Photo courtesy of Aubin Pictures
Out of all the agri-exposé documentaries, ranging from Super Size Me to Food, Inc., What's on Your Plate is one of the most hopeful. Directed by Catherine Gund and narrated by her daughter, Sadie Hope-Gund, and Sadie's best friend Safiyah Kai Riddle, What's on Your Plate is an upbeat movie that, while not downplaying the crippling effects of processed food on our health, gives viewers hope and solutions toward an alternate future.
Like two urban Nancy Drews, the 6th-grade girls stride through New York City, quizzing friends and family about their food and farming knowledge (or lack thereof), interviewing food justice activists such as Anna Lappé and Bryant Terry, and putting politicians and public school food officials on the spot. They also travel upstate to visit family-run organic farms, seek out farmers' markets in Harlem that accept food stamps, and deconstruct the onion-flavored snack known as a Funyun. (Hint: it contains no onions.)
In the process, the two girls cover concepts that may not be familiar to the average American tween—food miles, high-fructose corn syrup, the connection between artificially cheap processed food and childhood obesity (not to mention Type 2 diabetes)—in a playful, non-preachy manner.
"The thing about the movie," Riddle recently told me, "is that we don't actually tell people how to eat. I would feel hypocritical if I would tell someone, 'Don't eat that.' They'd be like, 'You're not my mom!'"
Clearly, the girls are healthy eaters. Before embarking on the film, Hope-Gund told me, "We had salads every night and stuff like that." But they aren't about to forgo homemade cookies or cake. (Her favorite of Michael Pollan's "food rules": "Eat all the junk food you want, as long as you cook it yourself." Riddle's weakness is her mom's scalloped potatoes and store-bought pretzels.) It was while making the film that the girls learned about community supported agriculture (CSA), and signed up for a share.
One of the sweetest moments in the film is when the girls interview the Angel family, who live in Brooklyn and farm on rented land upstate. The family is clearly struggling to make a living selling their organic produce at urban farmers' markets—but they love working on the land and believe in what they do. Ana Angel's elderly father was a farmer and visits every year from Mexico to help out with the harvest. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
Photo courtesy of Aubin Pictures
"I pictured farming so, like, tedious and hard," Riddle told me. "It's hard, but it's fun. I didn't expect it to be that much fun."
At the close of the film, one of the goals Sadie and Safiyah have is to help the Angel family organize a CSA, so they can get much-needed cash up front, at the beginning of the harvest.
"We did it last year, at the Neighborhood School," Catherine Gund says. "There were 30 families, and two classes." But even more thrilling is that the money from those 30 CSA shares allowed the Angels to fulfill their dream of buying their own land.
"They bought 10 acres, Gund says. "We hooked them up with Just Food, who also got them a second CSA, in Brooklyn. And now they're going to have chickens and there will be eggs and some type of fruit."
"That was my favorite thing about the movie," Riddle says. "Wow—I actually did that."