The Food Activist Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Help Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community

The Food Activist Handbook: Big & Small Things You Can Do to Help Provide Fresh, Healthy Food for Your Community


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781612121802
Publisher: Storey Books
Publication date: 05/05/2015
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 823,425
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ali Berlow is the author of The Food Activist Handbook and The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse, and the co-owner of Edible Vineyard magazine. Berlow founded and served as the first executive director of Island Grown Initiative, a grassrooots nonprofit that encourages and supports a resilient and accessible local food system on Martha’s Vineyard. She is the co-host of “The Local Food Report,” a public radio program out of WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. She lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts, and in Putney, Vermont.

Read an Excerpt



In building a strong food community, there's no right or wrong way to start. But not starting — now, that's a mistake. Be courageous wherever and whoever you are. Use everything you've got, from networks to technology to know-how. Do not be ashamed if what you start is not perfect. Fear of failure squashes creativity every time.

Look around you. What is the history of your place, the people, the culture? Food activism is not a recent phenomenon. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. Who are the elders, activators, and instigators who came before you? What did they try to do, and what were their successes and failures? Ask them, while they're still around.

This is not about re-creating the past, but instead about incorporating lessons learned in order to build resilient food systems today, using all the resources and innovations we can to create better access to fresh whole foods for everyone. Ask, then: What food grows around you today, and what food used to be grown? Ask why it disappeared. Was it due to the weather, consumer mistrust, job loss, low wages, trends, unsustainable business or nonprofit practices, distribution, corporate consolidation, or some other reason?

Know your place, and get to know it all over again, through the lens of building a healthy and strong food community for everyone.

Start small, because even the seemingly small things take time, commitment, and follow-through. Hold a potluck with a purpose to learn more about your food system. Cook and serve food that's grown locally or regionally and that's culturally grounded to your place, by the seasons. Buying locally grown food supports growers and your area's economy, as well as health. And food from nearby just tastes better.

Learn more about what you can do to make a big difference; there are so many issues that you will have to narrow your scope and find one that interests you most.

Host a dinner at which you can meet with the farmers in your community and ask how you can support them.

As the poet Martha Postlewaite writes in her poem "Clearing,"

Do not try to save the whole world or do anything grandiose.

Just start. And keep your phone charged.


Know Your Local Food Community

Start with a sketch. As I noted in the introduction to this book, the doctor drew a picture of my father's heart because it is important to try to visualize what it is you want fixed. As you think about creating a more just and healthy food system, you will need to know how the one you have already functions. Who is in your food community? Who are your potential allies and your collaborators? Also, an important question is this: Who is left out?

Everything You Need

When my friend Julia Kidd moved to the small rural town of West Tisbury, Massachusetts, from New York City, she wrote on an index card, "This island has everything I need," and stashed it in her underwear drawer. I love this daily assurance. It tells you what you need to know: help surrounds you now. Today you have what you need. And if it's not right there in the immediate, it's probably only one or two degrees of separation away. Substitute the name of your town or village or neighborhood for the words "This island" in Julia's affirmation to help you work within your existing food system to change it into one that feeds and sustains rather than withholds; into one that that is resilient rather than rigid and destructive; and into one that is varied, vibrant, and meaningful.

As you think about ways that you can work to strengthen your local food system, keep collaboration and economic sustainability in focus. "Collaboration is the new competition," said John Hickenlooper, Colorado's governor. The advantages of collective local wisdom are enormous when facing the multidimensional issues related to good food against a backdrop of climate change and of the gazillions of lobbying and marketing dollars the processed food industry possesses. As federal grant monies dry up, we need creative collaborations now more than ever.

Start Cooking

Perhaps you never considered yourself to have enough of whatever it is that's necessary to be a food activist. Perhaps you have let your fears and insecurities stop you from even imagining what you can accomplish. Perhaps you think you need a specialized degree to work in food systems (the phrase itself is kind of off-putting and clinical) and you don't have any credentials. Or maybe you think someone else, someone more qualified, is going to do it for you. You may also see time and money as barriers.

All these resistances live in each of us every day. But you know what? Light up those resistances with a blue flame! Start cooking, and invite others to your table. Find and connect with the collective wisdom held by people who live alongside you today. It's how my own story of becoming a food activist started — at the stove, in my kitchen, with one of the best potlucks I ever had.

In May 2005, I threw a handful of figurative darts at my community food web, finding some writers, fishermen, farmers, grocers, clergy members, beekeepers, gardeners — eaters, 35 in all — to come together for a working potluck dinner.

I was excited and nervous as I stood in my family's dining room in Vineyard Haven, Massachusetts, surrounded by friends, some of whom I knew, some I didn't yet know. The energy in the room was electric in the best possible of ways.

I remember the slow-cooked beef ribs the most, how just a few bites of them steadied me. And there was a salad made by Jan, lamb from Clarissa and Mitch's Allen Farm, and farmed oysters provided by Rick of the MV Shellfish Group.

After we ate, we held a facilitated discussion about the "s" word: sustainability. We discussed what that word meant to us in that time and place — and, more important, what we were going to do about it. That evening, we were determined to end the discussion with actions, and we did.

Out of this gathering, a group of people eventually established the small nonprofit named Island Grown Initiative, of which I was the founder and first executive director. Another group came together to organize a Slow Food group (a convivium, in Slow Food parlance). As of this printing, both the Island Grown Initiative and Martha's Vineyard Slow Food still hold a presence in our community's local food system. Both groups contribute to food awareness and education. Both organizations work toward a more sustainable way of life that respects the water, energy, land, animals, food, and people.


Hold a Potluck with a Purpose

The potluck I held in May 2005 changed forever how I view my community, neighbors, the local economy, the schools, the landscape, and the food I buy, cook, and eat. It's incredible what one night and a simple thing like sharing food — and a focused discussion with different perspectives coming together — can do.

Use the Know Your Local Food Community list to help you identify allies in your local food web and invite them, whether you know them or not. Don't be shy.

Decide on a location that can comfortably fit anywhere from 10 to 35 people. This is a working potluck, and if you get much bigger than 35 people, the gathering may be difficult to facilitate. Choose a private home or perhaps a community center, Grange hall, YMCA, or library conference room. Check first to make sure that your chosen venue will allow you to serve food.

Designate a facilitator or cofacilitators. I'm a strong believer in having someone from the outside help facilitate your potluck. I've attended other "get started" potlucks and seen this guest facilitator phenomenon work wonders. We neighbors tend to behave better in front of guests. John Ash, a California-based cookbook author and teacher, was my cofacilitator, coconspirator, coagitator, and always a friend.


* Pass around a sign-in sheet, and ask for best contact info.

* Supply name tags.

* Start and finish on time.

* Eat together first, then get to the working part of the meeting.

* Leave scrap paper and pens/pencils on the tables so that guests may take notes during the meeting.

* Display the agenda for all to see; use a whiteboard or large pad of paper to record your brainstorming and subsequent action items.

A Sample Potluck Agenda

* Introduce the participants. (5 to 15 minutes)

* Ask some questions: What does a healthy community food system mean to us? What do we want to do about it? (5 minutes)

* Choose your goals. For inspiration, see "The List". (5 minutes)

* Identify what you already have accomplished. (5 minutes)

* Find any gaps that need to be filled. (5 minutes)

* Suggest allies in funding, education, and outreach. (10 minutes)

* Determine what actions you will take, assign tasks, list the next steps, and decide how you will follow up. (10 minutes)

* Summarize the meeting, and set the time for the next meeting. Say good night and thank you! (5 minutes)

Note: If your community is already engaged and active yet you're looking to take on another project or go to the next level, ask a more specific question around the topic you want to develop. Maybe your goal is to build a community garden ->, or start a seed conservation movement -> or a farm to school initiative ->.

"When people are ready to, they change. They never do it before then, and sometimes they die before they get around to it. You can't make them change if they don't want to, just like when they do want to, you can't stop them."


Asian Flavored Short Ribs

by John Ash

Serves 4

It's hard to screw up short ribs. You just need to cook them slowly and gently for the meat to become softened and luscious. Once cooked, they can be served as is or pulled from the bone and turned into a great topper for rice, noodles, or a fantastic hash. Since short ribs contain a fair amount of fat, I like to braise them ahead of time and then refrigerate them so that I can easily remove the congealed fat.


* 5 tablespoons olive oil

4 pounds short ribs with bone, cut in 2-inch pieces

• Salt and freshly ground pepper

cups chopped green onions with green tops

2 tablespoons finely chopped fresh ginger

1 cup chopped carrot

cups red wine

4 cups beef or chicken stock

• ¼ cup rice vinegar

• 2/3 cup low-sodium soy sauce

• ¼ cup brown or palm sugar

2 tablespoons chile garlic sauce

3 pieces dried tangerine peel or 3 tablespoons finely grated orange zest

1 tablespoon 5-spice powder

2 teaspoons cornstarch mixed with 2 tablespoons cold water (optional)


1. In a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or casserole with a lid, add 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and quickly brown the ribs, seasoning lightly with salt and pepper. Remove, set ribs aside, and pour off any fat.

2. Add remaining 2 tablespoons olive oil, onions, ginger, and carrot to pan and brown lightly. Add wine, stock, vinegar, soy sauce, sugar, chile garlic sauce, tangerine peel, and 5-spice powder and bring to a simmer. Add ribs, cover tightly, and place in a preheated 350°F oven for 2½ to 3 hours or until meat is very tender and almost falling off the bone.

3. Remove ribs, keeping a bone with each piece if desired, and cover with foil to keep warm.

4. Strain the cooking liquid and degrease. Return liquid to a clean pan, and boil down uncovered until reduced by a third or so, about 5 minutes. Add cornstarch mixture if desired to slightly thicken, and simmer for another 3 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper if needed, and pour over ribs. (If making a day ahead, refrigerate strained broth to solidify fat for easy removal, and reheat ribs in the finished sauce.)

— John Ash © 2001


Find Your Issue(s)

Get to the heart of the matter. Identify the issues that inspire and empower you. Meat is what got me hooked; within that broad topic, the two specific areas that concerned me were animal welfare and cooking healthy food for my kids. There are lots of angles, issues, and nuances around meat, and this is true about any food. Value this diversity, and use it to leverage change to support healthier food communities. Here are a few (!) of the issues that meat brings up:

— Array of issues courtesy of The Meatrix (


Host a Farmers' Dinner

Feeding farmers is very satisfying. They are appreciative, and good eaters to boot. Since Island Grown Initiative was a small group committed to supporting local farmers, we needed to hear directly from them — rather than from industry insiders, state representatives, or consultants (a.k.a. lobbyists) — about how we could best give them that support.

We wanted to create a safe environment in which both we and the farmers could speak freely and respectfully. Our first farmers' dinner conversation took a bit of cajoling. We were all in uncharted territory and somewhat tentative. When we asked the farmers what they needed in order to keep growing the food we eaters wanted, their initial answers were things like "I need more fencing and a new tractor." We were casting about. Three themes finally arose: our local farmers needed skilled labor, more land, and access to a humane slaughter facility. With that information, we went back to our drawing board. In our community, land and labor were already being addressed to varying degrees by other nonprofits focused on conservation and affordable housing. A slaughterhouse, however, was not being pursued beyond lively talks over coffee at the general store that always started with, "We should ..." and ended despondently with, "but it's never going to happen." As it turned out, we were able to make this happen (see Build a Local Slaughterhouse ->). The moral of this story is that you don't know where your farmers' dinner conversation will lead you. Start cooking to find out.

* Define your territory. County and town lines may be confusing when it comes to defining a community food system. Public school systems may help you focus your search radius. School systems are already delineated communities, so they can act as the hub of your food system, and they consist of a fairly predictable population of eaters.

* Hold your farmers' dinner in a neutral location, not in someone's home. We had our first in the Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury.

* Send out postcards with date, time, location, agenda, and RSVP info. The winter is a good time to host a farmers' dinner. If it must be in the spring, summer, or fall, have a "twilight dinner" that begins after the workday is finished.

* Send out e-mail reminders, or follow up by phone. Reach out and encourage people to come. Set the tone of conviviality, community, and mutual support.

* Determine your agenda with time allotments. Post it on a whiteboard or a large piece of paper on the wall for all to see. See A Sample Potluck Agenda for a sample agenda. In the case of a first farmers' dinner, though, after the preliminaries, ask: How can we eaters support you? And plan to listen for at least a half hour. (Maybe throw out some ideas to get going; for example, help connect farmers to landholdings, develop a seed cooperative, start a gleaning program, build a slaughterhouse.)

* If you need a microphone, arrange for one beforehand and test it.

* Have name tags and a sign-in sheet that asks for best contact information.

* Provide a healthy, seasonal home-cooked meal with a vegetarian option. Serve water, coffee, and milk but no alcohol.

* Assign tasks to your working group for the day of your meeting: setting up the space, welcoming guests, preparing food, providing recycling and/or compost/pig buckets, doing cleanup, and removing trash.

* Assign a scribe to take notes for your working group during the meeting.

* Have a whiteboard or flip pad of paper to record the group's ideas and thoughts.

* Provide paper and pencils for the table, for farmer-guests to use. Offer nuts and water on the table to let people keep their energy up.

* Assign action items at the meeting. Plan to check in with the actions/people after the meeting.

* Stick to your agenda. Start and end on time. End when you say you are going to end.

* Thank your cooks, your hosts. Thank the farmers and the working group for coming out, and let them know you will send out follow-up notes to all in attendance. Let them know how to reach you or the contact person for the group. Be a good communicator.

"Pay attention. Be astonished. Tell others."



Excerpted from "The Food Activist Handbook"
by .
Copyright © 2015 Alice Jane Berlow.
Excerpted by permission of Storey Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Alice Randall


Chapter 1: Start

  • Know your Local Food Community
  • Hold a Potluck with a Purpose
  • Find Your Issues
  • Host a Farmers' Dinner
Chapter 2: Educate
  • Start a Farm to School Program
  • Institute Best Practices at Your School Garden
  • Get Certified
  • Have a Fun-Raiser
  • Go to a Conference
  • Connect Athletics to Healthy Eating
  • Restrict Food and Beverage Advertising in Schools
  • Start a Harvest of the Month Program
  • Collect Data
  • Make Over McDonald's
  • Visit Your School Cafeteria
  • Suspend Judgment
  • Start a College Farm
  • Join the Food Revolution
  • Celebrate Food Day
Chapter 3: Build
  • Ask What Is Working
  • Practice the Foundations of Just Food Systems
  • Learn Your History
  • Campaign For Agricultural Workers' Rights
  • Build a Healthy Organization
  • Implement a Conflict-of-Interest Policy
  • Ask for Money (and Use It Well)
  • Keep Your Good Name
  • Create a Food Hub
  • Make a Map
  • Use Mapmaking Software
  • Organize a Farmers' Market
  • Create a Permit Program for Produce Cart Vendors
  • Join Farm Hack
  • Support Humane Slaughter
  • Build a Local Slaughterhouse
  • Find a Policy Geek (or Become One)
  • Become an Interpreter
  • Learn from Those Who Came before You
Chapter 4: Grow
  • Make a Farm Succession Plan
  • Green Your City Spaces
  • Diversify with Ethnic Crops
  • Seek Funding for Commercial Aquaponics
  • Save Seeds
  • Start a Public Seed Library
  • Build a Community Garden
  • Grow Free Food
  • Keep Bees
  • Grow a Kitchen Garden
  • Organize a Workplace CSA
  • Protect Migrant Workers
Chapter 5: Connect
  • Mentor Veterans
  • Parade Cows Down Main Street
  • Throw a Living Local Fest
  • Screen a Film
  • Plant a Garden at a Jail
  • Decolonize Your Diet
  • Host Interfaith Discussions about Food
  • Bring Together Food and Religion

Chapter 6: Speak

  • Be a Witness
  • Promote Good Work
  • Keep Informed
  • Listen
  • Learn to Tell Stories
  • Hold a Poetry Workshop
  • Publish
  • Use Media
Chapter 7: Harvest
  • Create a Gleaning Network
  • Harvest Public Fruit Trees
  • Extend the Harvest
  • Forage Wild Foods
  • Start a Fillet Program
  • Choose Fish Wisely
Chapter 8: Feed
  • Support a Local Grocery Store
  • Start a Food Miles Labeling Program
  • Make Food Distribution Efficient
  • Become a Food Desert Grocer
  • Shop at Your Local Farmer's Market
  • Accept SNAP
  • Campaign to Raise the Minimum Wage
  • Start a Campaign to Tax Unhealthy Food
  • Start a Food Recovery Program
  • Bring Good Food to Hospitals
  • Reduce Food Waste at Restaurants

Chapter 9: Cook

  • Make Small Changes
  • Plan Meals
  • Grocery Shop
  • Start a Community Kitchen
  • Start a Cooking Club
  • Go Meatless on Mondays
  • Cook for Someone with Cancer
  • Host a Dinner-and-a-Movie Potluck
  • Host a Grow-Out
  • Clean Up
Chapter 10: Engage
  • Start from Where the World Is
  • Be an Active Citizen
  • Serve on a Board or Commission
  • Fund Effective Programs
  • Connect Food Policy Councils and Town Planners
  • Engage with Boards and Commissions
  • Know Your Members of Congress
  • Speak Out
  • #VoteFood

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