Mackenzie Feldman: Advocating for a Toxin-Free World

The BFI alum and executive director of Herbicide Free Campus is training a nationwide cohort of campus anti-pesticide activists.

July 15, 2022
By Justina Robinson, BFI communications assistant

Mackenzie Feldman and Herbicide Free Campus LogoEarlier this year, the nonprofit Herbicide Free Campus released a report called “The State of Ecological Campus Land Management Across the US.” The report summarizes efforts at eight universities across the United States that have transitioned from conventional, synthetic pesticide use to organic land care for the betterment of campus soil health. The result of this transition, the report shows, is that these universities are creating healthier environments, while also conserving water and saving money.

But before the nationwide impact of Herbicide Free Campus, the nonprofit started right here at UC Berkeley, by two undergraduate students named Mackenzie Feldman and Bridget Gustafson.

In the spring of 2017, Feldman and Gustafson, both on Cal’s beach volleyball team, were at practice when they were notified by their coach that if the ball rolled off the court, they should just let it go because herbicides were sprayed on the surrounding grounds. Feldman, who had researched the harmful effects of these chemicals in coursework at Berkeley, was shocked about the use of these chemicals. She and Gustafson knew they had to do something, so they worked with the groundskeepers to find an alternative solution: In exchange for banning the chemicals from the courts, the team would help pull weeds.

Feldman and Gustafson didn’t stop there. Eventually, they approached the campus grounds manager to transition the entire campus to synthetic-free landscaping, while organizing student volunteer days to weed and mulch the grounds. Today, UC Berkeley is 95 percent organic, with student volunteers supporting groundskeepers through “weeding days” twice a week.

Then, upon graduation in 2018, Feldman launched Herbicide Free Campus to support Student Fellows across the country to campaign for the elimination of toxic herbicides at their respective universities. And since then, this network has been busy. HFC has led campaigns at 25 universities and counting. This upcoming fall, Student Fellows will be bringing the campaign to Princeton University, University of Michigan, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and others.

In the time since graduation, Feldman has also served as a Data for Progress Fellow, addressing the connections between food systems and climate change through policy memos for the Green New Deal. This position has allowed Feldman to bring her activism back to food systems, a long-time interest. For instance, while at UC Berkeley, Feldman served as chair of the Undergraduate Berkeley Food Institute Advisory Council and earned a Food Systems Minor. She also served as an Ambassador Fellow for the UC Global Food Initiative.

Earlier this summer, BFI sat down with Feldman to talk about her food systems interests and education, the future of Herbicide Free Campus, and any advice she could share with other students looking to be advocates for food systems and environmental change.

What originally sparked your interest in food systems and pesticides?

When I was growing up in Hawai’i, my mom was always really into eating healthy. She would drive really far to get organic milk and alternative healthy food options. But growing up in Hawai’i also shaped my perspective on food systems. Taking care of the land is a part of who Hawaiians were and who they are today. Living on an island means you have to take care of your resources. 

So it was really sad to see Hawaiian land used for GMO corn seed testing and heavy pesticide use. When I was in high school, there was a huge battle to try to get agrochemical companies like Monsanto (now Bayer), Syngenta, and Dow DuPont off the islands. Grassroots activists advocated for GMOs to be banned because they were testing and spraying an immense amount of pesticides, and a lot of people, especially low-income Hawaiians that lived closest to these contaminated sites, were getting sick. This battle was something that I cared about. Luckily, my mom did too, so we would learn about the impact of pesticides together. I never knew that I would continue to address that challenge in Berkeley, which happens to be such a good spot if you care about food.

What inspired you to get involved with the Berkeley Food Institute as a student?

I came across a flier for a BFI event. I always cared about the environment and food, so I attended, met staff, and knew this was the place to be. The fact that there was an institute committed to food studies on campus was so interesting to me. Eventually, after taking food systems courses, I changed my major to Society and the Environment in the Rausser College of Natural Resources and completed the Food Systems Minor. I also took Edible Education courses four years in a row, because it was so awesome. I went to a lot of BFI events, and it was really encouraging to know and to hear from speakers on panels that you could be a farmer, teacher, activist, or an author. If you care about food, or restaurant workers or farm workers, there are so many intersections to get involved in and make a career. It was really fascinating to me, and I appreciate BFI for providing that space.

Herbicide Free Campus’s latest report showcases the spread and agency of campuses across the US prioritizing herbicide free land management. What were some of the most exciting findings from that report?

The water conservation aspect was surprising to me. I can’t even fathom — saving millions of gallons of water a year through soil health. I expected that it would cost more and be labor intensive to have herbicide-free campuses, and I think that could be true for the first couple of years, but once you have it together, you’re really changing a system. The soil is so healthy, you don’t really need to weed, you’ll prevent weeds from coming up in the first place. If you change the soil health, it all falls into place.

I think the coolest part about all of this work is teaching students that, since they pay to attend school, they should have a say in its environment. At Grinnell College in Iowa, for example, students advocated for herbicide free landscaping, so the school is ripping up grass lawns and planting native tallgrass prairie. It changes your mindset when you’re walking around, and you think, I could change this, or, This grass is unnecessary here. Whether it’s the herbicide free campaign, or anything, there are so many things that students have the power to change.

Another big finding from the report, however, is the fact that there’s really not much data out there. Which is unfortunate, even at Berkeley. As we continue to do these transitions to organic land management, I want to make sure that data is an essential part. 

What’s next for HFC?

In 2021, we developed a year-long fellowship to pay students a stipend to bring this campaign to their campus. They meet every other week with a campus coach who helps them build the campaign. The fellowship will begin again this August for its second year.

We are also launching a campus certification program. We’re piloting it with just a couple of schools, including UC Berkeley, and then we’ll release the program to other universities. Our goal is to create a standard and a network of herbicide-free universities that will incentivize colleges to jump in on this.

Lastly, I’m really interested in figuring out how to create a good network for groundskeepers to talk and share practices and ideas. Whether that looks like a toolkit or an online platform where they could communicate, that’s something else we’ve been thinking about.

As a Cal alum, what advice would you give to students pursuing a career in food systems or environmental advocacy?

People are willing to talk with you. Even if they’re professionals, and they’re busy, more often than not they are willing to sit down and talk, and I believe those conversations are very valuable. If you can find anybody who has the path that you want, reach out to them, because you may be able to learn from them and ask them questions directly.

Additionally, I learned that you could take on multiple career goals. I remember seeing someone on a panel who was both an author and a nonprofit director. I didn’t know that you could do those things simultaneously. There are people out there that have forged this path for you already, though your version of the path will be unique. 

Following my own path, I will be attending graduate school in the fall at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley to complete an agroecology master’s program. I will still be running HFC. I like writing memos and I understand food policy, but I’ve never actually worked hands-on with farmers. I am looking forward to hearing their perspectives. We’re trying to make food systems more just or more sustainable, but we cannot ignore a huge part of the country. For me, I feel that’s something that I could do, is try to engage with more people in the food system.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.