“We’ve been buying less because the prices are so high,” said Lisa Banks, wearing a mask, as she shopped for vegetables with her husband, Michael. He said: “Ever since the pandemic began, the prices have been going up and up.” She added: “We just have to choose carefully.”
There has been a significant increase in the price of produce within the past month — by some accounts, the jump has been the steepest since 1974. The reason: When restaurants closed because of the pandemic, more people began buying fruits and vegetables — before they stopped — and the higher demand led to higher prices. Now, the unemployed or those with the lowest-paying jobs will be the first to lose access to the healthiest foods.
I asked a stock clerk why he thought the produce was always piled high on tables and overflowing in vegetable bins, as if untouched. He cited a reason I’d heard from other shoppers. “Some people will see the water sprayed on the vegetables to keep them fresh and act like somebody sneezed on them,” the clerk said.
What kind of virus is this, preventing people from getting the foods that could help strengthen them?
In a Washington Post story in March, a virologist was quoted as saying that the coronavirus is capable of “switching from being alive to not being alive.” The story described the virus as a kind of biochemical zombie, invading our cells and multiplying itself.
Causing the immune system to malfunction and attack not just the virus but also healthy cells.
Turning the body against itself.
Now it was scaring people away from fresh foods, making them act against their best interest. Or it was driving up the cost, making it harder for the most vulnerable among us to afford the foods they needed most.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported last year that youngsters need 40 to 50 hours of nutrition education each school year to change their pitiful sugar-laden eating habits. They weren’t getting anywhere near that much before the pandemic — maybe seven hours, tops. But at least it was something. Now the illness has closed the schools.
I loathe this virus.
In the absence of a cure for covid-19, the single most important thing a person can do is maintain a healthy immune system.
Corinne Bush, the American Nutrition Association’s director of science and a member of the ANA’s Personalized Nutrition and Covid-19 Task Force, told me that eating fruits and vegetables is one of the fastest and most efficient ways to boost the immune system.
“What we know is that a personalized nutrition program can solve our chronic disease epidemic, and those diseases — such as hypertension, diabetes and obesity — are what make us more vulnerable to the worst outcomes from covid-19,” Bush said. “Right now, we are in the acute phase of the pandemic. But even if we flatten the curve, we will have a second wave. What we should be doing and talking about now is mitigating the second wave, getting people to focus on nutrition, things like flavonoids and omega threes.”
Anyone who thinks flavonoids are what Baskin-Robbins uses to make its 31 flavors may want to check out the ANA website.
Neither Bush nor the ANA claims that you can prevent or cure covid-19 with a diet. No one appears to be immune to the disease, and no cure has been found. But the task force has compiled a wealth of research about nutrition that “points to optimizing immune responses and/or inhibiting viral load in general” by eating the right foods.
An editorial in the May 1 issue of the Journal of Renal Nutrition about the impact of nutrition on covid-19 stated that, “notwithstanding emerging quackery on immune-boosting and magic foods to prevent or cure COVID-19 infection as a result of global desperation and anxiety, it is reasonable to ensure adequate consumption of citrus fruits (e.g., oranges, nectarines, tangerines, grapefruit, lemons, limes) as well as tomatoes, broccoli, cauliflower, cantaloupe, kale, kiwi, sweet potato, strawberries, papaya, and all those fruits and vegetables rich in vitamin C.”
The European Journal of Clinical Nutrition added its backing of a healthy diet in its April issue, stating that the “responsibility of the individuals during the COVID-19 pandemic lies in making an effort to choose a healthy lifestyle, eat diets high in fruits and vegetables, exercise during free time, try to maintain a healthy weight, and get an adequate amount of sleep.”
I spoke with Baxter Montgomery, an African American cardiologist in Houston, who prescribes raw fruits and vegetables as part of his treatment for patients with hypertension and cardiovascular disease.
“The bottom line is, people shouldn’t sit around worrying,” he told me. “Start eating fruits and vegetables, get outdoors, into the sunshine, walk around in the grass, barefoot.”
Told that some people may not be buying fruits and vegetables because of rising costs, Montgomery suggested the next best option: cutting back on sugar, salt and processed foods. “It costs nothing not to go to a fast-food joint,” he said. “I never heard of anybody being charged for not ordering a cheeseburger and fries.”
I don’t want to come off as blaming the victim. We need to make healthy foods as affordable as fast foods.
Still, we need to do a better job of taking care of ourselves. Poor diet is the leading cause of death in the world, ahead of tobacco, according to the 2017 Global Burden of Disease Study. Too much salt, too much processed food, too few whole grains, not enough fruits and veggies.
We’re far from the end of this crisis. And it’s more than likely that another wave of the virus awaits us this winter. Until there’s better treatment, a vaccine, a cure, all we can do is try to improve our chances of survival. The produce department may be our best shot for now.
An earlier version of this column incorrectly referred to Baskin-Robbins and its 21 flavors. The company began by offering 31 flavors.
To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.