African -American group: Health focus on organics 'misguided'

An African-American advocacy group is attacking a liberal public-health group for focusing on what it claims are minute matters at the expense of issues that are important to the black community.

The National Organization of African Americans in Housing (NOAAH) is criticizing the American Public Health Association (APHA) for concentrating on organic diets instead of putting more resources into such other health issues as cancer, drug abuse and AIDS.
patrick g. ryan
CBC Chairman Elijah Cummings

The criticism of APHA’s direction comes as Democratic leaders in Congress reassess their party’s direction in the aftermath of GOP triumphs on Election Day.

NOAAH Executive Director Kevin Marchman last week called on the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) to press APHA to dedicate its resources only on the most important health issues. APHA is holding its annual conference in Washington this week.

In a letter to APHA Executive Director Georges Benjamin, Marchman lambastes the group for “spending valuable time and resources on tangential issues,” specifically encouraging consumption only of organic fruits and vegetables to avoid pesticides.

Marchman also pointed out that at last month’s Education Braintrust Expo, which the CBC sponsored, a panelist blamed “foods containing ‘harmful chemicals’ for having a deleterious effect on how students learn.”

Low-income families “don’t have the types of budget to afford” more expensive organic fruits and vegetables, Marchman told The Hill. By saying such a diet is necessary to be healthy, APHA makes them feel that they are endangering their own health or that of their families. “That is irresponsible,” he said.

In his letter to APHA, Marchman said, “Creating senseless fear about pesticides only hurts people most in need of better nutrition and better housing conditions.” He argued that poor people should not be “stampeded into paying this added expense to put produce on their dinner tables when conventionally grown fruits and vegetables are abundant, safe and economical.”

He added that low-income families are especially in need of a diet with more fruits and vegetables and that APHA’s approach is counterproductive because “scaring people into eliminating fruits and vegetables from their diets as a misguided way of avoiding pesticides will only result in more people eating far less health foods.” That, Marchman argued, would only contribute “to the fast-growing and real concern of obesity, especially in our children.”

But Benjamin told The Hill that he “respectfully and strongly disagrees” with Marchman’s views. “We know the science that says pesticides can be harmful … [and] can cause illness and even death,” he said, adding that as a doctor, he has to help any patient who comes into his office. Benjamin said he also has the responsibility to “reach out to the community and take care of you there” if he perceives health threats.

Benjamin added that APHA is also strongly advocating issues such as equal access to housing and healthcare. He said a solution to the problem would be to make sure that stores selling healthy foods would locate in low-income neighborhoods. This would not only provide residents with access to healthy foods, but also bring jobs to these communities.

As part of its convention, APHA held its Capitol Hill advocacy drive yesterday. In a letter to CBC members, Marchman had urged African-American lawmakers to encourage APHA to focus resources on such public-health issues as cancer, drug abuse, heart disease, AIDS and smoking. “These are the kinds of issues that truly impact lower-class and middle-class Americans and where I strongly believe that [CBC] and [APHA] should be channeling their societal energies and resources.”

The CBC did not return calls seeking comment.