Coffee Chat with the Makers of GROW!

“The conventional food system has enslaved us, making us obese and sick…” . It’s a Monday morning. I’m barely halfway through my latte and my handwriting is having a rough time keeping up with this discussion, which at this point has got pretty serious. Well what did I expect? I’m sitting with a couple who are artists, consumers, and food activists. They combine these powerful attributes to offer solutions to our food, now, not tomorrow.

And what was the one solution they decided to make a movie about in 2010? Our young farmers. In ‘GROW!’ the common thread that links the Georgia farmers is their desire to ‘do more’. So instead of cowering away from the lackluster job market during the recession, they shifted gears and decided to farm because it is the right thing to do in our current dysfunctional food system. The movie serves as a platform for the farmers to speak for themselves. There are no embellishments, no special effects… yet the farmers’ connections to the land are beautifully depicted thanks to the eyes of Christine and Owen of Anthony-Masterson, a photography, and now film, duo.

Christine & Owen of Anthony-Masterson, the makers of GROW!

For many years, the couple had dabbled with the idea of bringing their still images to life on rolling film. And because they support good food and are based in an agriculture state, their dabbles morphed into a thirteen minute documentary ‘Farm’, a 2008 collaborative project with Georgia Organics to raise awareness of young farmers. This was filmed with a Flip Ultra, and what was a very small investment in equipment turned into a mini-documentary that circuited at some film festivals. But it was really when the couple were transcribing this short film for a film festival in Italy that a light bulb went off. At the time, ‘Food Inc.’ had hit the consumer pretty hard, so Christine and Owen thought that they needed to develop the young farmer concept into a longer feature of hope. They started to film ‘GROW!’ and about halfway through, ran short of funds. So they turned to the online fundraiser, Kickstarter.com, and were able to raise the remaining funds to complete their project.

But somehow, the conversation we’re exchanging is less about the movie and more about our food system.

Almost seven years ago, the couple arrived in Atlanta from L.A., and this timeline is coincident with my arrival from London. We all agreed that at the time, the local and good food scene was very low-key. There was only one legitimate farmers market with actual growers and producers, and Owen recalls how they purchased their local chickens in brown paper bags in parking lots. Today you can take your picking of which markets to support and buying local chicken is increasingly the norm. The changes are encouraging, but there’s work ahead.

I ask what the biggest gap between producer and consumer is. “Cooking.” says Christine. “We need to have a tangible connection to our food, and we need to stop fearing it. We must learn to understand it.” It’s true. So many consumers adore watching the Food Network, but how many of them are actually getting up from the sofa to explore food and cook it? Food has become its own form of entertainment, and with the barrage of convenience in our food system, we have become increasingly disempowered to actually purchase, prepare, and cook it. “I always see folks get their coffee, a pastry and a bunch of radishes at the farmers market…” says Owen, “…but honestly, how do you intend to feed your family for a week on a bunch of radishes? Are you still depending on the toxic dumps that are our supermarkets? Consumers need to overcome their food fears and invest more at these markets. They’re not just pretty carrots to look at, they’re there for you to eat and enjoy! This will be a big tipping point in our food movement. Consumer confidence.”

It makes sense. We should be happy to spend more of our money on good food rather than spend it on all of our healthcare costs. And do we need three televisions in each household? Maybe we need to cut back on erroneous material costs to put better food in our mouths?

In other words, the potential to affect change in food and health is in the consumers’ hands. Some of the farmers in ‘GROW!’ acknowledge how consumer interest in the good food movement has bolstered their sales and production, and this is the kind of grassroots ‘bottom-up’ approach that is needed to ensure positive and sustainable change. “Grassroots changes depend on communities. Communities will identify their food problems and they will find unique solutions to these. An easy fit for communities is to support their local farmers.” states Owen, but I press him about food deserts and lower socioeconomic communities, where the single-mom is running the household while trying to hold down three jobs. What if there are no farmers’ markets to support? Or what if the cost of good food appears unaffordable? “That’s where urban agriculture has a potential to bring good food and food skills to these households. And programs like Wholesome Wave make it possible for food assistance families to access good food. With the support of these initiatives, these communities will realize that taking their family for a meal at the drive through is wrong, an injustice, an enslavement.”

Christine chimes in “I see this kind of realization being possible through farm-to-school programs. Children are telling their parents that good food is easy to cook and better for you. It’s similar to them telling their parents to stop smoking because this can kill them. Well, it appears that our food is killing us too. ” We discuss Jamie Oliver’s ‘Food Revolution’ for a moment and all agree that he lit a big fire. Although his campaign hasn’t garnered tremendous support from some school food and nutrition employees and advocates, there are times a big, popular name can get attention. And he has got parents’ attention about what their kids eat at school.

But of course, it’s one thing to want good food in our schools and other channels of food supply, but another to grow and raise it. I delve into the land issue I keep hearing about from the young farmers I have met. “Land is often the biggest barrier to farming but there’s more to owning it. Leasing land is one option, but this comes with a price tag too, and for small-scale farming, this is challenge. However, land stewardship, management and even borrowing are models that fit well for young farmers.” says Owen. These are surely good fits for retired farmers who desire the continuation of their farming legacies. We explore this a little further, wondering how to model a ‘gap year’ for high school or college graduates to go and grow. What a great service to our country? “And it doesn’t matter if they don’t farm forever, but we must develop a model that supports young farmers while they want to grow, and attracts new growers each and every year.”

It all makes sense, and honestly, it’s not rocket science. Solving our food crises will take more than depending on new Farm Bills. “But it would be helpful to see the feds support small-scale farming strategies. The current arrangement of commodity subsidies and categorizing fruits and vegetables as ‘specialty crops’ is diabolical.” says Owen. Christine offers further perspective, “We have had such a positive reception to ‘GROW!’ People are realizing that our farmers are not a bunch of dirty hippies. They are serious and committed to this food cause. And they’re doing it with little help from the government.” In the current political and fiscal climate, I am sure these words are gold on some folks’ ears.

‘GROW!’ has an accolade of awards and recognition nationally and internationally. This summer it will be available for digital distribution for a global audience, and will be released on DVD. Christine and Owen have created a ripple in the food movement, and they are a reminder that all of us have the ability to steer change. It didn’t take millions of dollars, and it didn’t take fame to create ‘GROW!’. It took two individuals with an interest in our food, young farmers and solutions. And thanks to this, you can do yourself a favor. Go watch it, now, not tomorrow.

Jess Avasthi, Real Time Farms Food Warrior, Winter 2012

Keeping Food Real

Trailer for GROW!

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