Oregano, Amaranth, Honey, and the Hands that Feed Us

March 04, 2014

By Anna Lappé

BERKELEY, CA—On a foggy hillside in the state of Hidalgo, Mexico, farmers prepare a traditional goat dish in a fire pit—and add plenty of oregano. The spice is the heart of this small-scale cooperative’s business that grows the sturdy herb for sale in Mexico and beyond. “In my own community,” says the cooperative’s leader in a film by Perennial Plate, “people who have gone to the U.S. are now coming back here. They’re coming back to plant oregano because they see that… it generates enough income to be able to get along well here.”

The account of these farmers reviving their community through organic oregano is just one of the 156 stories in the films submitted to the first-ever sustainable foods film contest I launched last year. After twelve years of traveling the world to research food, agriculture, and sustainability, I knew there were thousands of untold stories: I wanted a platform to hear them, see them, and share them. The Real Food Media Contest was born. Food and film heroes, including Alice Waters, Eric Schlosser, and Padma Lakshmi alongside Food Inc.’s Robby Kenner, Sundance Institute’s Keri Putnam, and Soul Food Junkie’s Byron Hurt came on board as judges; advisors and partners from around the country helped us spread the word. 

This being our first year, I didn’t know what we would get: Shaky shots of blurry local burritos? Stilted talking heads taking on important issues but without much gusto? Instead I was blown away. We saw beauty—and lots of it; we heard powerful stories—and lots of them—all in four minutes or less. The films that rose to the top were like that amazing morsel from the hole-in-the-wall joint rather than a nine-course meal at French Laundry (not that I wouldn’t love that, too!). 

We were floored by the diversity of stories: We met beekeepers and wild rice harvesters; bakers and food business incubators. We heard about everything from the plight of beekeepers to the threat of another Dust Bowl spurred by industrial agriculture’s disregard for the life of soil. We were brought to tears by a young farmworker who shared what it was like to pick berries in the Pacific Northwest. 
Over the course of a couple days, hunkered down at home, sometimes with a cup of steaming tea, sometimes with my 4-and-a-half year old daughter by my side, I watched film-after-film about this incredible food movement we’re part of and I couldn’t help but notice some core themes: 

•    Food as community healer: In Green Bronx Machine (First Runner Up - People's Choice), we meet the young people in an edible schoolyard project led by Stephen Ritz. “450 kids in our school and we fed them all,” says Johnathan. “This kind of transformation is no small thing.” Another program leader, Darrell, says: “I never even knew what a vegetable was. I actually asked Mr. Ritz, ‘Can I eat this?’ and was like ‘Yeah, sure man, it’s healthy for you. Just take a bite.’"

•    The abundance of nature: On a small speck of land off the island of Vancouver, Dan Jason farms seeds. “Each [seed] comes into its own with such striking energy...” he says in The Gift (Third Runner Up). “You have a quarter of a million seeds in one healthy amaranth plant. If you save the seeds for one year, and then planted all those seeds and you had the seeds from all the plants that came from those, you could feed the world.” 

•    The revival of real farming (Grand Prize): One of the most touching themes was hearing about young people getting into farming for the first time, gardeners making backyards into edible paradises, farmers (like those we meet in Mexico) creating thriving businesses. Yes, the average American farmer might be pushing 60 years old, but there is a new generation who wants to get their hands in the dirt and a new generation of eaters who wants to connect with them. 

I’ll give the last word to one of the stars in the beautiful and touching Greene Generation (Second Runner Up), about siblings raising hogs with love in rural North Carolina: “People my parents’ age started the good food, healthy food, small farms movement,” says 14 year-old Nathaniel Greene. “People my age will carry it on. And then our children and grandchildren will actually change it.” Couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Anna Lappé is an author, public speaker, and educator about sustainable food systems. She is the co-founder of the Small Planet Institute and founder of the Real Food Media Project and its international short films contest: www.realfoodmedia.org

Don't miss the opportunity to see Anna Lappé at Edible Institute 2014, where she is a keynote speaker! Edible Institute 2014 (May 10-11) is presented by Edible Communities Publications and features a Who's Who of well-known food movers and shakers at a 2-day celebration and discussion of where the local food movement is, and where it’s going. This annual think tank, part of the meeting of 80 Edible magazine publishers from around the nation and Canada, will feature talks and panels by farmers, chefs, drink makers, journalists and food and drink enthusiasts (like you). Click here for more information: Edible Institute 2014.