Interview With Ali Berlow, Author of the Food Activist Handbook

BY ON June 1, 2016

The Food Activist Handbook by Ali Berlow cover

o kick off our School’s Out Food Drive, we have a special interview with Ali Berlow, the author of The Food Activist Handbook:

Your Food Activist Handbook is clearly a labor of love, offering inspiration and guidance to virtually everyone who yearns to improve the way we eat. Where did your passion for food activism come from?

My mom is a chemist, she was very experimental in the kitchen, and my father loved food. He used to make sauerkraut and baked bread every Friday night, like a meditation, fresh out of the oven slathered with butter and honey.

In college, I was a student-athlete, so I cared about what I ate more from a performance perspective. After I became a mom and started cooking for my family — that’s when I became more aware about issues and impacts of food – and started to pay closer attention and take action beyond the blue flame of my stove.

I was mostly a grocery-store shopper, but those anonymous, plastic-wrapped packages of meat on Styrofoam trays and diaper-paper, the fruits and vegetables that looked pretty but didn’t taste good, contaminated factory farmed fish, it all got to me. Instead, I turned towards the farmers and fishermen in my region.

That way, I am supporting my community’s local economy and when opportunities arise, I can ask questions about the food, even when I feel like my questions betray my ignorance. But that’s how we learn!

I’m no farmer, barely a gardener, and certainly not a fisherman. Ultimately, my “ah-ha” moment happened because of a very ill-conceived plan with some friends to raise a couple of pigs, then slaughter and butcher them for our freezers.

To this day I have great remorse that the slaughter went horribly wrong, as I write in my book.

After that terrible experience, I resolved that never would another animal be tortured in the name of ‘local’, if I had anything to do with it. I became an animal-welfare advocate and ended up building a humane mobile poultry slaughterhouse that’s still running today. I’m really proud of the difference that it has made for farmers, as I documented in my first book, The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse.

But my activism isn’t just about writing or talking about my own personal experiences. It’s about good, healthy food as a right for everyone. (Tweet this) It’s about being a human being. This is about the environment. Consider these statistics:

These statistics and information overload may leave you feeling overwhelmed and defeated, the same way I did when I started learning more about food. But taking action is empowering. That’s hope. And that’s what you can do. Just start.

In the decade or so since you hosted your original “Potluck with a Purpose,” which launched your Island Grown Initiative and oh-so-much much more, what has surprised you the most about the way things have evolved? What’s been the biggest challenge? 

For me, the challenge is encouraging people to take the first step. And then for the collective-us, the biggest challenge is supporting each other to keep going when we run into obstacles. We’re all in this together. Whenever you start something new, there’s going to be barriers and people in power who resist change.

We can’t go back to how we used to produce food. That would be regressive, reactionary, and unrealistic. We need to look forward and demand regulations that support local and regional food. We can use our technology and communications skills to share innovations, long-lost traditions, and collective wisdoms. All politics is local, including food politics.

Be kind, and don’t lose sight of where you came from. Meet people where they are at and empower them.

You write about the need to make water our go-to beverage instead of sodas and other sugary drinks, but marketers spend millions enlisting celebrities to peddle soda pop to their adoring fans. Any thoughts on how to compete with that?

#30 in my book is Golden State Warriors Stephen Curry! Never underestimate the power of a sports super hero. One of Curry’s endorsements is Brita. Could this be the start of star power shifting?

Also check out Dunk the Junk campaign and Drink Up, a project from Partnership for a Healthier America.

At the local level, get the sports and energy drinks out of your athletic programs, booster clubs, community centers, YMCAs. Get soda out of YMCAs, hospitals, schools, public parks, and places of workship—any place where food, water and community intersect. Help get the word out by hosting a screening of Fed Up at your local library followed up with do-able actions that you can start today.

When we talk about changing the way people eat, we often discuss the need to make ‘better’ choices, but as you so thoughtfully note, it’s essential to ‘suspend judgment’ when encouraging people to think more deeply about their food choices. What are some alternative ways to frame this discussion that don’t alienate people who sincerely want to embrace healthier foods but may be intimidated or confused?

Our food choices are personal, emotional, and shaped by economics. I think it’s important to reframe the discussion around a sense of place, and the history and culture of the foods we eat. How is it changing? We are a very diverse country, destined in a few decades to be a Minority-Majority Nation.

How will that impact what farmers and fishermen grow and catch, and what cooks cook? The kitchen is a huge economic driver of what foods are brought to market. We consumers have a lot of power and we’re agile. The National Farm to School Network helps support communities with programming. Children growing up with a farm to school education are going to be well-informed good-food consumers and voters.

With each food purchase you make, you are choosing the growers, processors, and distributors who’ve made that food available. With each ingredient you buy, you’re choosing a food system. That’s power. Good whole fresh food should not be more expensive than highly processed food.

One of the tyrannies of highly processed and industrial food is its consistency. It’s exactly the same sugar-salt-fat wherever you buy it. It’s flattened out our taste buds, culture, history, the taste of any season or region, and made us sicker and fatter. When we put cooking, place and season back into the equation it steers us towards a healthier and more equitable food chain.

You mention that now would be a great time for our schools to bring back Home Economics. What would your dream Home Ec curriculum look like?

Food is health and joy. School curriculums would include how to shop at the grocery store, farmers’ markets and fishmongers. We have this incredible gift of taste buds and the ability to delight them. There’s a wealth of beautiful, creative, inspiring ingredients, spices, and herbs available to us. Taste, texture, process – it’s a creative delicious experience.

I’d also like to see the inclusion of personal and alternative health care options, multi-generational cooking and gardening, how to keep a kitchen garden, how to put up food, minimize food and packaging waste. Kitchen first-aid and pesky-pest management. And how to sew on a button, change a flat tire, maintain a bicycle. Learn to cook and enjoy eating with family and friends!

Your book makes great use of poems, lyrics and quotes from a wonderfully eclectic group of people. Do you have a favorite poem about farming or food?

I’ll keep it short…

Bacon & Eggs
The chicken contributes,
But the pig gives his all.
by Howard Nemerov

And also check out Clint Smith’s spoken poem Place Matters about ‘food deserts’.

The MCAF community thrives on inclusion, but we are always seeking ways to reach out to even more folks who want to embrace safe and healthy living, do you have any parting words of encouragement to help us with this mission?

If you’ve read this far, first off let me say thank you! I am really grateful to have this opportunity. Most importantly, though — you know what you need to do because you know your community, your neighborhood, town, city. There is no cavalry that is coming. It’s up to us.

Follow your heart, be kind, use your voice, start small. Because small changes add up to big changes in the world. This really is about health and nutrition, and the gift of how food makes us strong. I believe that how we eat impacts how we feel and how our bodies work. Finding that power, wherever ANY of us may be, is the start of everything.

Ali Berlow, author of The Food Activist Handbook

Ali Berlow, author of The Food Activist Handbook

Ali Berlow is an author and activist who lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts and Putney, Vermont. Learn more about her work at

Find out how you can participate in Moms Clean Air Force’s School’s Out Food Drive HERE.




TOPICS: Activism, Food, Motherhood