Grassroots efforts, urban farms find creative ways to feed communities

| Tuesday, March 22, 2016, 9:00 p.m.

Ali Berlow likes the simple approach to remaking America's food system. �

Start in your community with small steps that can make a big difference toward bringing fresh, wholesome food to anyone, she writes in her new book, “The Food Activist Handbook” (Storey Publishing).

The book is filled with practical tips, lessons learned, statistics and solutions. Peppered throughout is a reminder: “You can do this.”

Berlow aggregates information from others on how to start — to educate, to build, grow, connect, speak out, harvest, cook better meals and feed communities.

“I really am a firm believer in meeting people where they are. Education is obviously a major force in that but, also, well, just being kind, nonjudgmental,” says Berlow, author of “The Mobile Poultry Slaughterhouse,” co-owner of Edible Vineyard magazine and founder of Island Grown Initiative on Martha's Vineyard.

Her activism began in 2007 after she read Michael Pollan's groundbreaking book, “The Omnivore's Dilemma,” which examines the relationship between food and society, and the American way of eating.

“It left me feeling overwhelmed, defeated,” she says. She decided even small actions can have great impact. “You can affect your community wherever your skills are, or however it strikes your passion.”

Food activism can mean many things — getting local ingredients into school cafeterias, starting a composting program or community garden or gleaning food left in fields or discarded by purveyors. Many food pantries grow some food and prefer canned goods that aren't high in sodium or sugar.

“I feel like we've lost some generations of being closer to our food,” Berlow says. “It's a combination of marketing, post-World War II convenience of food and technologies that shifted how food can be preserved.”

Berlow prefers to work with the system, rather than demonize the food industry. “I feel hopeful. When I speak to young adults now, they know something's wrong, and it's time to fix it,” she says.

On the home front

In Pittsburgh, the Garfield Community Farm began in 2008 as a small garden plot and has grown to two acres with a bio-shelter and passive solar greenhouse. The farm sells fruits and vegetables at a nearby public housing community at affordable prices and offers work to neighborhood residents.

“I'm amazed every week, when we have weekly volunteer days, just who shows up,” says the Rev. John Creasy, associate pastor at Open Door Church, which started the farm with Valley View Presbyterian Church. “I think it's because we just went for it and created something, and others are able to come and see and try to emulate it in other areas.”

The farm sells microgreens and edible flowers to restaurants, donates food to Valley View's pantry, grows hops for a brewery and gives beekeepers room for hives. It keeps eight chickens and three rabbits. It has apple, pear, peach, plum and hazelnut trees and four types of berry bushes.

Local chefs take part in how they source their foods.

“Anybody who has the purchasing power, it's a responsibility to source what you sell thoughtfully,” says chef Curtis Gamble, 33, of Regent Square, who buys from the farm for his Bloomfield restaurant, Station.

“It's something we need to definitely support, have a candid conversation about — where people spend their money when they go out to eat, and where restaurants that are generating revenue spend their money,” he says.

Gamble learned the importance of promoting good food while working in Chicago and as executive chef at the Cafe at Frick, which has a greenhouse.

“It couldn't be a more exciting time to be a cook in America,” Gamble says. “This stuff is finally starting to catch on.”

Creasy, 38, lives about a mile from the farm that covers three city blocks. “Older people in the neighborhood remember when there was a community orchard at the top of the hill in Garfield,” he says. “Then you talk to teenagers, and a lot of them are studying in school about the need for good, healthy food, and they get it — they see it happening in their neighborhood.”

Giselle Fetterman, 34, doesn't question people who seek food at her Braddock Free Store. “We ask only three things: be kind, take only what you need, and pay it forward,” says Fetterman, a mother of three and wife of Braddock Mayor John Fetterman.

She saw poverty while growing up in Brazil and laments the statistics that say one in six Americans go hungry in a country that wastes 40 percent of its food.

“I'm for food justice,” Giselle Fetterman says. “I think access to food should be fair, and everyone should have access to good food. We have more than enough to feed everyone.”

Fetterman and food writer Leah Lizarondo started 412 Food Rescue and had such success with partner Costco that they expanded the program to all of Allegheny County. The warehouse club donates food that is mislabeled or orders that were too large by mistake.

“Once, we got these beautiful peaches,” Fetterman recalls. “I asked, ‘Why are you giving me these? They're amazing!' and they said the boxes said they were yellow peaches, but they were actually white peaches. So, because of that typo, we received, literally, 1 ton of peaches.

“And this is one grocery store in one community, so you really get the idea of how we can have 40 percent of food wasted in America.”

In a year's time, 412 Food Rescue has grown to 61 donor sites, including Whole Foods, GFS and McGinnis Sisters. It has provided nearly 400,000 pounds of food through 108 sites — social service agencies, schools, shelters and housing associations.

“It's allowed anyone to become a food activist,” Fetterman says. “If you rescued a box of food from Trader Joe's and delivered it to us, you yourself just fed a family.”

A.J. Bisesi learned about food security while in Rwanda from 2010 to 2013 with the Peace Corps. People grew starchy beans to fill kids' stomachs. She taught the kids to grow vegetables.

“My primary joy from this whole project was the way these kids came together in this,” says Bisesi, 28, a Cleveland transplant who works with Grow Pittsburgh and the Garfield farm. She graduated from Duquesne University in December and wants to buy a house at the farm and add goats to its mix.

Bisesi believes most people, given access, would choose nutritious, whole foods over processed, industrial foods.

“Older residents know what's good for them, and even a lot of younger mothers,” she says. “One of the hardest things for them is knowing they can't afford that. It's double guilt — ‘I'm buying this for my kid because it's all I can afford, and I know it's bad for my kid.'”

Teaching people to make better choices can be as simple as “the words we use,” Bisesi says. “The word ‘organic' is often a big barrier; it means white and expensive. A word like ‘homegrown' is a lot more understood.”

Sandra Tolliver is a freelance writer in Upper St Clair. Reach her at tllvrs22@gmail.com.

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