencing our food choices.

When I speak with people about this, I find that most people are pretty savvy about certain factors. Most of us are not ignorant, for example, to the presence and influence of marketing and advertising. Most of us are aware that food producers employ a wide variety of effective tactics to lure us in and win our loyalty. Many are aware that foods are subsidized. There are also some large stories that I would call collective trances that influence food choices. For example, so many people I speak with say they don’t have time to make healthy food or that healthy food is too expensive.

There is also tremendous confusion about what constitutes healthy food, and confusion often results in paralysis. It is challenging to find accurate information about nutrition in a landscape so cluttered by vested interest. And it is the vast, interconnected web of vested interest that I think is the most compelling factor driving our dietary choices. I would love to share just a little bit about these influencing factors, and will also give resources to dig deeper for you if you like.

Here are just a few of the components of this web of factors that create the context of food choice in the United States (and increasingly elsewhere). I am not listing them in order of importance, since they feed off of and reinforce each other.

  • Food industry lobbying that results in laws, policies, and government recommendations created for the purpose of enhancing the pockets of industry at the expense of human health.
  • Subsidies: two thirds of farm subsidies go to support animal agriculture. These subsidies allow foods to be sold for much less than the cost of production, which forces taxpayers to pay for the remaining cost of producing these foods. David Robinson Simon estimates the externalized costs of producing animal foods to be $414 billion per year in the U.S.! We are all paying for this, regardless of our purchasing choices, through health care costs, costs to the environment, and our tax money being used to prop up huge agribusiness operations. One of the other devastating outcomes of subsidies is that U.S. corporations are able to dump commodities into other nations at prices that are lower than it costs to produce the same foods locally, therefore running the local farmers out of business. (Is this the way most of us Americans want to treat our world neighbors? I think not, and yet we are!)
  • Conflicts of interest in government agencies and so-called “expert” policy-making panels. In some cases, a single agency has conflicting purposes; e.g. the USDA is charged with promoting agriculture and is also responsible for making dietary recommendations to Americans. On the one hand, it tells Americans to eat less meat and dairy. On the other hand it provides funding to promote pizza with 40% more cheese. And the panels that give input to the USDA, FDA, and other policy-making institutions are made up primarily of industry representatives.
  • Food industry investments in the development of products that are intended to be extremely addictive, exploiting your physiology to get you to buy unhealthy food, eat unhealthy food, and eat more than you want of this unhealthy food. And through subsidies, making these foods the least expensive choices in some cases.
  • Complicity through ignorance on the part of doctors schooled through a medical educational system that, in most cases, requires very little, if any, nutritional instruction.
  • Huge government expenditures into costly responses to disease and the complicity of researchers and pharmaceutical companies. There is a tremendous amount of money to be made by developing and selling expensive technological and chemical interventions. And nobody is going to get filthy rich encouraging you to eat your veggies, beans, and rice.
  • Laws like state ag-gag laws and the federal Animal Enterprise Terrorism Act which make it a crime to write or say anything that hurts the bottom line of corporations involved in farming or food production. (That’s right, if my activism threatens the bottom line of a meat or dairy producer or the industry, I could be tried as a terrorist under federal law!)
  • Food industry donations to health advocacy organizations like the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association, and the American Cancer Society. These organizations are unable to give unbiased, truthful information because of financial ties to industry, and in fact the dietary recommendations they give are influenced more by the fact that they are beholden to funders than by the preponderance of scientific evidence about nutrition and human health.
  • Nutritional myths that have their origins in flawed scientific conclusions of bygone eras, but that keep getting reinforced because these myths have financial payoffs for so many players. The myth of protein as the primary nutrient for human health, and its companion myth, that of the supremacy of animal protein over plant protein, are two of the most destructive myths, and also two of the myths that most powerfully shape the meat-centric nature of the SAD diet.
  • Our own physiology also disadvantages us in some ways. We were programmed to seek food in a time when we had to work hard to gather our food and when there were times of scarcity and famine. In the U.S. we now have access to too much food, too many choices, and in particular, foods that are super rich in fats, sugars, salts, and animal proteins. These are foods that we are evolutionarily-programmed to seek in an environment in which these things were scarce. They are ubiquitous now, however. In fact, the diseases that are killing most Americans, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, etc., are called “diseases of nutritional extravagance” by T. Colin Campbell.

So, to make it clear, who are the players that are beneficiaries of the current U.S. health epidemics? Here are a few:

  • Meat, dairy, egg, and fish producers and industry groups
  • Junk food producers and industry groups
  • Elected government officials who are in the pocket of industry
  • Scientists and researchers who work for the food industry
  • Nonprofit advocacy groups that take donations from industry
  • Pharmaceutical companies and companies that make medical devices
  • Individual doctors and the so-called “health-care” system
  • Purveyors of fad diets
  • The weight-loss industry

I think it is very telling that Kaiser Permanente, a very large provider of medical care but also an insurance company, has taken a strong stand in favor of whole food plant-based nutrition. As an insurance company, it is in their financial interest to promote health, not disease. They have instructed their entire network of physicians to recommend such a diet for their patients, and created a free downloadable pamphlet for consumers to encourage a shift to a plant-based diet.

Follow the money. I believe that doing so is the best way to understand the context of food choice in the United States of America, and SADly in an increasing number of countries worldwide as they adopt our dietary patterns. This is an expression of the collective conscience that greatly impacts personal choice.

In closing, though, I want to end on a hopeful note. I want to remind myself and anyone reading this who may be feeling angry, paralyzed, depressed, or otherwise impacted by this information, that we are, indeed, always at choice. The environment can constrain our choices to some extent, and can certainly make it more likely that we will favor some choices over others. But ultimately, we are always at choice. When we educate ourselves about the many interests that delight in our sickness on their way to the bank, we can respond with a resounding “NO” to their enticements, “NO” to their lies, and “NO” to them having any power over us or our lives. We can make the choice to feed ourselves and our families whole, healthy, vibrant foods that result in vibrant health.

When enough of us choose to act in this way, we will turn this around. We will collectively create a context in which healthy, life-serving, just, and compassionate choices are more likely to end up on the forks of Americans and others around the world.

That’s where I’m going! Are you with me?

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