By:Jan Mazotti Issue: Collaborative Women Section:Jewel Of Collaboration
It was a day like any other. Robyn O’Brien awoke and prepared breakfast for her four children. The three oldest got a tube of bright blue yogurt, some frozen waffles and scrambled eggs. The baby, Tory, got a banana and some eggs too. After breakfast, she put Tory down for her mid-morning nap while the other kids played. When she went to check on the baby, she noticed that Tory’s little face was bloated and red, and her eyes were swollen shut. She rushed Tory to the hospital. The doctor said it was an allergic reaction – most likely to eggs. O’Brien’s first thought, “Since when did an egg become so dangerous?”
A Little Background
Raised in Houston on meat, potatoes, Doritos, and Ding Dongs, Robyn O’Brien proclaims she was not a foodie. She was your average Texas girl, raised in a conservative family. She earned her MBA from Rice University and graduated at the top of her class. She went to work for a major investment firm as an analyst for a team that managed approximately $20 billion in assets. She intimately understood “enhancing profitability and shareholder value” and “managing earnings and expectations”. When her first child was born, O’Brien became a full time mom.
Now with four beautiful children, O’Brien is the founder of the AllergyKids Foundation, which strives to protect American children from the chemicals now found in our food supply. She is also the author of The Unhealthy Truth: How Our Food Is Making Us Sick And What We Can Do About It. The book takes an in-depth look at the deregulation of the food industry in the U.S, how food has become a mish-mosh of chemicals and additives, and how she is on a personal quest to engage people and challenge the status quo of what people put on their tables.
Just the Facts
Today, the American population suffers from a list of chronic health conditions, from asthma, to food allergies, to cancer, to diabetes. Every family has been impacted on every rung of our socio-economic ladder, creating a tremendous burden on our healthcare system, while countries around the world barely seem to sniffle. Have you ever wondered why?
O’Brien says it has to do with how the food industry in the U.S. enhances their profitability by using chemicals in our food supply that have been banned in other parts of the world. For several years and for very personal reasons, she has been trying to “figure out” the cause of the allergy epidemic and understand the link between nutrition and health. She found that there have been steadily increasing disease rates over the last 70+ years including cancer, autism, and autoimmune diseases. In fact, she said, “1 in 8 children suffer from asthma and 9 out of 10 cases of breast cancer are linked to environmental causes, not hereditary causes.” She argues (and documents well) that much of the linkage between poor health and immune disorders is related to the “fake” foods we eat.
So, what are we to do when it is openly documented that only 4% of the average American diet consists of “real foods” like vegetables, beans, nuts, seeds, and fruits? Or that 80% of the average Americans calories are from white flour, sugar, and oil? Or that 60% of our calories are processed foods?
O’Brien asserts “fake/techno” foods tend to be cheaper and easier to access. She found that corporate, government and non-profit relationships between the producers of foods, seeds, pesticides, and insecticides were more co-mingled than the money that caused Wall Street to crumble. She discovered that for years, corporations knew of the dangers of large quantities of genetically engineered products, including soy, in their foods and still they put them on the shelves of the local grocer. She learned that hidden allergens are rampant in our food supply because of mislabeling. In fact, approximately five products a week are recalled because of mislabeling and over the past 10 years, nearly half of those recalls were never publicly announced.
Something even more disturbing—milk. How can milk be disturbing? O’Brien said that for the past 15 years or so much of the nation’s milk has come from cows that have been injected with a genetically engineered growth hormone known as rBGH, a hormone, made in a lab to mimic hormones of female cows. While there are plenty of financial reasons to be concerned about this (of which you can learn from her book), rBGH is injected so that milk cows increase their production levels. But what most people don’t connect is that hormones injected in cows become hormones ingested by people, which is concerning considering that the industry learned of the hazardous outcomes to the herds; increases in cystic ovaries, disorders of the uterus, decreases in gestation length and mastitis.
"Think of the mastitis for a minute," she said, “Think of the bacteria and pus pouring out of those inflamed udders—infections that aren’t even being treated. How does that affect us, our kids, and the babies in our wombs?” That thought was stunning and disgusting.
She did give a more positive view on the milk industry as she changed topics, almost one-third of the largest U.S. dairy processors are now rBGH-free.
It All Starts With Farmers
O’Brien posits that spiraling healthcare costs are partially connected to the way we eat. She says that, “Americans spend almost 20 cents of every dollar managing disease—allergies, asthma, cancer, obesity—and only 10 cents of every dollar on food.” She argues that the environmental maneuvering of the food producers is much to blame and going organic may be more expensive, but much better in the long run.
Empowering farmers is part of the solution, O’Brien claims. In a recent article, Health Care Begins With a Grocery Cart, O’Brien says that organic food costs more than its conventional counterparts because our taxpayer dollars are not used to support organic farms to the same extent as conventional farms. She argues that, “it is more profitable for farmers to grow crops laced with chemicals than organic ones because they will receive larger government handouts from the USDA Farm Subsidy program, more marketing assistance, and stronger crop insurance programs.” She says that it costs farmers more money to produce organic products because they do not receive the same level of financial handouts and then are charged a fee to label their goods “organic.” Basically, they have a higher cost structure with the added fees and expenditures.
The linkage between poor health and immune disorders is related to the "fake" foods we eat. She asked, “Wouldn’t it make more sense to use taxpayer dollars to subsidize the crops without chemicals given the evidence pointing to the impact on our health? What if our most powerful weapon in the war on healthcare was a farm subsidy?” She answered, “Health reform should begin at the USDA, with an equal allocation of tax dollars between organic and conventional farming,” which would enable more organic alternatives and ultimately drive down costs.
The Rest Of The Story
O’Brien is on a mission to share how food makes us sick and what we can do about it. While she may be an unlikely crusader for cleaning up our food supply, she is doing it. She fundamentally believes that safe food is a social justice issue.
She believes that collaboratively we can all play a role. “We simply have to get savvy and stand together so that our voices can be heard by leaders in our government and the food industry the same way that families overseas have made their voices heard,” she said.
She knows that no one will save the world overnight. But she believes that if a group of committed people do a few little things it will add up, and change will happen. She strongly encourages parents to choose better food options at home, like eating plain rice with your own spices, instead of prepackaged rice mix. Or perhaps promote better school lunches that serve chemical-free milk. She says whatever you do — do something!
Nell Newman, Co-founder & President of Newman’s Own Organics says, "As eaters, we are all shareholders in our food supply and can learn from Robyn's work. Her efforts are both inspiring and important. "
O’Brien counters, “Though we can't change the beginning of our stories, we can change the end. Hope is the knowledge that change is possible, even when it seems hard to imagine.”
Learn more about Robyn O’Brien’s efforts or buy the book at www.robynobrien.com.
Learn more about the AllergyKids Foundation at www.allergykids.com.