Breakthrough Food Leader Sheree Martin: College Professor, Lawyer, Farmer

Sheree Martin joins our Breakthrough Leaders Program for Sustainable Food Systems this June. She is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Samford University in Birmingham, Alabama, a lawyer, and grew up on a farm in North Alabama.

Why are you attending the Breakthrough Leaders Program?

I want to take on a leadership role to rebuild a local food system in Alabama. We have lots of small movements that seem to be moving in this direction, but I really want to help take it to the next level by using my legal experience to advocate policy changes. I hope also to eventually make my family’s farm in Colbert County a contributor to sustainable, local food production in North Alabama.

What about our food systems do you want to change?

Nearly everything.  What most people don’t realize is that so-called “cheap food” comes with other costs (health, environmental, tax subsidies, etc.)  that are being externalized by the industrial food production system – and we all pay the price.

How did you come to be in the role you are currently in? What was your journey?

In some ways, it’s like the rest of the world is finally catching up to me. I’ve always loved what I call “real food.” My parents weren’t vegetarians, but they preferred home-cooked vegetables, dried beans and fish/seafood over meat and poultry. By the time I was 13, I could cook just about anything from scratch.

As a result of reading the Foxfire books, My Side of the Mountain by Jean George, and Thoreau in the 1970s, I had a keen interest in natural foods and “living off the land.” Unlike most teens, I preferred whole wheat breads, yogurt, granola, broccoli and alfalfa sprouts to burgers and fries.

I always felt the continuing pull toward a life outdoors. But I was busy with college, law school and building a career. In summer 2005, I planted my own first real backyard garden and, in learning first-hand how to grow my food, I discovered there were others like me who were concerned about the industrialization of our food system.

How did you get involved with the local foods movement?

In 2007-2009, I lived and practiced law in Tuscaloosa, where I discovered Epiphany, a restaurant that emphasized local and regionally-produced foods and got acquainted with the chef, Tres Jackson. In Birmingham, I discovered a vibrant farm-to-table movement and “food scene.” It occurred to me last year that I could make sustainable agriculture, food and environmental issues the focus of my scholarship and writing. And that’s where I am now.

How does being an academic and lawyer translate to the food world?

Effective communication will be the key to bringing about real change in our food system. As a lawyer and teacher, I’m accustomed to taking complex ideas and explaining them in a way that most people can understand.

What lessons have you learned from your work so far that would benefit other food leaders?

How to use many channels to communicate our message, including how to effectively use social media to build relationships. It’s not enough to simply “broadcast” messages through various media channels. We must craft unique messages and engage with many different audiences.

What was your most memorable meal to date? Why?

When I was in law school back in the 1980s I lived one summer in a one-room studio apartment on Miami Beach with no real kitchen, and I quickly grew tired of restaurant meals. In July, I flew home for a visit. My mom cooked a typical family meal for me, all fresh from the garden: Purple-hull peas, steam-fried okra (it’s quite different from the standard “fried okra” you may have experienced), squash, corn, cornbread and huge tomatoes. That was the first time I can remember taking a photo of a meal to share with friends. And I still have the photo.

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