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Food flicks

(article, Rebecca Kessler)

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It’s Oscars week, so the attention of moviegoers everywhere is tuned in to Hollywood. But there are plenty of notable recent films that, even if they didn't get the Academy's attention, deserve consideration nonetheless. 

In particular, documentaries — which typically don't get widespread theatrical exposure but dive deep into topics most of us know only a little about — can be worth our time. Sometimes documentaries can even bring about important change.

In recent years, for example, many food documentaries — such as [/articles/sift/foodinc.interview '"Food, Inc.,"' newpage=true] [/mix/dinnerguest?author=4350 '"King Corn,"' newpage=true] and even the playful [/articles/theculinateinterview/johnpeterson '"The Real Dirt on Farmer John"' newpage=true] — have influenced as well as chronicled how we eat in this country. 

Here are three recent food documentaries that tell distinctly different stories: “Lunch Line,” which explores American school lunches past and present; “Ciclovida: Lifecycle,” about the plight of Brazilian farmers; and “Dive!,” about dumpster diving and food waste. 

'"Lunch (63 minutes; Uji Films)

American schoolkids consume between one-third and one-half of all their calories at school. So what exactly should they be eating? This informative, balanced, and ultimately optimistic documentary starts the conversation with artful shots of the obesity-inducing fare we’ve come to expect from school lunches: nachos glopped with orange cheez, beige chicken nuggets, meat-like slabs awash in gelatinous glaze, and maybe some overcooked peas, green as military rucksacks. 

"Lunch Line" traces the history of the National School Lunch Program, from its origins in the Great Depression as a way to buoy farm prices by keeping surplus food off the market to modern reform efforts at including the fresh produce and whole grains we all know kids should be eating. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="Alcott Elementary School in Chicago."]

The NSL program has enjoyed an impressive amount of bipartisan and public support since President Harry Truman established it in 1946, and the film relies on an ideologically diverse array of experts to relate its history. These include the likes of former senator George McGovern, who helped fund free and reduced-price lunches for poor kids, and Maureen George, who runs an organic-garden-to-lunchroom program that is just too expensive to keep going in a recession. 

John Block, the secretary of agriculture when the Reagan administration classified ketchup as a vegetable, also makes an appearance. Amazingly, Block actually defends that infamous decision. “I will tell you something, it is a vegetable. Ketchup is a tomato,” he says. “But, boy, they didn’t like that.”

No, the public did not like that idea in 1986, and neither do contemporary school-lunch advocates. By the end of "Lunch Line," almost everyone seems to agree that even if there’s nowhere near enough public money to feed kids all organic, mostly local chow — as the Alice Waters crowd would like — there is still plenty we can affordably do to improve their school diets. 

This starts with eliminating the current requirement for lunches to include certain nutrients, which can be processed into all sorts of vacuous foods, in favor of so-called “food-based” standards. If that sounds wonky, it’s not: it’s the difference between a gummy bear fortified with vitamin C and an orange. 

Woven in among the talking heads in "Lunch Line" are a group of African-American high-school students from Chicago participating in the Cooking Up Change program. Most of their classmates rely on free school lunches and many just don’t get enough food at home. Having won a contest to plan and prepare a tasty, healthy school lunch for $1 a plate with their menu of chicken jambalaya, cornbread, and cucumber salad, the kids travel to Washington, D.C., to press for more federal money to improve school lunches. 

Their elation at having won the contest and their enthusiasm for the issue is infectious. But it doesn’t rose-tint their assessment of the task at hand. “I don’t really believe us alone can fix the school lunch,” says one girl. “It’s going to take a whole lot of work to fix the school lunch.”

'"Ciclovida: (76 minutes; The Feinstein Brothers)

"Ciclovida: Lifecycle" is both the name of the film and the 2006 journey it vividly documents. A couple of subsistence farmers from a collective farm in the Brazilian state of Ceará hop on rickety bikes and ride more than 6,000 miles across South America. Their trip is part fact-finding mission, to document the human and environmental fallout from the tide of corporate agriculture sweeping the region. It's also a gesture of hope, in that the farmers create a sort of pedal-powered seed bank, collecting and distributing bean, corn, and other crop seeds from farm to farm, just as farmers have saved and shared since time immemorial.

Inacio do Nascimento and Ivania Cavalcante are a couple in their mid-40s with a long history of activism in Brazil’s land-reform movement. Equipped with just 10 dollars, their health, their bikes, and, they say, “the solidarity of many comrades,” they leave behind friends and family to hit the road. They make their way slowly south on dirt roads and highways, camping on the shoulder, relying on the kindness of strangers for meals and support, and linking up with farmers and activists along the way.

Mainly through the observations of the poor, rural people they meet, "Ciclovida" outlines a devastating scenario. Multinational agricultural interests, supported by government subsidies and incentives, are buying up small farms and consolidating them into massive highly mechanized enterprises. Varied food crops that support families and communities give way to monocultures of sugarcane, genetically modified soybeans, and other biofuel stocks. 

This green tidal wave topples forests and slurps up water supplies or fouls them with runoff, eradicating native plants and animals. Displaced rural people, stripped of their livelihoods, flee to the cities in droves. Crop dusters coat those who remain with pesticides, and illness follows. 

"Ciclovida" is beautifully filmed, with lush color and texture, and do Nascimento and Cavalcante make compelling tour guides. They have meager resources but extremely strong spirits, and it’s impossible not to root for them. 

Despite the film's clear point of view, its message would have been strengthened by additional context. With the exception of one apparently low-level government official, neither the farmers nor the filmmakers connect with anyone who might have a bigger (or different) perspective on the problems facing South America’s countryside than do Nascimento and Cavalcante themselves can offer. Still, the filmmakers’ approach of letting disenfranchised people speak for themselves is powerful.

The couple’s journey takes them as far south as Buenos Aires, then slowly home again. They roll back in to their collective farm on the same tires they left with a year earlier, though those tires are lumpier and more patched. The film leaves them on a happy note, despite all the looming problems they witnessed on the road. They’re surrounded again by family, having just welcomed do Nascimento’s first granddaughter into the world. Some of the seeds they collected in their travels are beginning to take root, and the lifecycle starts anew. 

'"Dive!"' (55 minutes; Jeremy Seifert)

“Here’s what I want to know,” says filmmaker and protagonist Jeremy Seifert. “What kind of society wastes this much food?” That’s the question at the heart of "Dive!," and Seifert begins his quest to answer it from the dank and malodorous interior of a grocery-store Dumpster.

[%image dive float=right width=400 caption="Food waste, and a dumpster diver."]

This good-natured and thoughtful movie opens with Seifert and several of his L.A.-area Dumpster-diving buddies loading up on packages of meat, cartons of eggs, bags of lemons and limes, and armloads of cukes. They exclaim with somewhat gleeful outrage over the shameful waste — and their own good fortune. Perfectly good eggs tossed because one in the dozen cracked, sacks of avocadoes heaved because one rotted. 

“I eat much better out of the Dumpster than I ever have before. It started two years ago, and we have clearly eaten like the upper class,” says one diver. 

The numbers are staggering and disgraceful: 96 billion pounds of food go uneaten in the U.S. each year, and food makes up 20 percent of our landfill waste, according to the film. The squandering occurs at every stage of the food supply, from farm to store to fridge. 

"Dive!" presents its bushel of statistics in an attractively hip and crafty style. Seifert does the math in Dumpster-dived whipped cream, and visualizes America’s annual food-waste output packed into a freight train stretching from L.A. to New York and back, using stop-action collages of produce, words, and doodles. 

At one point, the film zooms in on Seifert digging into a plastic container of salad balanced on the edge of the Dumpster from whence he hauled it. He sloshes on some salad dressing, tosses the little plastic tub back into the cavernous can, and munches away at the greens. That might induce more stomach turning than growling in some viewers, and Seifert acknowledges eating trash isn’t for everyone. But he offers some food-safety tips, and says no one in his family has ever gotten sick. 

And he and his growing family live almost entirely on trash. Seifert brings home so much free food on his nightly forays that his wife says all the sorting and picking and freezing and cooking wears her out. Seifert himself admits that there is simply too much — so much so that he’s become a little picky about what he takes. But he can’t stand to see it all go to waste, especially considering how many hungry people there are in L.A., not to mention elsewhere.

So Seifert embarks on what is becoming a bit of a documentarian trope: a quest to confront the villains, in this case grocery chains that callously toss their not-quite-expired calories into padlocked Dumpsters rather than distribute them to people in need. 

He also gets the classic documentarian runaround. Supermarket employees refer him to corporate headquarters. And despite giving himself a minor makeover from, in his own words, “a bearded, mangy Dumpster diver” into a clean-shaven tie-wearer, Trader Joe’s flacks ask him to leave the premises when he shows up unannounced, camera crew in tow, demanding an interview. Not too surprising, but Seifert gets points for trying, as well as for his equally unrewarding month-long letter-writing campaign to TJ’s CEO.

As for solutions, "Dive!" focuses on the simple idea that grocery stores should overcome logistic hurdles and donate their excess to food pantries and people in need. (It mentions, but doesn’t delve into, the idea of feeding our food waste to pigs, which can efficiently turn it back into edible calories without giving so many people the heebie-jeebies.)

If the film skimps a little on specific solutions, it serves up a meaty philosophical battle cry. "Dive!" calls for a national revival of WWI- and WWII-era values, when government campaigns denounced food wasters as unpatriotic and encouraged citizens to plant victory gardens, preserve produce, raise chickens, and eat locally. Thanks to Dumpster-divers and plenty of other groups, the film points out, Americans seem to be rediscovering those thrifty principles from the ground up.

p(bio). Rebecca Kessler writes about science, the environment, and food. She lives in Providence, Rhode Island.

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