With words like justice, security, healthy and sustainable increasingly attached to food in America, two Omaha filmmakers with an undisguised POV have plugged into the sustainable edibles culture with a new documentary.
In Growing Cities urban agriculture advocates Dan Susman and Andrew Monbouquette present farming operations around the nation as smart remedies to inner city food deserts. The doc’s. 7 p.m. Film Streams screening on Oct. 29 will be followed by a Q&A with the creators.
Writer-director Susman, cinematographer Monbouquette and production manager Brent Lubbert logged 13,500 miles in a Dodge Caravan van on a three-month road trip to 20 cities in 2011. They searched out the best, biggest, most innovative urban agriculture models and found farmers not just in trippy spots but everywhere and farming everything from front and backyards to lots to rooftops to windows.
The quest was fueled by their disenchantment with scant local urban farming initiatives, though they acknowledge great strides have been made through No More Empty Pots and Big Muddy Farms, for example. The pair run their own mobile program, Truck Farm, that intros youth to growing things.
The urban ag movement has emerged in response to an industrialized food system that leaves consumers disconnected from the sources of what they eat and therefore reliant on processed, pre-packaged products.
Studies show a lack of ready access to fresh, organic foods may contribute to such health problems as obesity, diabetes, heart disease and hypertension.
Susman’s advocate-activist efforts got their start at Dartmouth College. The environmental studies major led a large outing club program, waged a sit-in at the president’s office and helped develop a Sustainable Living Center. He also co-directed a short film about the development of some pristine land.
The filmmakers obtained grants from Dartmouth to fund the Growing Cities road trip and raised $40,000-plus during a 2012 Kickstarter campaign. They’ve since found support among the same urban ag community they tout. Back home, they served as resident fellows at the Union for Contemporary Art and got free studio space there and at the Image Arts Building, whose owner, Dana Altman, became a producer.
The Central High grads lionize grassroots, community-based efforts that support natural, local food production.
Susman, a vegetarian who has a garden and chickens in his midtown backyard, feels they’ve caught a trend.
“What we tapped into is this intense support and desire by people to get involved. We made the film at the right time when I consider this wave because I know it’s only getting bigger,” he says.
“There’s so many different ways to get involved. You don’t have to be a farmer. You can grow a little bit. If you don’t like growing maybe you can cook or preserve or can. Or maybe volunteer at the local food bank. Eighty percent of our country lives in cities, so we have this huge population that could be doing this.”
The filmmakers contend there’s great interest in urban farming and that it can be practiced at some level by anyone, anywhere.
“There’s a lot of people who have never worked with a sustainable organization or who have never farmed but they’re super excited about it,” says Monbouquette. “It’s something everybody can do. The biggest thing for us is encouraging people to grow a little bit of something.”
“Grow where you are” is the mantra they’ve adopted.
Monbouquette says, “I think our biggest goal was we wanted to inspire people to do something.”
He says warm receptions to the film at festivals indicate its message resonates widely. Susman says millennials are just as likely to recognize “it’s cool, fun, exciting and rewarding to grow your own food” as older folks.
Monbouquette suggests urban farming will scale up in direct proportion to the number of people who participate in it and the amount of resources devoted to it. He suggests the real question is, “How far can we really take all this positive energy around urban farming and solidify it in our culture and just make it one of the things that we do, so it’s not just for hippies and hipsters?”
“Nobody’s saying we’re going to grow everything we can ever eat in cities. We can grow a lot of things there though,” says Susman.
Urban farming has been popular in earlier eras before fading away.
“The closest thing we have to compare it to is the Victory Garden movement (of World War II).,” says Monbouquette. “The statistics from that are astounding. Urban farmers were growing 40 percent of the fruits and vegetables consumed.” Will the phenomenon last this time? “It just needs people to embrace and try it,” he says, adding government could do more to promote it by offering incentives to property owners to enter land use agreements that transform vacant lots into gardens.
Susman says some cities go so far as to have urban ag directors.
Rather than take a critical approach about “how screwed up everything is with E.coli or Mad Cow or industrial farming,” Susman says the film is “a really positive” spin on what we can all do to make our communities healthier and more inclusive.
Monbouquette says he became a convert to the cause by working on the film.
“The food and social justice issues really stuck a chord with me. Growing food is such a simple act but it can transform into this hugely motivational, inspiring, positive, productive thing in communities that really need it. You know, everyone has to eat and I subscribe to the view that we’re all in this together.”
For tickets, visit www.filmstreams.org.
Read more of Leo Adam Biga’s work at leoadambiga.wordpress.com.