Does Your Garden Grow With Danger?

We’ve had a lot of stories here in The Bachelor’s Kitchen about organic food and about eating better quality food. More than one expert says the best solution for many people is to grow our own food. They say we should learn canning and preserving. That we should take time, even in the city, even in an apartment, to have some sort of food crop in our backyards and on our balconies. These are all good ideas.

One good idea is using vacant lots to start community farms. This has become increasingly popular in many big cities, like Detroit, New York, Baltimore and Indianapolis. People are taking over these lots and turning them into productive truck gardens producing lettuce, strawberries, zucchini and lots of other fruits and vegetables.

But are those foods safe? There’s evidence to indicate they may not be. In an interview with NPR’s Eliza Barclay, Indiana University geochemist Gabriel Filippelli says that many of those backyards and vacant lots where people are growing fruits and vegetables are contaminated with lead.

We have known for some time that lead, a heavy metal, is dangerous if consumed. That’s especially true for young children. We have removed lead from gasoline and paint. The incidences of lead poisoning has decreased dramatically.

But there is still a lot of lead out there. It’s in the ground, the water, the air. Even if no new lead is introduced into our environment, there’s still deadly amounts hidden in all sorts of nooks and crannies of our world.

“Indianapolis has about 80 urban gardens managed by community members, not including personal backyard gardens, Filippelli says. About half the community gardens are at risk for lead contamination.”

How does the lead get there? Many vacant lots were created by old houses being abandoned. As these buildings fell apart, the lead in paint and old pipes fell onto the ground and worked their way deeper into the soil. Lots located near highways or old industrial sites also are likely to be contaminated, according to Filippelli. Lead can cause serious damage to the brain and nervous system. It can also cause problems in our digestive systems.

“Filippelli says fruits and vegetables don’t absorb lead, but it binds to the skin of root vegetables — potatoes or carrots, for example — or greens like lettuce that grow close to the ground. Even the most thorough of scrubbings may not remove it.”

Now you begin to see how so much food in our stores today can be contaminated and recalled. Even if the food itself does not contain dangerous chemicals and metals, they can still be there and can still get into you.

That might lead you to conclude that if you live in the city you shouldn’t be growing your own vegetables. But that’s not true, either.  Filippelli says being aware of the problem, or its potential, is half the problem.

“The first step is testing soil for lead. The local health department may be able to do that test. Some cities with longstanding lead problems have put together maps that show soil lead contamination.

“If your soil has more than 200 parts per million of lead, Filippelli recommends covering all exposed soil with at least three inches of mulch and planting food in raised beds filled with clean topsoil.”

Filippelli says that creating sustainable food supplies are critical to the growth and improvement of urban areas. Adding mulch to the soil will reduce the amount of lead in the ground, making it safer for growing food. And creating raised beds are not too difficult. All you need is some old boards, a few nails and a few bags of dirt.

The rewards of growing your own food, of know exactly what’s in what you eat, are priceless.