Author and activist Ali Berlow will be joining the mainstage on October 1 for our “Citizen Eaters” segment. Her book, The Food Activist Handbook gives the reader everyday advice on how to get involved in the food revolution and bring our food systems back to health. Every step is important, from the simple to the complex. What’s essential is taking that first step. Below is an excerpt from her book.
“Find a way.”
— 64-year-old Diana Nyad’s mantra during her record-breaking swim from Cuba to Florida, without a shark cage, on September 2, 2013
My mom kept a sketch of my father’s heart on a piece of scrap paper taped to the inside of a kitchen cabinet. His cardiologist drew it to explain what my father’s heart disease looked like, how his six-foot-four body was reacting to it, and what his impending heart surgery was to achieve.
By that time in his life, his mid-60s, my father was overweight, with high blood pressure and blocked arteries due to too much food, too much stress, and not enough exercise. The sketch showed how my father’s body had creatively built a circumnavigation system to deliver blood and oxygen around the blockages in his heart. The slow, inefficient system was an energy drain, but his body made it work for a while, with Western medicine’s help.
Despite its damaged state, my father’s body made detours and relied on them.
That is what’s happening with our food system today. The heart of our system is sick, but we have created alternative systems to get people their food. And so we have an entirely separate distribution system that began as emergency food banks and is now a thin and thinning thread of food security for 40 million people. We have a federal food and farm bill and policies that make real food more expensive while subsidizing raw materials like corn, soy, and rapeseed that are turned into processed food by adding sugar, salt, fat, preservatives, and so on. Our farm bill calls whole fresh food “specialty crops.” Those crops include tomatoes, broccoli, cabbage, apples, and greens. It has become legal and profitable to ship chickens raised and slaughtered in the United States to China, where the meat is processed and then sent back to America as food. We allow U.S. citizens, including children, to labor unprotected in fields, planting and harvesting food that they themselves cannot eat because they cannot afford it. The 2014 poverty line for a family of four, defined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, is $23,850 — and the average farmworker family of four makes just $17,500 (see Who Grows Our Food?, page 157). At the same time, the local food movement, which strives to create more resilient, just, fair, and equitable systems of food production, distribution, and consumption within identified regions, remains stuck, perceived and tagged as “elitist.”
In a fable attributed to the Cherokee, an elder describes to his grandson a terrible fight going on inside him, a fight between two wolves. One is evil: he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. The other is good: he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you, and inside every other person, the elder tells his grandson.
The boy wants to know which wolf will win.
The one you feed, the old man says, simply.
Which system are we feeding? We have a choice. There is a daily balancing act in the struggle to meet human needs. People on a large scale must have food, but thinking only on that large scale has led to an emphasis on quantity over quality. In the contrails of the Green Revolution, we are feeding seven billion people on our planet. And we are balancing an outsized, industrialized, corporate consolidation of food production and processing that ultimately wreaks havoc on public health, the environment, and livelihoods with small-scale production and locally focused economically sustainable growth, processing, and distribution of whole, fresh foods. Creating access to healthy foods for everyone, so that we can escape the downward spiral of an inefficient and unjust food system, requires action and forward thinking. Like my father’s heart, our food system has reached a crisis point, and we need to make it healthy again.
Excerpted from The Food Activist Handbook © 2015 by Alice Jane Berlow. Used with permission by Storey Publishing.