Big Changes Require One Thing: Starting

Food Activism for All

by Remy Tumin

Food Activism for All

Elizabeth Cecil

It started with a potluck. In 2005, Ali Berlow invited a group of 35 friends, including farmers, clergy members, fishermen, and gardeners, over for dinner. Everyone brought a dish to share and enthusiasm for digging into the question of sustainability. How could they create a sustainable food system for their community on Martha’s Vineyard?

The gathering instilled some hope in the producers gathered around the table; it led to the creation of the Island Grown Initiative and eventually Island Grown Schools, and provided the right moment for a group of people to get together and act.

Ten years later, putting those thoughts into action, Berlow has a new guide for all to feel empowered to make a difference in their own food system.

In The Food Activist Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Help Provide Fresh, Healthy Food For Your Community, Berlow passes on her passion and dedication for creating change. “Find and connect with the collective wisdom held by people who live alongside you today,” Berlow says in her book. “It’s incredible what one night and a simple thing like sharing food—and a focused discussion with different perspectives coming together—can do.”

In ten chapters, Berlow provides budding eaters and activists with the steps to changing their food system. Every chapter includes case studies, resources and step-by-step instructions to putting thought into action. You don’t have to invent the wheel when it comes to, say, introducing honey beehive observations in a classroom or setting up farm mentoring programs. Because others have done this, Berlow urges, so can you.

“You Can Do This” is a recurring theme in the book and a recurring header, serving both as a reminder of your capability but also as a practicality— this is how you implement change.

Right up front, Berlow establishes the importance of creating an inclusive environment so that all participants can get involved. She strips away what she calls the “preciousness, pretentiousness or snobbery” of terms like locavore. Let’s all be eaters, Berlow insists, “a word that includes all of us.” Cheers to that.

The guide emphasizes education, building a network, connecting with underserved populations, engaging with bigger policy changes, and of course, eating and growing food.

But like any good activist, Berlow doesn’t rely solely on her own ingenuity.

“This book is a glean,” Berlow writes. “The materials in it are gathered from the vibrant community of activists of
all stripes working to bring us better food.”

It includes essays from activists, farmers, and fishermen from across the country who tell their stories of success and failure, and how they’re working to better their communities.

What begins with the story of how actions on a small island can be applied to the bigger world, develops into actions
across the country of people who are taking a stand and how you can participate in the global conversation. The guide has playful and approachable illustrations of how, for example, an industrial raised chicken ends up on your plate or how aquaponics (growing food in water) works.

Other how-to’s include how to start a farmers market, tips for running a mobile poultry processing trailer, creating a farm succession plan, and how to tell your story to the press.

Perhaps food activism in its simplest form comes in guerilla gardening, by planting food in public spaces.

“An act of art and rebellion, guerilla gardening is not just about food to harvest,” Berlow writes. “It’s about people. Community. Transform food and farming from the ordinary into the extraordinary.”

And what is it about to Berlow, personally? “It’s my love letter to the community,” she said in a recent interview.

But it’s more than just a love letter. It celebrates those original 35 potluckers and their impact on an island, the eaters of the world and those looking for a little encouragement or inspiration. This book is meant to get dirty and have the spine worn down from opening time and time again.

Full disclosure: Ali Berlow, founder and publisher of Edible Vineyard, was a driving force behind the Island Grown Initiative (IGI) and the establishment of IGI’s mobile poultry processing unit. She has written a book about food activism, and Edible Vineyard brings it to your attention with great pride. Ali Berlow had no part in the editing this article.