Archive for the ‘food in films’ Category

What’s On Your Plate? Food for Thought for All Ages

March 31, 2010

While we’re on the subject of kids, school, and food this week, here’s a shout out for a film I’m going to have to find room for on my top ten food documentaries list.

What’s On Your Plate? features two New York City middle school students, Sadie Rain Hope-Gund and Safiyah Kai Russell Riddle, taking viewers on a food tour that’s as entertaining as it is educational as they set out on a mission to figure out where their meals come from.

The 76-minute film is part of the current Whole Foods Let’s Retake Our Plates film series and has run on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green. Click here for screenings and watch a trailer here.

This doco is directed by veteran social justice film-maker Catherine Gund, mom to one of the budding food activists. The dynamic diet-conscious duo spend a year in front of the camera as they explore their place in the food chain, and ask questions about where the food they eat comes from, how it’s grown, and how far it travels from the farm to their fork.

Pitching this flick to a Hollywood agent you’d sum it up as two urban Nancy Drews meets Food, Inc., as The Atlantic did.

The girl guides talk to friends, family, food activists, farmers, food sellers — and each other — as they investigate issues around health, environment, nutrition, food security, and access. The interviews with politicians and public school food officials are classic. The break beat poet is fresh and funky.

It’s packed with so many teachable moments in bite-sized bits that I suspect it will engage many kids in a conversation about eating. And the tone is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental. We learn Sadie has genetically-linked high cholesterol controlled by diet, and that Safiyah’s family is vegetarian.

On a recent tour of a middle school in my neck of the woods, I saw a sign for a class called “What’s On Your Plate?” and I wonder if it’s based on the film’s 64-page companion curriculum guide on school food, health and access, and local food. (It’s spring break in Berkeley this week, so I can’t confirm).

I hope so. What’s On Your Plate? is a terrific teaching tool, told in the cadence of 11-year-old kids. Pretty savvy and sophisticated multi-racial city kids with deep connections on the food front. But kids nonetheless. Concepts like high fructose corn syrup get equal billing with a popular edible food-like product known as Funyuns.

The film works best when we meet people the tweens find organically. Like the folks who front the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in their area, the Latino Angel family farmers, who struggle to make a living on the land in upstate New York, and the school dad who had a heart attack that proved a wake-up call for his family’s eating habits.

I was less jazzed to see the typical talking heads of the good food movement. But I’m a somewhat jaded adult and many kids won’t know Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, both of whom, to be fair, bring important ideas to the table.

The film ends, fittingly, with a wrap party where food plays a central role. There’s even cute animation and cool music too.

Less scary than Food, Inc., less sensational than Food Revolution, and less sad than both these edible exposes, What’s On Your Plate? does what children have always done best. It offers hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Who knew you could grow raspberries in a window box in Manhattan?  You can! The kids even help the Angel family organize a CSA to fund the farm. Clearly, the youngest generation of edible entrepreneurs can bring about change in their communities.

A good choice for family movie night, I’m looking forward to watching it with my own 11 year old. I know he’s going to love that school science experiment involving marshmallows, walnuts, and those Funyuns.

Playful, positive, personal, and political without being preachy, What’s On Your Plate? is worth watching. So kudos to the kids and the movie-making mom, who made a wise decision to let the children tell the story.

Photos: Courtesy Aubin Pictures

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10 Top Documentary Food Films

March 6, 2010

Since Food, Inc. is up for an Oscar on Sunday, it seems as good a time as any to compile a list of documentary food films worth watching.

A recent post on favorite feature films that focus on food garnered a lot of comments — and sparked a movie mystery that remains unsolved. For cinematic sleuths, check out the comments by “can’t remember,” and see if you can put your finger on the name of the mystery flick.

Thanks to regular readers Susan Rubin and Margaret Phillips for input for this post.

In alpha order, a list of ten real food films worth viewing while noshing on a modest-sized serving of organic, non-GMO popcorn.

1. Dirt: The Movie (2009)

A funny, thoughtful, and, um grounded look at the fundamental ingredient vital to everything that feeds us.

2. Food Fight (2008)

An amusing account of modern American ag policy and food culture that sprouted a counter-revolution among veggie-obsessed Californians.

3. Food, Inc. (2008)

The rock stars of the ethical eating movement — Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser — weigh in on all that is wrong in America’s industrialized food system. Methinks my son summed up this film best: “Sometimes the scariest films are the ones that are real.”

4. Fresh (2009)

Down with the corporate behemoths of the American food economy who threaten the country’s food security, livelihood of small farmers, and our choices as consumers. This doco features fresh thinking from urban farming activist Will Allen and sustainable farmer Joel Salatin.

5. Killer at Large (2008)

This film tackles the giant-sized topic of America’s obesity epidemic with talking heads and the story of a 12-year-old who undergoes liposuction.

6. King Corn (2007)

Two friends head to the heartland to learn a thing or two about how food is farmed and where food comes from.

7. Super Size Me (2004)

Cult classic with Morgan Spurlock eating his way to bad health on a month’s worth of Maccas. Required viewing for fast food fans.

8. The Garden (2008)

A group of mostly working class, Latino South Central Farmers fought the good fight — and they’re still at it — for the basic human need to grow food, in this Academy Award nominated film.

9. The Future of Food (2004)

Deborah Koons Garcia reveals the unappetizing truth about genetically modified foods: Do you really know what you’re dishing up for dinner?

10. The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2006)

A flamboyant farmer turns his family’s dying farm into a thriving CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Bonus: He flaunts a feather boa while driving his tractor.

11. Food Stamped (2010?)

Special mention to a work-in-progress: A film-and-food couple reveal how hard it is to eat well on a really tight budget.

Okay, what’s missing — or doesn’t deserve to be in this line up? You know you have an opinion, oh yes you do. Let me know below.

Favorite Food Films

February 19, 2010

How many fabo feature flicks can you think of where food is the focus?

My friend Jim Kahn and I were mulling over this very matter recently as we chatted about the marvelous Meryl Streep.

While Julie & Julia was obviously a meal of a movie, the pleasures of the table also got more than a cameo role in another recent Streep vehicle, It’s Complicated. Check out what my friend Cheryl Sternman Rule has to say about the latter movie’s memorable food moments over at ivillage.

Jim and I started rattling off a list of food films that deserve fanfare.

Five Easy Pieces, When Harry Met Sally, Joy Luck Club, and Moonstruck all have stellar food scenes but arguably aren’t food films per se.

Here’s what our Top Ten Food Flicks looks like in alpha order:

1. Babette’s Feast (1987)

The Danish do dinner in the desolate countryside courtesy of a young housekeeper who turns out to know a thing or two about French food.

2. Big Night (1978)

Larger-than-life characters consume the screen in this funny family caper about an Italian restaurant on the brink of bankruptcy.

3. Chocolat (2000)

Sexy single mama Juliette Binoche shares the sensual delights of chocolate with the rural French who resist its charms–and hers–but not for long.

4. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Ang Lee loves a wedding banquet. This meditation on food and family, culture and cooking, features a Taiwanese chef who loses his sense of taste and his picky eater daughters.

5. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

An American story about enduring female friendships, Southern hospitality, and the regional specialties served up at a local café.

6. Julie & Julia (2009)

Meryl Streep eats up the screen as Julia Child. Amy Adams plays the frustrated office worker and fledgling blogger channeling her inner Julia.

7. Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

A young Mexican couple barred from marrying express their passion through cooking and eating.

8. Pieces of April (2003)

Ultimate oddball Thanksgiving dinner film featuring a wonderful performance by Katie Holmes before Cruise control killed her career.

9. Ratatouille (2007)

Animated Pixar pic stars Remy the rat who aspires to be a great chef despite family opposition — and the obvious obstacle of being a rodent in a rat-phobic profession. But follow those food fantasies: Remy sets the French cooking scene on fire.

10. Tampopo (1987)

Jim calls this the ultimate Japanese noodle Western. Widow seeking to make the perfect bowl of ramen gets help from an unlikely source.

11. Waitress (2007)

Sweet American indie featuring the late Adrienne Shelly who bakes her way to a better life.

Okay, that’s 11, but who’s counting?

Clearly cinematographers love to get in the kitchen.  Find other food film lists here, chef pics here, reader raves here.

Coming soon: Eat, Pray, Love, based on the book of the same name, which will no doubt feature Italian, Indian, and Indonesian fare.

What do you think of this list? Granted it’s skewed towards recent rom-coms pairing culinary pursuits and passions of the hearts. Hence all the chocolate.

Did I give your favorite foodie film the flick? What’s missing? Racked my brain for a great Aussie food film, alas I couldn’t come up with one.

Where’s the golden oldie featuring food — even if it’s in black and white? Where’s the Indian feast flick? A French food film classic, actually made in France? A soul food big screen treat?

I’m sure I’m leaving out loads of other sumptuous cinematic offerings.

Feel free to correct the record below.

What’s Cooking with Julie & Julia

August 22, 2009

Meryl Streep

There’s been loads of ink spilt on the foodie flick Julie & Julia. Indeed, I may well be the last food writer on the planet to weigh in on the film. If you’ve been out to lunch, this is the movie where Meryl joyously channels Julia Child and Amy Adams has the unenviable task of attempting to match her on screen as Julie Powell, whose claim to fame is her highly successful blog-turned-book Julie & Julia, which chronicles her kitchen adventures as she ploughs through the recipes in Child’s classic cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Lots of snarky stuff bandied about regarding Ms. Powell on the web and elsewhere. I don’t quite get all the meanness and I’m not alone.  Dianne Jacobs neatly sums up all the whining on her blog Will Write for Food. It seems to center on the fact that Julie is neither a chef nor a writer before she embarks on her online project (some may sniff she isn’t either of these things now). Could, um, jealousy be at work here? Just a guess. Regardless, there’s no denying her admittedly gimmicky conceit — and its popularity — helped to bring Julia Child’s story to the screen. Not a bad thing, folks.

Could the talented Ms. Streep have carried a bio-epic on the entertaining Julia Child on her own? You betcha. Would it have put bottoms — and young ones at that — on movie theater seats? Debatable. Regardless, while I agree that it would be great if seriously good food films like Food, Inc. and Food Stamped got the kind of attention this movie has, at the end of the day, it’s a Nora Ephron vehicle people. Relax and enjoy a delicious romp.

Here’s what I’ve been chewing over since leaving the theater: Both these women found themselves through food, pursued their passion for cooking with great gusto, and married this obsession with a burning desire to write. Both showed courage and determination in reaching their goals despite setbacks.  Both did time in boring government gigs and were supported by kind and loving hubbies. Neither of them had children. I wonder if either would have achieved the recognition they earned if they’d had kids in the kitchen.

What do you think? Oh, and there’s one more takeaway message from this movie: Butter is a glorious thing.

Food, Inc. May Make You Lose Your Lunch

June 30, 2009

A film about what we eat could well win the award for the best horror flick showing in theaters this summer. Take a look, if you’re game, at Food, Inc., though a heads up for animal lovers and vegetarians: This documentary is hard to stomach.

If you’ve read both Fast Food Nation by writer Eric Schlosser, a Food, Inc. co-producer,  and Omnivore’s Dilemma by author Michael Pollan, dubbed the ethical epicurean by the New York Times, you may feel like there’s nothing new to be said on the subject of mass produced food. Nonetheless, these two food gurus serve as the talking heads on this doco by Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Robert Kenner.  In the course of the film Schlosser rightly refers to himself as an investigative reporter. As a journalist with a muckraking past, I was pleased to hear the term and disheartened that it now applies to covering what we consume. Still, as a mostly vegetarian farmers’ market fan, I also figured I was immune to the evil things cooked up by the multinational food conglomerates that Pollan and Schlosser calmly and methodically feed us throughout the film.

Wrong on both counts. I was surprised and outraged all over again about what’s happened to how food is grown and sold in the U.S. and how a few large companies control almost all the food served up in supermarkets. Consider, too, as the film does, a poor Latino family of four who deal with a dilemma faced by many working Americans, namely how to eat cheaply and well. When a burger costs a buck at a drive-through and you can’t even get a pound of broccoli for that, what are you going to do? Deal with a dad with type 2 diabetes and a young daughter well on the way to getting the disease, that’s what.

And don’t get me started on the whole soybean seed saga. Turns out Monsato, a chemical company infamously known for producing both DDT and Agent Orange, has the monopoly on that franchise — its patented a gene in 90 percent of the country’s soybean seeds — and uses its multimillion-dollar muscles to squeeze out any small-time, old-school, seed-saving farmer who stands in their way. Nice.

Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm yogurt is supposed to play the role of the bright spot amid the gloom.  Hmmm. Not sure I buy that one. We watch as Hirshberg starts selling his organic yogurt to Wal-Mart and listen as he tells us that every food purchase is a political act. There’s an ironic moment when an organic dairy farmer tells the fresh-faced Wal-Mart reps that her family has boycotted the chain store for years. And we learn that Stonyfield was recently bought by global behemoth Groupe Danone, the France-based makers of Dannon yogurt. Call me a worrywart, this kind of corporate match-up makes me nervous. Despite the film’s lively use of music and graphics and a catchy call to action at the end it all feels a bit bleak — until Schlosser points out that Big Tobacco eventually took a beating from consumer activists — take that corporate corn lobby!  I hope he’s right. Time will tell.

Hungry to see the film for yourself? A word to the wise: Have a meal before heading to this movie. And skip the artificially-buttered, non-organic, genetically-modified popcorn, which, as the screen reveals, is a big part of what’s wrong with the current food system.  As for high-fructose corn syrup? It’s the stuff of nightmares in our house now.

The last word goes to my son, who sat cowering in his seat for much of the playing time, when he wasn’t whispering, ” Mum, why did you bring me to see this movie?” Mind you, this is a kid with a healthy appetite for screen violence, fantasy films featuring orphaned children, and other frightening standard movie fare.  But animal abuse, E. coli, and early death by diet — it’s enough to turn a young one off his food forever. As he said on the way out, “Sometimes the scariest films are the ones that are real.”

Food, Inc. screens nationally, check local listings for details.

This is the third in a trilogy of food-themed films reviewed here this season. Read about the documentaries The Garden and Food Stamped in previous blog posts. And chime in if you have your own recommendation in this genre. I hear, for instance, that both King Corn and Dirt! The Movie are good, but haven’t seen either documentary yet. Have you?

Food Stamped: A Film For Our Times

June 22, 2009

Who knew that a documentary on the food stamp program could be funny, infuriating, informative, and entertaining? Food Stamped sets out to answer a simple but important question: Is it possible to eat well for a week on the federal supplemental food aid program?

In this new film nutrition educator Shira Potash and her movie-maker husband Yoav take the food stamp challenge — with a healthy twist. At a screening last Saturday night we watch as the engaging twosome shop for inexpensive, wholesome food, plan menus for a week of eating on just a $1 a meal, and cook from scratch every night such nutritious recipes as Sweet Potato and Swiss Chard Frittata. The couple trade coffee for organic lettuce, stock up on free grocery store samples of outlawed items like cheese and chocolate (deemed too exxy on their tight budget), harvest herbs from their garden, and forage in the garbage bins of whole-grain bakers.  (What’s with all the dumpster diving in my neighborhood of late…an economic indicator, perhaps?)

As well as detailing their experiment, the film weaves in footage of Chef Shira serving up healthy greens in cooking class to eager elementary school children from mostly poor families; these same kids get hideously unhealthy and unappetizing options come time for school lunch.  And nutrition experts weigh in on how hard it is for low-income Americans to put three-square meals on the table. Let’s face it: Money and time is tight and fast food is cheap. Why not load up the shopping cart, as one food stamp recipient does, with pallets of Top Ramen noodle packets?

But as we learn, the price is right — for all the wrong reasons. Junk food cranked out by industrial food producers costs less because of government subsidies for big agriculture that small organic farmers simply don’t get.

The film is full of food stamp facts: One in eight families is eligible for such assistance, though only one out of 15 participate in the program. And 40 percent of those families are white, in case you’re wondering. By all accounts California does a bad job reaching folks who could really use food stamps and critically underserves the Latino community — the required fingerprinting is a huge deterrent to immigrants, according to a post-screening panel discussion, though food justice activists are all over that one.

But does it even matter if people who need food stamps aren’t getting them if it’s impossible to eat healthily on assistance? Or, put another way: How did the documentary duo do on a food-stamp diet of about 50 bucks a week? Spoiler alert: The Potashes were well fed  — but only because they live in bountiful Berkeley and poured their combined knowledge, skills, time, and energy into the exercise. Still, they came up short in calories and some nutrients despite their best efforts. And, truth be told, things got a little testy on the domestic scene as the week wore on and the rationing of staples like carrots and peanut butter proved necessary. As for meat, snacks, or desserts? They simply went without.

If you’ve worked up an appetite to check out this family-friendly film and you live in the Bay Area, take the kids (you may want to feed them first) to a screening next Sunday June 28 at 7 pm at the JCC East Bay Theater in North Berkeley. If you live elsewhere, then look for this excellent educational offering coming soon, I’m almost certain of it, to a PBS station near you.

Image: Shira Potash

Paul McCartney Sings: All You Need is Meatless Monday

June 15, 2009

This just in: Paul McCartney & Yoko Ono seem to have put their legendary differences aside to promote the Meat Free Monday campaign, which is, well, exactly as its name suggests.

There’s nothing particularly new about this notion. U.S. Presidents Truman and Roosevelt asked folks to give up eating animals during both World Wars. And public health officials, like the good folk at  Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, have promoted the idea from a public-health perspective for years.

But last year, one of  the world’s leading authorities on climate change, Dr. Rajendra Pachauri,  declared that going meat-free once a week was the most attractive way for individuals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, lower their carbon footprint, and save scarce resources. Bingo! A new movement was born with a double-whammy agenda. And Sir Paul’s got the, ah, chops to pull it off.

The idea is getting play in the film world as well. The just-released doco Food Inc. lists going without meat one day a week in its top ten actions humans can take to support a sustainable food system.

I can report that tonight, campaign launch day no less, I did indeed go meatless. Baked tofu, marinated in tamari, pickled ginger, garlic, and lime juice, served over sweet, short-grain rice and topped with spinach wilted in a little grapeseed oil was on the menu. But to be honest, I hadn’t gotten wind of the campaign until I sat down at my computer AFTER dinner. So no brownie points for me.  I like the sound of Meat Free Mondays (nicely alliterative) but the real reason the first day of the week got picked for the job is it’s the day, apparently, when most of us set our intentions for the week. (The hope is that some people may go on to Tempeh Tuesdays, Wakame Wednesdays…you get the idea).

Here’s what I want to know: Do campaigns featuring famous folk make you more or less likely to join in? Some of us, of course, are quite happy to be told what to do and herded along like, um, cattle. As a veg-head, it’s not going to change my behavior. But as a rebellious spirit I can see how such a pronouncement might make a contrary carnivore dig in his heels and cook beef at the beginning of the week. And for omnivores of the world the Boomtown Rats classic “I don’t like Mondays” may hold new meaning.

So tell me: How do you feel about an ex-Beatle asking you to swap seitan for steak on Mondays — or any other night of the week for that matter?

A Shout Out for The Garden

May 2, 2009

Go see this award-winning documentary about a highly-politicized patch of green and the community who cultivated it in South Central Los Angeles.  The saga of this urban garden and its people screens this week at the Elmwood theatre in Berkeley and the Lumiere in San Francisco.

home_image1

It’s gritty, complex, full of shady backroom deals, greed, and, being L.A., the odd celebrity or two. Mostly, though, it’s the story of some 350 working class Latino families trying to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment. Check out those towering banana plants. Marvel at that healthy cactus. Look at those rows of colorful corn. So much abundance in a previously blighted 14-acre plot.  The South Central Farmers fought the good fight — and they’re still at it — for the basic human need to grow food.

Bring the kids (ages 10 and up). Tell your friends. Don’t just take my word for it: Read what Kenneth Turan at the L.A. Times has to say about the film. View the trailer.

It’s got conflict. It’s got drama. It’s got poor versus rich. It will make you want to go home and do as Tezo, one of the main character’s in the film suggests at a post-screening Q&A, “tear down your fences, rip up your lawns, grow your own food, and build community.” That’s a sentiment I can totally dig.