FRESH Director Ana Joanes Blazes A Trail To Greener Pastures

Cross-posted from The Green Fork.

The front yard farming phenomenon is so hot now that People magazine recently did a story on it, "From Lawn to Lunch." But when Michelle Obama tore up a patch of the White House lawn to plant a kitchen garden, she inadvertently fertilized another growing movement: a flourishing Agribiz campaign to portray kitchen gardeners and 'good food movement' advocates as dangerous zealots out to shove fresh, untainted, ie. aggressively wholesome foods down America's collective throat and force us all to grow our own veggies--all without benefit of pesticides or chemicals.

Why? Because the rising influence of folks like Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle, and other high profile "food cops," to quote the uber-astroturf (i.e. fake grassroots) Center For Consumer Freedom, is bad for Agribiz's bottom line. The more people know about how our food's grown and produced, the more likely they are to demand better, healthier--i.e. less profitable--food.

And now, Monsanto, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, and their Big Food buddies have to contend with a whole flurry of food documentaries that reveal just how screwed up our food chain's become over the past half-century. On June 12th, Participant Media will release Food, Inc., which they hope will be the "Inconvenient Truth" of our food system.

Monsanto, not surprisingly, is one of the villains in Food, Inc., so it's launched a pr offensive dismissing the documentary as pure propaganda that "demonizes American farmers." The only problem with this line of attack is that it's blatantly false, and there's no better proof of that than another outstanding food documentary, FRESH, which premieres this week in New York, Boston and DC. As FRESH director Ana Joanes says, her film "celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system."

Food, Inc. and FRESH both feature Joel Salatin, the Virginia farmer profiled in Michael Pollan's Omnivore's Dilemma, and Pollan himself appears in both films as well. But despite the apparent overlap, the two films are very different.

Each provides a much-needed public service, but where Food, Inc. airs a laundry list of factory farming's dirty secrets, Fresh makes a beeline past the manure lagoons, veal crates, contaminated food and monoculture madness to land us in truly greener pastures, whether it's in rural Virginia with Salatin or in urban Milwaukee at McArthur genius Will Allen's farm, Growing Power.

I've been excited about FRESH ever since my colleague Kate Croft, one of the prime movers and shakers behind New York University's Sustainability Task Force and a consultant/blogger (as am I) for the Eat Well Guide, told me about it a couple of months ago, and introduced me to Ana.

Ana grew up in Switzerland, but she's been living in the U.S. for more than 15 years. Her interest in the cultural and environmental impact of globalization drew her here to earn her BA in political science from Barnard college, followed by a degree from Columbia Law School. Before dedicating herself to film making, Ana founded Reel Youth, Inc., a video production program for youth coming out of detention, and other under-served youth.

Now, after making FRESH, she's become, like myself, a kind of accidental sustainable agtivist:

KT: Fresh is an essential companion piece to Food, Inc., but while both films expose the fundamental flaws in our food chain, your documentary focuses on folks who are committed to sustainable food production, whereas Food, Inc.'s primary purpose is to expose the horrors of Agribiz. At what point during the filming of Fresh did you become aware of Food, Inc.? And did it affect your decisions as a director?

AJ: Robert Kenner, the director of Food, Inc., contacted me sometime during the fall of 2007. Robbie had gotten my info from Joel when he was filming there (at Polyface Farm). We talked for a long time and have been in touch since. Learning about Food, Inc. did not affect any of my decisions, besides perhaps some strategical concerns with regard to a release date. But the structure and focus of my movie was in no way influenced by my conversation with Robert. Also, I only got to see his movie recently and so did not really know so much what to expect (although I knew our movies would be very different.)

KT: You first started working on Fresh in late 2005, before Omnivore's Dilemma came out, "locavore" entered the lexicon, and Wal-Mart became the nation's leading seller of "organic" milk. Did you sense back then that you were documenting a growing movement?

AJ: yes. When I started thinking about making this documentary, my focus was much broader. I thought to look at people and initiatives not only in farming but energy, architecture, technology, etc., and although I was finding out about amazing people and stories through my research, it became clear, almost from the start, that what was going on at the food level was the most exciting.

One thing in particular struck me: I was finding programs, initiatives, people ALL OVER the world, in apparently completely different environmental, cultural, and political environments, and yet they all shared key attributes: they all had a grassroots, bottom-up quality, as well as an incredibly integrated approach to the work they were doing.

"Yes, it's about food," these initiatives seemed to say, "but it's really about education, health, quality of work, environmental preservation, our spiritual well-being..." Food, I started to realize, was both a microcosm of the problems (economic consolidation, environmental destruction, exploitation of workers, oil crisis, etc.) and of the solutions. And because food plays such an intimate and immediate role in our everyday lives, it's a powerful entry point to discuss and address these challenges.

Food is a central part of our social and cultural fabric and we can instantly observe the consequences when we change our eating habits--not only in our pleasure and health, but on the vitality of our local economy, on our community and environment.

KT: You grew up in Switzerland and came to the U.S. as a student. There's a perception, validated by recent studies, that Europeans and Americans have very different eating habits. Did you notice this when you first arrived in the U.S.?

AJ: I think that what I noticed the most was how I missed the fresh products I grew up taking for granted. Tomatoes that actually have taste. Great salads. Yogurt and cheeses (it's much easier now to get great yogurt and cheese than it was when I first got here.) And being in New York, it didn't take long before I found myself eating all my meals out. It's hard to resist the "convenience" ethos that's so pervasive in New York and perhaps around the country.

I also came to realize that the price of food was much cheaper in the US, at least compared to Switzerland. Not only are restaurants very expensive back home--and therefore a much less regular occurrence--but food purchased at the supermarket is expensive, as well. People back home don't have the expectation that food should be cheap, so they spend a much larger portion of their income on food. Also, although we have amazing farmers' markets, the quality of food in the supermarket was always great and I never had to think about where to go to buy food. In New York, depending on your neighborhood, the difference in quality can be dramatic.

KT: Do you find that your own relationship to food has changed since you made FRESH?

AJ: When I started making FRESH, my main relationship with food was one of dieting and guilt. I would choose food based on calories, mostly. I think I always had a fairly healthy diet, to the extent that I never ate much junk, and always enjoyed vegetables and fruits, but I never thought of the quality of the meat, vegetables, or fruits that I was eating, or the impact that it has on my health, my community, and the environment.

To be honest, it never really crossed my mind to think of the way that food was raised/produced, or to worry about it. It also never crossed my mind that the food I was eating might be contributing to my not feeling good, having low energy, gaining weight, and possibly to my long-term well-being.

As I started making the documentary, my food anxiety mostly increased: I was still mostly concerned about calories, but I also started wondering about the pesticides, hormones, and antibiotics that might be in the food I was eating. I started thinking of all the "health snacks" I was eating that contained GMOs and the unknown health risk attached to that food.

But my habits didn't change much at first. The change happened slowly and with a general change in my outlook and lifestyle. It was as if my inquiry into our food system helped me realize not only our communal dysfunctions and misplaced priorities, but mine as well.

I started to try to find more balance in my life, to find or look for pleasure in daily activities, in the "process" of life, rather than constantly running after the next "thing" that was going to make me happier, better, more something or the other. Eating well was no longer about (or only about) improving my health or not gaining weight, it was about pleasure: taking care of myself and the folks that I love and taking the time to do so.

I also came to realize how important it was for me to align my actions with my heart and mind. I have always been concerned with the destruction of the environment and the exploitation of people. But I did not always align my actions with my belief. Once I started living a more aware/conscious life, I felt great pleasure and satisfaction in acting in ways that support my beliefs. It was not a sacrifice--which is how I had always thought about it--but a relief.

KT: You're about to become a mother (congratulations!) Have you figured out how you'll equip your child to cope with a culinary culture where cheap, fast and toxic is the norm and fresh, untainted produce is seen as a luxury for an elite few?

AJ: No, I have no idea. I mean, I'll certainly feed him/her great food and hope to introduce him/her to the pleasures of gardening and cooking, and thereby influence his/her tastebuds for life. But I have no doubt my kid is going to get exposed to foods that will taste absolutely wonderful to him/her and that he/she will want more of them...and I have no idea how I'll deal with that. I do think celebrating food and making shopping and cooking a joy, as well as the sharing around a table on a daily basis, will go a long way--at least I hope!

KT: What's the most drastic change you've witnessed on the real food front in the years since you began this project? What gives you the greatest hope that we can really transform the way we eat and grow food in this country?

AJ: It seems to me that food has become a substantial focus for Americans. The mainstream news and cyberspace are filled with information and discussion ranging from concern about the latest food scare to a favorite recipe. This shift in American's awareness is both dramatic and fills me with great hope.

The sustainable food movement is, in essence, a grassroots movement advocating for a change in awareness, a shift in our relationship with each other and with our environment, a new social and economic paradigm. Like any deep cultural change, it starts small and slowly grows, then accelerates as it reaches a critical mass. Michelle Obama's garden is a reflection on how far and wide "real food" ideas have reached. More than a reflection, though, Michelle's garden will be a catalyst for raising awareness even further, and is evidence of our government's receptivity to the concerns and demands of sustainable food advocates.

It is this, and the amazing people that I encounter through my work, their energy and dedication, that keep me hopeful. Hopefulness is simply the knowledge that change is possible and that we can participate in it. Lin Yutang said that "Hope is like a road in the country; there was never a road, but when many people walk on it, the road comes into existence."