In order to gear up for my study of Permaculture (I’m planning to take classes through the Growing Project in Fort Collins starting next month), I’ve been reflecting on what I’ve learned about our food and farming systems thus far in life.  And, it’s a lot – twelve years ago, in my early twenties, I thought nothing of eating fast food three meals a day, or going for the cheapest (and therefore most processed) food in the grocery store, or thinking how great it was that all that corn grew so tall on the field down the street from my dad’s house.  It’s incredible what you can find out when you know how to look for it, but I didn’t even know how to look, or for what to look.  There’s a shift that has to occur in our minds- before we can even learn something, we have to become aware that there’s something we don’t know, and then we have to be open to learning about it, and then we have to have a means by which to learn it.  And then, of course, we have to actually learn it, which involves first acquiring the knowledge itself, and second, integrating it into the rest of our knowledge web, and from there into our lives.

For me, that initial awareness is enough to get me going down the path of learning.  I’ve always been curious, with a bit of a skeptic on top, and so when I become aware that there’s more out there than I know about, I generally want to follow that awareness down the rabbit hole of learning.  This series of posts is going to be about those initial awareness moments – the seeds planted in me between the 21-year-old McDonald’s Monopoly ticket collector and the 33-year-old gearing up to start a Permaculture course (and writing this blog).  The seeds generally fall into a few broad categories, so I’ll be organizing thusly: the first being movies.

Morgan Spurlock eats a Big Mac

When I was 21, I was in film school in New York City.  There was a McDonald’s across the square from my school, and we would often go there on our lunch breaks (when we weren’t getting sandwiches at the Trevi Deli downstairs).  This was in 2004, when Morgan Spurlock’s burger-in-cheek documentary Super Size Me came out in theaters.  Spurlock goes 30 days eating nothing but McDonald’s food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and chronicles the deteriorations in his health as the month progresses.  I’d known, like everyone does in the back of their heads at least, that fast food wasn’t healthy – but I was young, fit, energetic, and broke, and so I didn’t really give it too much extra thought.  The documentary, though, made it tangible, and it was gross.  I stopped eating McDonald’s. That was about as far as it went at the time, though: “McDonald’s is gross.”  I had a thesis film to write, and didn’t have time or inclination to look into the problems behind the problem of McDonald’s.

Movie Poster

A year later, I’d graduated and was living in the Philadelphia area.  I was over at a friend’s house one day, and her housemate had a documentary called The Future of Food.  This was an examination of genetic modification of food, and the economic, legal, environmental, and cultural problems surrounding the practice.  It mostly focused on Monsanto, which until then I hadn’t heard of – even though they were, and are, one of the biggest corporations in America, and arguably the one with the most influence over our food system.  I was amazed by what I learned in that film, and it opened my eyes to the fact that so much of our food system, not to mention the government policies related to it, is controlled and influenced by giant for-profit corporations.

The combines are coming!

Food, Inc., which came out a couple years after that, put a lot of pieces together for me.  By this time, I’d heard of two of the subjects in the documentary, Joel Salatin and Michael Pollan.  Food, Inc presented a sweeping overview of America’s food system, the problems in it – and, for the first time that I’d seen in a documentary, some solutions for it, solutions centered around the practice of small-scale, organic and/or sustainable farming.  For the first time, I started to think seriously about learning by doing, and a year after Food, Inc‘s release, I was working on an organic farm.

That’s getting a bit ahead of myself, though – there were other pieces to the learning puzzle.  Next time, I’ll write about some books that influenced me over the years.  I’ve also seen plenty of other good food and farm documentaries over the years.  If you’re interested in learning more by watching some, I’d recommend starting with Food, Inc. – it’s kind of a “Food Systems 101” overview.  Here are some others I’d recommend watching also:

King Corn – a fun little documentary in which two guys grow an acre of corn in Iowa over the course of a summer in order to examine the role of corn, and its subsidies, in the food system.

Forks Over Knives – while it ends out being a little infomercial-esque, lots of good information here about the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Our Daily Bread – the best-filmed food documentary I’ve seen, this unnarrated feature presents the industrial food system in a series of visual vignettes.

Fast Food Nation – actually a feature film based on a book, and directed by Richard Linklater.  The characters are all involved in, and ultimately consumed by, the American industrial food system.

Fed Up – a strong indictment of America’s food industry as the culprit behind the obesity crisis, from the producers of An Inconvenient Truth.

Cowspiracy – if you can get past the snarkiness of the filmmaker and his hidden-attack-based faux-provocateurism, you can learn a lot about the environmental impacts of industrial animal agriculture in this film.

Any other documentary suggestions?  Leave them in the comments below!