Ali Benjamin, co-author of "The Cleaner Plate Club: Raising Healthy Eaters One Meal At a Time" shatters the stereotype of cookbook authors. "I do not love to cook. I would rather be doing other things," the Williamstown resident said. "I take the path of least resistance in making healthy meals for my family."
Benjamin plays a number of roles in life including wife, mother, free-lance writer, mentor, consultant, advocate for healthy eating, and storyteller - using her talent to rally help for victims of invisible enemies: hunger and food insecurity.
"I like to hear (such people’s) stories in different situations and figure out how to tell them in a way that moves people to action," Benjamin said.
Near and far from her home, Benjamin speaks with groups about storytelling, healthy food and hunger. Recent venues are Pine Cobble School in Williamstown, Sea Island Club, in Sea Island, Ga. and Feeding America’s "Mobilizing the Public" conference in Chicago, where she was the keynote speaker.
As Benjamin remembers it, her interest in the fight against hunger took root in the time she served in the peace corps.
"My husband and I were sent to Africa - the Ivory Coast - where there were a lot of issues with malnutrition and kids not having access to food," she said.
When the couple returned to the United States, they started a family, and as a mother, Benjamin focused on a common challenge parents face: How does one raise kids to have a healthy attitude toward eating?
In "The Cleaner Plate Club," Benjamin and co-author Beth Bader share with readers recipes for healthy meals that are appealing to children. But Benjamin pointed out, "It is not a moral failure on parents’ part if a child is reluctant to try new foods."
Now Benjamin is in the earlier stages of two book projects. "One is fiction, the other is non-fiction about an HIV positive teenager who lives in the Midwest," the Williamstown author said. "I wanted to get her story down and stayed with her for a week in her hometown."
The ever-busy Benjamin took on a new role two years ago: researcher and casting director in a team creating the documentary part of a Sesame Street prime time special, "Growing Hope Against Hunger," which speaks to children and adults with a story that celebrates community as everyone helps one another. She worked side-by-side with her sister Cynthia Wade, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker who lives in South Egremont.
Benjamin was charged with finding families who would agree to having their stories told on film. "There is not a community that has not been affected by hunger," Benjamin said. "I stuck to the Northeast."
Ultimately families who live in South New Jersey, South Bronx, Albany areas and Martha’s Vineyard were selected.
"We included rural, suburban and urban communities, working families, families dealing with chronic poverty, and a recession story," Benjamin said. "The recession pushed an estimated 20 million people into food insecurity - lots of families that had always considered themselves solidly middle class were suddenly visiting food pantries. I thought it was important that we reflect that reality.
"We had to talk frankly about race and ethnicity, because we wanted the stories to collectively look as much like America as possible. That was just one of the things that required frank discussions. We also had to talk about families financial situations, about their inability to make ends meet. These were extremely sensitive discussions."
Children who understood their family’s situation and were comfortable talking about it narrate the film. But sometimes the unexpected made it necessary to change plans. A boy who seemed a good choice for a narrator was overshadowed by a girl who turned out to be "dynamic." It meant not only replacing the boy, but making sure the girl’s family story was similar to the boy’s.
"There were a ton of really challenging and complex editorial decisions - for example, we had to rule out some really amazing families who had agreed to tell their story," Benjamin recalled.
A single father so wanted his story told that he called Benjamin. "He saw the film as an opportunity to thank all the community for all their help.
"It was hard, but I kept thinking that our obligation wasn’t to any one family - our obligation was to inspire the viewer to take action," Benjamin said.
"Growing Hope Against Hunger" aired on PBS in October of 2011 and was awarded an Emmy in 2012.
Benjamin is looking forward to "Growing Hope Against Hunger" being shown at Images Cinema on Saturday, March 9.
"Sesame Street is generously providing a giveaway for the Images’ audience - a Food for Thought kit that includes a DVD and materials about healthy eating on a budget," said Benjamin who will be a speaker at the event - a role with which she is familiar.
"But I feel funny talking about myself (in interviews)," she said. "There are great organizations working on food security. I’ve taken my daughters (age 6 and 11) to the Berkshire Food Project several times; school kids often do food drives for the Williamstown Food Pantry, which is amazing as is the Interfaith Food Pantry in North Adams; Hoosac Harvest arranges for low income residents to have access to farm shares for healthy foods.
"Those organizations are on the ground, feeding people day after day after day, what they do is a million times more important than what I do."