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Independence in the kitchen: Q&A with food writer, researcher Ali Benjamin

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After speaking at Feeding America West Michigan's November luncheon, Ali Benjamin shares her thoughts on hunger, cooking from scratch, and the American food system.
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Marching Against Hunger

Feeding America West Michigan Food Bank's Million Meal March campaign has raised almost $80,000 to fight hunger. There's more to be done. Find out how you can get involved at

Ali Benjamin spoke at Feeding America West Michigan's luncheon on Nov. 1.

Ali Benjamin spoke at Feeding America West Michigan's luncheon on Nov. 1.

Ali Benjamin is a writer and documentarian working in the groove between sustainable food activism and anti-hunger advocacy.  Her 2011 book, The Cleaner Plate Club, provides practical recipes for parents seeking independence from prepackaged foods, and her TV special, Sesame Street: Growing Hope Against Hunger, which Benjamin helped create, won an Emmy in 2012 for its portrayal of children coping with food insecurity.

On Nov. 1, Benjamin spoke at Feeding America West Michigan’s Million Meal March Awards Luncheon in Grand Rapids. She gave the following interview from her home in western Massachusetts on Nov. 14.

Feeding America West Michigan: Can you explain the connection between health and cooking?

Ali Benjamin: Wow, that’s something that I so just take for granted. Simply [for food] to be processed, there’s added sugar, there’s added chemicals, there’s added salt. Rarely does processed food include vegetables we should be eating.

Home cooking has terrific benefits for people's health, to be sure. But the benefits go well beyond that. Cooking brings people together in a way that they don't often anticipate — every family we featured in the Sesame Street program experienced a greater sense of togetherness when they started cooking at home, using more whole ingredients.

Being able to make a meal from scratch can also be incredibly empowering for families — it's a way of doing for oneself, not depending on big corporations, in a way that can be deeply satisfying.

FAWM: Why was it important for you to tell the stories of food-insecure children?

AB: I knew it was going to reach audiences that aren’t ordinarily reached with those messages. Through the whole thing, everybody that we dealt with at Sesame Street was so thoughtful and so incisive and so — I’m trying to think of a different word than demanding — but expectations were so high because it wasn’t about them, it was about the kids.

Because they have the platform and because they have the expertise and because they have that unwavering dedication to children, I knew it had the potential to kind of move the dial, to sort of shift things a little bit and shift people’s perceptions and help people get reconnected with [hunger]. And it was really fun.

FAWM: What role can Food Banks play in solving food insecurity, rather than simply assisting those who are food insecure?

AB: I talked to this guy in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It’s sort of an older population that had farmed in Puerto Rico, and they’re really coming together around food. It’s really beautiful to see these gardens set up in this community and to see these generations coming together. I was talking to them about food insecurity, and he said, we don’t talk about it in terms of feeding people now. We’re talking about feeding the next generation. My hope would be that food banks could keep an eye on those long-term needs and not only the short-term needs.

I think anything you can do to expose kids to cooking classes [is helpful]. If there’s a way to make it easy, where you get a bag, and it includes curry and onions and carrots and whatever you’re going to cook with it — it’s raw and the recipe is right in there.

If this is where people are getting their food, [food banks] totally do have a role to play in helping them figure out how to do it as healthy as possible, in the same way that, I think, schools do.

FAWM: What makes you hopeful about the American food system?

AB: I think people are talking about it. Sesame Street turned their attention to it, but they’re not the only ones. People are talking about all aspects of it in a way that I haven’t seen in my life before. There’s a kind of awareness rising, and it’s not that the solutions are easy because I don’t think they’re easy. But the fact that we’re talking about it is hopeful.

In the last year and a half, I‘ve talked to people around the country who are working in the food system and they’re so dedicated and thoughtful. I feel like there have been small pockets [of change] that are going on and if we could sort of integrate everybody, that’s really a powerful force.

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