By Alexina Cather, MPH
Ali Berlow is a food and community activist and the author of two books: ‘The Food Activist Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Help Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community‘ and ‘The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse: Building a Humane Chicken Processing Unit to Strengthen Your Local Food System.’
Ali is committed to raising awareness and consciousness about the food we eat and was the founding Executive Director of the non-profit Island Grown Initiative, which supports the small family farms and farmers of the island.
Her essay series A Cook’s Notebook airs periodically on NPR member stations. Ali is also a highly sought-after lecturer, speaker, freelance writer and radio producer, and is co-host of The Local Food Report, produced by Atlantic Public Media and airing weekly at WCAI/WNAN.
I was able to do an email interview with her about food activism and ways that individuals and grassroots communities can make policy change.
New York City Food Policy Center (FPC): What motivated you to get involved with food activism and to become a food policy advocate? Was there a specific trigger or moment?
Ali Berlow (AB): My children. I wasn’t a cook until I had kids. When I’d started my NPR essay series, “A Cook’s Notebook,” back in 2002 I slowly got more curious about what was behind the veil of food. How it was raised, grown, traveled, the farmers, the fishermen, farmworks…then, like so many, I read Michael Pollan’s seminal work: The Omnivore’s Dilemma and my perspective shifted, I looked at my kitchen, the grocery store and my community, differently.
Chicken in the meat aisle became way more anonymous and represented the hidden costs of cheap food – like the negative impacts to the live animals, air, water, people. And I fed my family a lot of chicken. So, like many people did, I thought the pathway out to cleaner meat, better meat, was to have a hand in raising, slaughtering and processing an animal. That was a huge overestimation on my part. I participated in the slaughter of a pig, locally, that went horribly wrong. The animal, the people around, me included, suffered. I swore from that experience on, not on my watch would an animal be so badly treated in the name of local food. It was a turning point, one that motivated me to build a humane slaughterhouse for my community. I write about it my both my books.
I’d experienced feelings of being overwhelmed and even defeated but that’s not a place I like to live in. I’ve a friend who says ‘Once you know, you can’t not know.’ So I turned anger, frustration, helplessness into action the best way I know how. I had a potluck, invited about 30 people from my community, some I knew, some I didn’t. Farmers, shellfishermen, grocers, gardeners, food bank organizers, writers, caterers….And we asked: “What does ‘sustainability’ mean to us and moreover, what do we want to DO about it?” The energy and ideas that evening in my house were palpable. There was connection, desire to do, to act, and we got organized.
Some folks went on to start a local slow food convivium. Others, myself included, made a map of local farms that was both educational and informative. It encouraged the general public to visit a farm and buy directly from a farmer…and it worked! That group (which I eventually became the founding executive director of) is Island Grown Initiative. Both organizations continue today.
PS: I write about that potluck with a purpose and tips on hosting one in my recent book, The Food Activist Handbook.
(FPC): What are ways that individuals can work to build a local food system? What can grassroots communities do to change food policy?
(AB): It’s true that we vote with our forks. Every time you choose a food, an ingredient, a restaurant, or a fast food joint – you are choosing a food system. Who gets that money, how was the food raised, grown, harvested, slaughtered, processing, shipped…how were the food chain workers treated, paid? What were the impacts to soil, water, air….So when you buy local fish from local boats, or local produce, local meat, from local/regional farmers you are supporting those people, not corporations. So simply, as an individual, be a conscious consumer. Cook as much as you can. Shame isn’t part of the solution. When we all do the best we can, it’ll make a difference.
Beyond that – push yourself out of your comfort zones and into your passions. If it’s the arts, or education, sports, your church/mosque/temple, schools, hospitals, workplace- whatever motivates you wherever you live, work and play – be where food and community intersect, and go there. Start something small that can make a big difference. Dig up your lawn, or grow food in public places. Plant something! There are so many things just waiting for you, your energy, your strengths. Shine.
In terms of food policy – Food Policy Councils are great conduits and opportunities in cities and towns. Look locally at your representatives and start asking them about food and public health, planning, education, zoning. And show up. There is nothing like going to representatives and speaking with them directly.
Definition of a Food Policy Council: “The central aim of most Food Policy Councils is to identify and propose innovative solutions to improve local or state food systems, spurring local economic development and making food systems more environmentally sustainable and socially just.” ‘Food Policy Councils: Lessons Learned’ by Alethea Harper, Alison Alkon, Annie Shattuck, Eric Holt-Giménez and Frances Lambrick, 12.01.2009
(FPC): What is the one food issue you would like to see addressed by the presidential candidates/a new presidential administration?
(AB): I’m just back from the #FoodTank Summit in DC where I was on a panel about legislating change in agriculture. There were so many incredible speakers, I’m still sorting out all the information. So I’m going to quote my colleague here, Niaz Dorry from the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance because we (the collective we) must include the ocean and fishermen to this discussion about local food. And Niaz is one of the wisest there is. In her words, here’s my answer:
“Fair prices for community-based fishermen and family farmers, and fair wages for all food workers. Too many of our fishermen and farmers are working in the red. The current narrative around subsidies makes it sound like they are reaping wealth off taxpayers’ backs when in reality, our current food system is straining their backs. Many of them can barely make ends meet. They deserve to be paid their cost of production, and all those whose hands touch our food deserve lives with dignity.”
(FPC): The following is your quote: “We can’t wait. The cavalry’s not coming.” How can we increase the sense of urgency for food system change in our society?
(AB): Last fall I was a guest lecturer at Northeastern University, talking about food systems and food activism. A student asked the question, ‘when is the government going to fix this?’ In reference to the bailiwick of subsidies, child nutrition, school lunch, food insecurity and food related diseases. My answer was, they’re not. The government isn’t going to fix this, it can’t fix this and we can’t wait for someone else, somebody else, to fix it either. It’s up to you. It’s up to me. To individuals to rally, roll up our sleeves and do something (including, #VoteFood). As Kathleen Merrigan (the Executive Director of Sustainability at the George Washington University) said on our #FoodTank panel: “Innovation doesn’t start in Washington DC.”
Small things do make a difference – and that finding power wherever ANY of us may be is the start of everything.
(FPC): What do you believe to be the greatest food policy challenges for local communities? And the greatest opportunities?
(AB): Regulations. Local and state regulations are both challenges and opportunities. I think of regulations as ‘paper infrastructure’ and we need them as well as nuts and bolts/bricks and mortar infrastructure.
Readapting and sizing regulations at the local level or state level is not sexy work but it’s necessary behind the scenes work if we are truly going to develop strong local and regional food systems. Zoning examples abound from everything for aquaponics greenhouses, to selling local fish and shellfish at a farmers’ market. They’re frequently onerous, oversized and outdated regulations that translate into anti-small business, anti-innovation. Consumer demand is high and growing for local meat, fish, poultry, produce, value-added products and that means also, people are going to try and meet the demand. But food safety, traceability, fair wages, workers safety, environmental safety – all these need to be upheld in the highest of standards, local and not. Regulations need to be size-apropropriate and just as we have lost connections to where food comes from, we’ve also lost knowledge and practical commonsense about how to regulate. A mobile poultry slaughterhouses doesn’t make any regulator gleeful I can attest to that but it may, as an example, be the best, size-appropriate technology – a bridge piece of infrastructure – to jump start a latent food for a community. And it should be able to happen in the regulatory system, as a permit-able sound piece of necessary infrastructure.
(FPC): What is the one food policy change at the federal level that would have the greatest impact on health?
(AB): Food labels. Label sugar honestly.
(FPC): What was your greatest personal moment as a food activist?
(AB): There are so many….but I will say witnessing the mobile poultry processing trailer become a game changer for local farmers who now can raise and sell their poultry is huge. Another one: watching high school students who’d grown up with farm to school programming go to the Statehouse to lobby for good-food-policy in MA. And lastly, most importantly, my boys. They can cook. I’m really proud of them.
Grew up in: Madison, WI
Background and Education: UW Madison BA in African History and Anthropology; Life
One word you would use to describe our food system: Fixable
Food policy hero: Maria Moreira of WorldFarmers.org, Niaz Dorry of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance, Lorette Picciano of the Rural Coalition, Kate Adamick, co-founder of CookForAmerica.com and author of Lunch Money
Your breakfast this morning: A friend took me into the woods around Putney, Vermont, yesterday, to collect ramps so it’s been ramps in everything. This morning: ramps in scrambled eggs and a mug of dandelion tea, to fend off a spring cold.
Favorite foodie hangout: Friends and family’s kitchens…Viki, M., Jefferson M., Jess H., Alice R., Holly G., Becky N., Elizabeth C., Samantha B, Gia, W., Paula M., my mom’s.
Social media must follow: So many! Here’s a smattering, in no particular order…Sustainable Table @eatsustainable, Karen Washington @karwasher, Ken Greene @SeedLibrary, MomsRising @MomsRising and in Spanish: @MamasConPoder, Bettina Elias Siegel @thelunchtray, Michele Simon JD MPH @MicheleRSimon, Michael Pollan @michaelpollan, ChangeLab Solutions @ChangeLabWorks, Society of St. Andrew @societystandrew, Just Label It @justlabelit, Marion Nestle @marionnestle, International Network for Urban Agriculture @INUAG, The National Family Farm Coalition @FamilyFarmCo, Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance @WhoFishsMatters, Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund @FTCLDF, Lets Move @letsmove, Future Food Institute @Ffoodinstitute, Your local NPR station, Your local Edible Communities’ magazines, PBS News Hour @NewsHour, Food Tank @Food_Tank, Civil Eats @CivilEats, Grist @grist
Photo credit: Elizabeth Cecil