Martha’s Vineyard: Supporting Farmers & Food Education

Martha’s Vineyard: Supporting Farmers & Food Education

Mon 03 Oct 2011

Story by Ali Berlow

Introduction by The Food Revolution Team

Ali Berlow is, in her own words, “just a housewife”. Yet over the last six years, she has created something remarkable on Martha’s Vineyard, involving the local community in food education, sustainable growing and improving the farm-to-plate supply chain to enable people to eat local foods. Here, in her own words, Ali explains how her two projects, Island Grown Initiative and Edible Vineyard magazine, came about:

The work I do – founding Island Grown Initiative (IGI) and Edible Vineyard (EV) magazine – all comes from wanting to feed my family good, clean, fair food. I'm not a farmer, and I'll never be one. But as an eater, I need to do something to help support the people who grow and raise the food that I want to feed my children. Instead of a hoe or a tractor, I wield a laptop and a cell phone.

The first thing IGI did in 2005 was to create a farm map, so people could find locally grown food and buy it directly from the farmer. There are 28-30 small farms on Martha's Vineyard and the island is steeped in agriculture, fisheries and self-sufficiency.

Creating community, connecting the dots from the farmer to the eater – that's what I love doing. And listening. At IGI we spent a lot of time listening to what farmers need. Land, labor and access to humane slaughter are the top three. We decided to concentrate on humane slaughter. Farmers everywhere need access to good, clean, permitted slaughterhouses, so we started small and built a mobile unit to humanely process chickens. As a result, our farming community has gone from raising about 200 broilers to close to 9,000 this year because of the option to humanely slaughter on the farm.

IGI launched Island Grown Schools (IGS) in 2007. We opened it up from the get-go to all members of the community: parents, teachers, students, administration, farmers, chefs, school staff, nurses, cafeteria directors, public health officials, name it. It was come-one-come-all. And they did! Everyone has an opinion about school lunch, and IGS provided the chance for them to do something about it.

At our first community meeting, one farmer met the cafeteria director of the school in his town – they'd never met before. Within the week she had butternut squash soup from his farm on her menu! That fall, the farmer nearly sold out of squash because kids were taking their parents to his farm stand to buy his vegetables. Sweet!

Connecting farmers to cafeteria directors was at the top of our list. Again, we listened to the cafeteria directors and to the farmers, and learned so much about the barriers (real and fictional) and the misconceptions out there around school lunch. We also went on to help build and support school food gardens. In the first year, all seven island schools had a food garden and we built one multi-generational garden at a senior living facility that the high school students worked on.

IGS also connects classroom-based agricultural education to the agricultural community, via school gardens and/or visits to farms. We need to grow more farmers! IGS sponsors classroom taste-tests. When kids have a hand in growing food and tending gardens, they all eat their veggies!

One of the most successful programs IGS runs is Island Grown Gleaning (IGG). IGG organizes volunteers of all ages to harvest fresh food from Island farms that would otherwise be tilled under. Then it’s donated and distributed to school cafeterias for school meals and to others in need such as elder centers and even the jail. In this season alone, IGG has gleaned 2,000+ pounds of tomatoes, corn, beans and greens! And the gleaning season is technically just beginning. This has made fresh, healthy food available to the lunch programs, making the cafeteria directors, students, teachers, administrators and parents very, very happy!

On top of IGI, my husband and I started Edible Vineyard magazine in 2009. I've been a food writer since 2002, and as I wrote about food and people I started to look more behind the curtain: Where is food coming from, who is growing it, how far did it travel and whatever happened to the chicken, the cow, the sheep or the pig? Because all I was seeing in the grocery store was parts. Boneless, skinless six packs of breasts, thighs, drumsticks on diapers and wrapped in plastic.

We believe in access to information, education, and presenting it beautifully. As the editor, I strive for a balance of pleasure, politics, and always having good recipes to get people cooking and eating together. So the goal with every issue of Edible Vineyard is to reflect our community, tell our stories about and around food. We’ll run a piece about the Farm Bill, a local farmer or fisherman, or school lunch and also how to make a tasty slow-cooked lamb shoulder with roasted butternut squash or a zucchini chocolate cake.

Everyone that contributes to Edible Vineyard has a connection to the Island. The magazine is for locals and by locals, from Pulitzer Prize winning authors (Geraldine Brooks, for example), to new and younger voices from the community. The response has been so positive! I've learned so much. Publishing is a full contact sport!

It's all very humbling and very rewarding at the same time.

About the author: Ali Berlow is the founder and former executive director of Island Grown Initiative, a mum, a wife, and the editor of Edible Vineyard. Originally from Madison, Wisconsin, Sam and Ali have two sons, Max and Elijah, and have lived on the Island for 17 years

Images: © Elizabeth Cecil


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