The Dirty Life – More Thoughts on Germs

And so the conversation on hygiene continues! How much of germophobes are we?

This week, while at Friends of Burlington Gardens, the small talk in the office turned to the topic of compost. How do you clean out those pesky compost buckets? This is a hot topic as the weather gets warmer… I think the little critters in my food scrap bin are multiplying a little bit faster now that we’re moving into spring, turning my produce ends into a fragrant pile of funk…

Compost Bin

Image via Wikipedia

Jenn, one of the coordinators at FBG, admitted she is a bit of a germophobe herself, as she and others in the office chatted about the best ways to wipe, rinse, or otherwise clean out the home compost container. A visiting volunteer added that those germs may make  our immune systems stronger, but admitted that she, too, had that germophobe spirit and was adamant about hand washing, especially when working with kids.

So what is our deal with these invisible microbes? I have been enjoying a little reading of sociologist Deborah Lupton‘s work for some insight on our relationship with germs. Lupton argues that we fear the entrance of anything foreign into the body – such as a food we have never tried before. For instance, most of us who have grown up in a westernized culture would likely be uncomfortable eating grasshoppers because we feel anxious and unsure about the effect this foreign product would have on our bodies. Lupton would say we have fear and anxiety over the risk of this food compromising the body, that we regard the body as this sacred vessel that is vulnerable to the outside world whenever we introduce any exogenous substance – such as food.

There exists a fine line between a slightly over-ripe, semi-fermented food that we regard as safe and edible, and a food which is rotten and could possibly make us feel sick. Are those leftovers from last week still okay to eat? Everyone’s definitions of safe and unsafe food are a little different.

Similarly, the layers of food decay that have caked onto the compost bin are perceived as more of a health risk by some than others. This idea that I am applying to the compost bin may not suit the microbiologist who can physically measure bacterial counts to decide relative health risk, but, for the rest of us who rely on a less sophisticated assessment, would you agree that compost looks a little more “germ-y” and threatening as a result of the food appearing increasingly foreign and unfamiliar? And, if not, I would love to hear your great theory on why some of us get so grossed out by our food scraps!

FN 3/19

Garden Hygiene?

English: A picture of compost soil

Image via Wikipedia

We want kids to optimize their health by eating fresh produce from the garden, but should we be concerned about microscopic germs creeping in the soil?

During my most recent visit with the Friends of Burlington Gardens, the director met with Phil*, a representative from a well-known and respected nonprofit. Phil is in the process of planning a fundraising event where as many as three-thousand people would be asked to each plant an individual flower or vegetable seed in their provided container. For this big event, Phil plans to collect donations of seeds and soil and provide a unique growing container. With the supplies mostly lined up, he visited Friends of Burlington Gardens to ask for help with the logistics of actually getting three-thousand people to sow their seeds in their containers. Similar to a previous seed-starting event I posted about earlier, Phil is looking for help to direct children and adults on how to plant their seeds at soil stations set up at the event.

One of Phil’s logistical concerns was sanitation. How would three-thousand people wash their hands after getting muddied up from the soil? Besides a little dirt under the fingernails, Phil commented that his co-workers – less comfortable with gardening and getting down in the dirt – had been concerned about how hygienic or sanitary this might be and wondered how they might be able to set up hand-washing stations in the park where the event was to be held.

Dirty soil. I had not thought much about this before. It is true that soil is loaded with microbes – some more friendly than others – so how concerned should this event be with providing water and soap to the participants after they plant the seed starters?

Phil added that he was less concerned about the sanitation issue himself, so really he was bringing this up more on the behalf of his co-workers, but the Friends of Burlington Gardens director supported his idea. Hand washing stations make sense for such a large crowd. Plus, they could be used to rinse out the planting containers as well.

I agree with Phil and the director that hand washing stations would be appreciated simply because this will be such a large event. But it got me thinking about the response Phil’s co-workers had to gardening and the less obvious matter they may have been expressing… In the grand scheme of things, how concerned should we be about children’s health and sanitation when playing in the dirt?

If you ask me, a little dirt won’t hurt. Some exposure to germs is important for building up that natural immunity. But should I be sympathetic to those who are more germophobic? Certainly, there are cases where the soil might be poorer quality and truly unsafe for growing food. (TLC Home shares some tips on remedying polluted soil in these scenarios.) Not all soil is the same…

So for those who might be less comfortable with a little dirt under the fingernails, are there ways we should try to make the gardening experience more hygienic and ‘clean’? Or do you think getting dirty and grubby is a necessary rite of passage for the gardener? I would love your thoughts on this, as well as suggestions for a more hygienic dirtiness!

*name changed

FN 3/12