What's On Your Plate?

What’s On Your Plate? A documentary film directed by Catherine Gund (70 minutes) [Aubin Pictures, 2010, www.aubinpictures.com/]

A full house greeted the showing of the documentary, What’s On Your Plate?, at the Saratoga Film Forum’s fall fundraiser [www.saratogafilmforum.org/].  The sold-out crowd of all ages at the Dee Sarno Theater in The Arts Center in downtown Saratoga Springs in upstate New York, warmly cheered and applauded at the end of the showing of this remarkable film, which reflects the energy and spirit of two 11 year-old New York City fourth graders, who sought to answer the simple, “but big” question of where does their food comes from?  In filming their pursuit of the answer to this question, the ugly stereotype of New York City as an urban maze, divorced from nature, is dispelled.

Sadie Hope Gund and Safiyah Kai Riddle (the two appealing young sleuths), students at The Neighborhood School, a public school on the lower East Side of Manhattan (PS 363), discover that New York City is part of a growing green movement concerned about the source of food.  With some initiative and footwork, the girls discover that fresh, healthy and local food is available at farmers’ markets, community supported agriculture farms with shareholders in the Big Apple, and urban gardens, including window boxes with lettuce and tomatoes growing on the sunny ledges of apartment buildings.

One tender segment of the film involves the girls’ interview of an overweight John Wright, who at a too young age suffered a heart attack, and has made the decision to change his diet and to exercise.  He is lovingly encouraged in his pursuit of better health by his two young and deeply concerned sons, whose love for their father is palpable.  Can it really be true that two out of three African Americans suffer from either diabetes or obesity as reported by the girls?  Mr. Wright complains that fresh, healthy food is not easily available in Harlem where he lives with his sons.  The girls set off on a mission to discover why.  In interviewing a sympathetic Manhattan Borough President Scott M. Stringer, they discover that there is a weekly farmers’ market just a couple blocks from the Wright’s Harlem apartment.  With the support of New York City government, farmers’ markets have, in fact, spread throughout the city and there is a strong awareness that all New Yorkers, regardless of income bracket, should have access to green markets. [The New York Times recently reported that the New York City Council released an 86-page report, entitled “Food Works,” on “the city and its role in the food system, from farming to distribution to the compost pile” and which “lays out environmental, economic and health goals.”]

The good news about the expanding number of green markets is not the only happy discovery for the girls.  The Stanton Street CSA (community supported agriculture) program tied in with Windflower Farm in Valley Falls (Rensselaer County) in upstate New York is a source of organic, fresh and healthy food for its shareholders, residents of the big city [stantonstreetcsa.wordpress.com/].  Although not focused upon, it also appears that this csa program maintains a community garden on Manhattan’s lower East Side where its shareholders pick up their food each week: the girls are shown interviewing the organizer of the csa in a beautiful urban garden.

The segment of the film focused on the food served at the girl’s public school is perhaps the most entertaining.  A remarkably energetic science teacher is shown discussing the concept of “empty calories.”  He sets up an experiment for his students to perform: timing how long it takes to burn up (i) a walnut (ii) a marshmallow, and (iii) a funyun (an edible food-like substance resembling an onion ring which is marketed in playful packaging).  The walnut, which burns the longest, surprises the students.  The teacher’s discussion of the ingredients in a bottle of 100% apple juice made from apple concentrate sourced from dozens of countries around the world (illustrated by the use of wonderful animation) may be juice, but it too is “empty calories” which surprises some of the students: much better to eat an upstate New York (local) apple.  But the school’s attempt to improve its offerings by making available sliced apples pre-packaged like snack food backfires when the girls interview the mother of a friend who runs Ciao For Now, a local restaurant near their school which serves mostly organic and local food [www.ciaofornow.net].  She focuses on the silliness of packaging sliced apples when a simple apple could be made available.  The girls visit to a carrot farm in Schoharie County in upstate New York, which has won a contract to supply carrots to New York City’s public schools, is complicated by the fact that the carrot farm will be slicing carrots and packaging them up like the pre-packaged apple slices.

Without a stove for cooking, the girls’ school is forced to serve mostly reheated frozen food apparently by use of microwave ovens, though there seems to be a commitment to offering the students a fresh salad bar, a commitment pushed along by the girls’ persistence in seeking to improve their school’s lunch menu.  They also succeed in determining a path of assistance for the wonderful Angel family, who live in Brooklyn but farm land they rent in Goshen (Orange County) in upstate New York. The Angel family is a testament to the fact that organic growers feel good when they see plants grow and produce fresh and healthy fruits and vegetables for people in their community. The girls have discovered the community supported agriculture model while searching for the answer to their simple, but big question of where food comes from.  This agricultural model may just provide the Angel family a way to succeed economically in their growing organic food for New York City residents, and the girls are committed to trying to help them succeed.

Kudos to Sadie Hope Gund and Safiyah Kai Riddle and the creators behind What’s On Your Plate? The film’s website describes how showings of the film may be arranged by community groups [www.whatsonyourplateproject.org/about/synopsis].  Don’t be surprised if you attract a full house, if you should decide to schedule a showing. Following the showing in Saratoga Springs, the audience was invited to enjoy food prepared by chef Kim Klopstock, the owner of the wonderful 50 South restaurant in Ballston Spa (Saratoga County) [www.fiftysouth.com] .

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