A handful of recent movies - most notably "Food, Inc." and "Fresh" - have undoubtedly boosted the number of people with something to say about national food policy. And just as the local foods movement emphasizes supporting local farms and producers, filmmakers are beginning to take a closer look at the local level, too.
At last year's Cleveland International Film Festival, the locally-produced documentary "PolyCultures: Food Where We Live" became a surprise success, with its original screening selling out and a second last-minute screening also reaching a full-capacity audience. The filmmakers – Tom Kondilas, David Pearl, and Brad Masi – have shown the film at several local screenings (including one in November at Local Roots here in Wooster) to spread the word about how communities in northeastern Ohio are addressing major local issues: access to good healthy food, even in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods, and building effective local food distribution networks.
The documentary, filmed between 2006 and 2008, begins with its most inspiring example: City Fresh. Designed to connect city neighborhoods with food from farms within a 75-mile radius, City Fresh takes the CSA model and adapts it to a diverse urban setting. Covering over 15 Cleveland-area neighborhoods of varying income levels, the program sets a higher subscription rate for those shareholders who can afford it in order to subsidize the program for lower-income participants. Community members volunteer to help with the produce pick-ups and deliveries as well as to prepare food and to encourage other shareholders in how best to enjoy the fresh produce.
The film documents volunteers such as Barbara, a 76-year-old neighborhood resident, and Michele, a 56-year-old unemployed professional, who have found fellowship in working with the City Fresh crew and tried new vegetables that they might not ordinarily choose. Says filmmaker Brad Masi, "local food is really creating a higher quality of life" through both community cooperation and healthier, affordable eating - and these residents' engagement with the program and with their neighbors eloquently proves his point.
The film gives us important local (and all too common) context for City Fresh's work with a look at why these neighborhoods are prime targets for City Fresh produce. Many areas became "food deserts" in the 1970s when supermarket chains followed the growing population to the suburbs. City residents came to rely on smaller corner stores or, later, gas stations or convenience stores that offered no access to fresh fruits and vegetables. In order to counter nearly four decades of nutritional neglect, City Fresh combines its produce deliveries with education, including consultations by health experts, cooking demonstrations, and occasionally assistance in starting neighborhood gardens.
The movie pans out even further with a look at the "conventional" food system in America, with commentary from leading national figures such as Michael Pollan, Michael Ruhlman, Mark Winne (author of "Closing the Food Gap"), and David Orr (environmental studies professor at Oberlin College). Local figures such as Joe Logan, former president of the Ohio Farmers Union, describe the "corporate takeover" that occurred in American agriculture and point out that an excessive dependence on fossil fuels has created a food system so weighed down with financial and environmental debt that it may soon collapse. But locally, farms are responding by emphasizing ecological practices. It is a return to the way farming used to be done (as noted in the film by local dairy farmer Harold Hartzler) enhanced by a recognition of the need to manage whole systems (a view shared by Deb Stinner, head of the OFFER program at Ohio State University's OARDC campus here in Wooster, and by Darren Doherty, permaculture expert from Australia). It's these types of farms that supply City Fresh and, in turn, neighborhood residents in northeastern Ohio cities.
The film takes us to George Jones Farm in Oberlin (previously visited and described here) and the Pint Size Farm in Bath, which exemplify that return to "closed" systems by reducing outside inputs and working closely with local communities and businesses. The Jones Farm supplies local restaurants, the Oberlin College dining hall, and the City Fresh program with fresh produce during the year, welcoming food waste for compost in return and offering work and educational opportunities in the farm's learning garden and at the New Agrarian Center. The Pint Size Farm, started by the Great Lakes Brewing Company in Cleveland, uses the spent grains from brewing in compost and mulch, and the herbs and vegetables grown at the farm in turn supply the restaurant with fresh local menu items. (Some of the herbs are also included in the house brews; last year's excellent Grassroots Ale incorporated lemon balm, chamomile, and lemon basil.)
As we near the end of this wide-ranging film, it zooms in on the most local of local food systems: farming in the city. Cleveland has the distinction of being the only city in the country with a zoning classification specifically for urban gardens/farms, a throwback to the days when the old community garden system boasted nearly 200 gardens across the metropolitan area. While the number of gardens has decreased significantly over time, new gardens are springing up, replacing abandoned asphalt parking lots or nestling into the green spaces near hospitals. Neighborhood volunteers jump in to help establish and work these gardens, and local officials support the efforts, citing reduced runoff, increased safety, and increased community. As Maurice Small, co-founder of City Fresh and a vivid presence in this growing garden activity in Cleveland, notes, "Food brings everyone together."
As with any other area, there are still obstacles to be overcome in creating more sustainable local food systems in northeastern Ohio, providing a fair price to farmers and other producers and making those foods accessible at a fair price to consumers. But as local author Michael Ruhlman enthuses, we have great food in northeast Ohio, and "there is no reason why we can't eat locally around here, more than we do." The opportunities are there for producers who can meet the standards of quality, freshness, and price – and for a dependable distribution network.
Eating where we live has appeal to everyone. As a native Ohioan, I was proud to see PolyCultures show local examples of people coming together to move that vision forward for all of the state's residents, regardless of location or income.
Stills from the movie courtesy of the "PolyCultures" web site. For Northeastern Ohio viewers, "PolyCultures" will be broadcast on WVIZ on Wednesday, April 21 at 8 PM.