Food Fight opens with a bit of history about food production and America's eating habits over the past half century. Beautifully shot and well written, we are treated to a series of interviews with food luminaries such as Alice Waters, Dan Barber, Wolfgang Puck and Michael Pollan, who frankly, hold exactly the same views about food, cooking and eating as I do. It's no accident that I agree with them. These are the people who created the local, seasonal food movement as we know it today and who are at the forefront of trying to exact some change in the way Americans shop and eat.
Most of what is available to us in the grocery store today is barely edible; tasteless vegetables cultivated for ease of shipping and processed foods that are making us fat and sick. Director Chris Taylor clearly points the finger of blame at Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon. Mr. Butz was charged with the responsibility of providing the American public with a cheap, reliable source of food. His response was to have a small number of farmers grow corn and plenty of it, resulting in the ruin of the small local farmer growing a wider variety of foods. Corn is now the major ingredient in the foods Americans eat.
As I was watching all of these glamorous chefs being interviewed in the film, I was aware of my husband getting restless beside me. We were both thinking at the same time, just how much of a revolution is this? We can't afford to eat at Chez Panisse or Spago, and we don't live in sunny California, the land of year round farmers' markets. Just as he finished saying "this is awfully elite", one of the women being interviewed used exactly that word.
I am a huge supporter of farmers' markets and I spent the entire summer writing a series of posts on Planet Green entitled Find Your Dinner at the Farmers' Market, but I am well aware that shopping there is a luxury. The cost of the local fruit and vegetables is significantly higher at the market than the produce in my neighbourhood grocery store, which comes largely, of course, from California. My elderly mother has no access to a farmers' market and living as she does on a fixed pension, she couldn't afford to in any case and I'm sure she isn't alone. We also live in an intemperate climate, where the only local vegetables available from now until May are turnips, rutabagas, beets, potatoes, winter carrots, parsnips...you get the idea.
Will Allen (who just won a $500,000 MacArthur Fellow Award this past October) pointed out that most people living in the downtown areas of their cities get their food from the corner store and have no opportunity whatsoever to purchase fresh fruit or vegetables. And this is the rub for me, the quibble that I have with the film, although it's a small one. For me there was too much focus on the charismatic chefs and marveling at the array of beautiful vegetables at the farmers' market.
I believe the real issue is not about getting the producers to the farmers' markets and getting the middle class to buy their wares, or getting chefs to use local, seasonal produce. We've already achieved that. The real issue now is getting local fruits vegetables into the stores where people actually shop, into the neighbourhoods where they live, and to make healthy eating available and affordable for people with lower incomes. There is a telling clip of a young Alice Waters in the early days of Chez Panisse sitting by the edge of her garden and saying in a voice edged with panic "I can't believe I have to make salad for 300 people out of this little garden". I can't help but think that that is exactly what ran through the head of Earl Butz, only writ large over the entire country.
If you live in the Los Angeles area, make your way over to the Mann Chinese Theater on this Saturday afternoon for the free AFI Screening of Food Fight. This is a really intelligent, well made film that has a lot to say about something that affects every person, every single day. It's well worth it. You can check out their Food Fight website as well.