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Pauma Valley's secret to healthy eating

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Eating healthy is easier than you might think: Go organic. It improves not only your diet but also your environment and, ultimately, your health. Today, you'll find more organic produce at increasingly lower prices, and your children can learn about organic food as early as elementary school -- thanks in part to people like the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians.

In the spirit of better health and the empowerment of future generations, the Pauma tribe began the process of organically certifying the fruit grown on and near its reservation in early 2008. Instead of sourcing fruit from distant locations, its casino now uses citrus and avocados from its 135-acre grove.

"It's better for the environment," said Water Master Miguel Hernandez, a tribal member who manages the grove. "Plus, the fewer pesticides and fertilizers we use, the less gets into the groundwater."

Pauma tribal member Claude Devers, left, shows his grandson, Torin Chavez, center, and friend the basics of organic farming. Photo: Lisa Gisczinski, Elle Photography for Tierra Miguel Foundation

The tribe also supports the preservation of organic farming practices and agricultural education. In 2007, when the nearby Tierra Miguel Foundation and its certified-organic farm needed more funding to renew its lease, the tribe stepped in to buy the land upon which the foundation sits, securing the farm's future in Pauma Valley for up to 20 more years. Since then, the tribe has committed to donate $650,000 over 10 years to the foundation for resources and education.

"Our hope is that the Pauma tribe and the Tierra Miguel Foundation can help improve the health of our community and serve as a model of the many possibilities in local, sustainable food for others throughout California," said Pauma Tribal Chairman Chris Devers Sr.

With funding from the tribe and other organizations, the foundation has been able to continue and develop programs that expose schools, consumers and visitors of all ages from all over the world to organic, local farming and recycling practices as well as health and nutrition education.

"We are essentially an educational facility," said Tierra Miguel Farm Manager Milijan Krecu. "We teach people about what is involved in producing food and where food comes from."

For those who live in San Diego (the nation's No. 1 small farm county), Pauma Valley's organic resources are within an hour's drive. Anyone can visit Tierra Miguel Farm's Open House, held the first Saturday of each month, to tour the farm and better understand how organic foods can improve your health. Until then, follow these tips to make healthier choices at home:

Read labels. Look for foods at your market that carry a certified organic label, meaning it has met guidelines established by organizations such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "There is demonstrable scientific proof that well-grown, organic food (produced by working with the inherent processes of nature) is more nutritious than food that is grown artificially and quickly," Krecu said.

Change your budget (though not by much). "We're used to having things really cheap," Krecu said. "In so doing, we forget about hidden costs such as the cost to the environment. Present practices used by many farms ... to stay competitive are becoming increasingly more difficult and destructive to soil. Farmers then have to use greater amounts of fertilizers and herbicides annually. That's ultimately a cost we have to bear." While organic food is still marginally more expensive, prices are falling as more organic farms grow in size and efficiency.

Buy local. Shop at your local Farmers Market, which you can find at sdfarmbureau.org. "Buying local ... helps save local farm land and allows you to be confident about the source of your food," Krecu said. "Local foods also can be fresher, more flavorful and more nutritious than foods shipped in from distant locations."

Eat what's in season. Research which fruits and vegetables are grown in your climate during this season. Join efforts like Tierra Miguel Farm's Community-Supported Agriculture program, which allows you to order weekly or biweekly shipments of seasonal produce sourced from their farm and other local growers.

Grow your own fruits and vegetables. This can be done in a yard, container or community garden using compost. (Krecu will be happy to show you how.)

For more information about the Pauma Band of Luiseño Indians or the Tierra Miguel Foundation, visit pauma-nsn.gov or tierramiguelfarm.org.

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