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Seminar Sharing: Building a Better Food Community

Labor Day weekend is all about food. Whether you are planning to grill up some locally grown sweet corn or a classic package of hot dogs, if you care about a land ethic you probably strive to make the best food choices whenever possible. On Friday, July 17th, we hosted a free lecture at the Leopold Center by Ali Berlow, author of the Food Activist Handbook. Her presentation inspired some very interesting questions and discussion with the audience, so Education Fellow Gregory Hitch summarized a few of those here for Ali to respond to on the blog! Enjoy.

FoodActivistHandbookHiRes

1.) In your talk, you discussed the difficulty of trying to change entrenched systems, for example school cafeterias. However, once you learned how to properly approach these situations, you found enthusiastic support. Can you elaborate on your experiences? 

Yes. One thing that I’ve come away with after the three year period of writing The Food Activist Handbook is that this isn’t about “bad” people. It’s about changing the systems and the policies which are mostly outdated, oversized, and more about protecting profits and bottom lines than people, food, and the environment.

Looking back to the days when we launched the farm to school program in our community in 2007, I think one of the things we did well was to pay attention to what each school was eager to embrace. And that turned out to be different for each school community. For example, one school was interested in reducing food waste and building a compost pile, while another was into digging up some of the playground for an educational food garden. This taught me to ask questions first, listen to all the answers, and then ask more questions while including all stakeholders. In this case of developing a farm to school program, that meant including cafeteria personnel, administration and staff, as well as student leadership and parent support groups like the PTA.

2.) You also discussed the importance of meeting people where they are and avoiding judgment when trying to improve their eating habits. Can you talk about that issue a bit for our blog readers?

There’s a section in my book where I talk about suspending judgement (p. 59). It’s a short essay about the lessons I learned after visiting a school cafeteria one day. In the packed-from-home-lunches, there were lots of artificially colored and flavored sugary drinks and processed convenience foods brought in by the kids. My judgement was quick and decisive (if not brutal) of the caregivers who would give kids such food to eat. I learned a lot about myself that day. I am a judger. But when I judge (and I still do) I say to myself: “Well, good for you. Now that you’ve gotten that out of the way, you can get to work with an open mind and move on.” And I do just that.

3.) In A Sand County Almanac, Leopold wrote about the “spiritual dangers in not owning a farm”, one being “the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery.” He suggests that “one should plant a garden, preferably where there is no grocer to confuse the issue.” How do Leopold’s thoughts and suggestions apply to today’s food systems?

Community gardens (The Food Activist Handbook, p. 131-140), urban rooftops (p. 116), free food in public spaces (p. 221-22, food forests (p. 142), guerilla gardening (p. 112) , gleaning programs (p. 215-220), farm and garden field trips (p. 31-4)– these are all ways to not ‘confuse the issue’ and challenge the paradigm of the grocery store to disrupt the system. Growing food in all its glory from the smallest seed saved for a pot on the windowsill to the resilient farm growing food for us to eat– it’s a call to each and every one of us to do something, and become more aware of everything we grow, purchase, eat, waste, and compost.

4.) Many of us struggle with which strategic dietary choices make the most difference: local vs. organic; “Big Ag” organic vs. community supported agriculture (CSA); locavore vs. vegetarian. What advice would you give to those of us struggling with these dilemmas?

Don’t get stuck. Don’t be dogmatic. Learn. Food choices are highly personal choices. Preference, acquired food tastes, memories, pocketbook, family needs, age, demographic, geography… these all are factors. And every food has its own ‘system’. If you look at tomatoes, compared to coffee compared to maple syrup, compared to chicken, etc… every food has its own reality, its own deal. Don’t go crazy or get stuck by feeling defeated. Be kind with yourself and your neighbors when choosing food. Get informed and stay involved. Everyone who eats (hopefully that’s all of us) is a food activist because when you choose a food you are choosing a food system– like local, or organic, or industrial, or fair trade, etc. whether you are aware of it or not– from fish to seed to plate to trash or compost. It is overwhelming but start with what’s easiest for you, and start from what you care about (see pg. 26 in my book for a list of issues and entry points).

Animal welfare is my big thing. That’s how I got involved in building a humane mobile poultry slaughterhouse. You never know what you can do until you start!

5.) Any parting advice for people that want to get more involved in the sustainable food movement?

Just start. Start something small to make a big impact. The cavalry is not coming. This food revolution is up to you, to me, to everyone taking small steps. So just start for the sake of generations to come.

As the former founding Executive Director of Island Grown Initiative, a non-profit that supports the small family farms and farmers on Martha’s Vineyard, Ali is committed to raising awareness and raising consciousness about the food that we feed to our families. Ali is the author of The Food Activist Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do To Help Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community and The Mobile Poultry Processing Slaughterhouse: Building a Humane Chicken Processing Unit to Strengthen Your Local Food System

Ali and her husband Sam Berlow, launched Edible Vineyard (www.ediblevineyard.com) in April ‘09. A quarterly print magazine, EV is dedicated to the local community on Martha’s Vineyard, featuring stories and recipes from the Island.

Learn more about Ali on her website, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.