It’s been said that “kids say the darnedest things.” But much of the time children can ask very profound and direct questions, making adults squirm a bit as they realize that these questions are certainly not without merit and deserve to be answered. It was this quality that Emmy-nominated documentary film producer and director Catherine Gund tapped into in creating a truly unique film called What’s on Your Plate?
“I have four kids, and the oldest was turning ten at the time,” Gund told Organic Connections. “I realized that she was going to be making more choices about what she ate and what she bought. I knew that she’d be influenced by who she ate with and also by advertising.”
Despite running a very healthy household, Gund had never been the kind of mother who gave her children orders based on “because I said so,” as it’s such a weak argument and doesn’t allow them to think for themselves. She wanted to empower her kids to be able to ask intelligent questions and actually get answers to them. Her daughter, Sadie, also had genetically high cholesterol, which made it even more important for her to learn the right food choices early in life.
“Being able to ask questions is very empowering, and imperative for these kids’ survival,” Gund said. “My generation of kids is the first in history to have a shorter life expectancy than their parents.”
Thus began the making of the film What’s on Your Plate? through which Gund’s daughter, Sadie, and her best friend, Safiyah, ask their own questions and conduct their own investigations about where our food comes from.
The film opens by detailing a vacation the two girls took to Ohio, during which they sampled cherry tomatoes right from an organic farm. They were blown away by the flavor and wondered, “Why don’t our tomatoes back in New York City taste like that?” This led to querying where exactly did the produce come from that they were purchasing at the local stores?
Sadie and Safiyah made the startling discovery that many of the types of produce carried by nearby markets grew in New York state—but none of the produce at the markets actually came from local sources. It was imported from all over the world, causing widespread and unnecessary consumption of fossil fuel and creation of air pollution.
The film follows the two girls into school, where their science teacher educated the class on the value of energy-producing foods versus empty calories. They performed scientific tests on walnuts and on Funyuns snack rings, and they saw for themselves that the better energy by far was provided by walnuts.
The two girls asked the question, If nature grows food perfectly, then why does it need to be sliced, diced, processed and have chemicals added? The question was put to author, lecturer and food activist Anna Lappé, who explained to Sadie and Safiyah that far more money is made from selling food in this fashion, and that the entire modern food processing business had been built around profit, not providing nutrition to the nation.
They then found this out for themselves. They discovered just how many drinks, condiments and foods contain high-fructose corn syrup, a highly profitable and non-nutritious corn-based ingredient. In fact, so many processed foods include corn as a key ingredient that the farm belt of the Midwest, once the breadbasket of America, was long ago planted mainly with corn and also with soy—the other ingredient found in a vast variety of processed foods.
The girls set out to really get to the bottom of certain issues. “They kept notebooks of questions they wanted to ask and completely conducted the interviews themselves,” Gund related. “They would say things like, ‘We want to talk to the head of the school lunch program.’ They didn’t necessarily know how the Department of Education worked or where that person was, but they wanted to go to the source.”
The head of the school lunch program for their school system turned out to be Chef Jorge Collazo, the executive chef for the New York City Department of Education. He told the girls that he was really out to reverse the trend of feeding schoolchildren empty calories just to fill them up. He talked about the “mystery meat” that he ate in school cafeterias as a child and said he would have no part of that in the NYC schools.
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Sadie and Safiyah found themselves in front of the president of the Manhattan Borough and asked him why there weren’t more farmers’ markets in New York, especially in depressed neighborhoods. He told them what was being done to bring healthy foods to everyone, and it turned out he really did have attention on it and was doing something about it.
There is much more discovery highlighted in What’s on Your Plate? that provides entertaining and highly educational viewing. Anna Lappé made a comment, not included in the film, that sums up the reason it should be seen by everyone. “Anna Lappé told us that one thing she likes about the movie is that the kids ask the questions we all have,” said Gund. “We’re too afraid to ask them because we think we should already know the answers, but they just go ahead and ask them. So, that makes What’s on Your Plate? unique among environmental films—that it’s more questions than answers. The kids’ natural curiosity comes out. They become empowered to find out about what they don’t know. Also, other documentaries—for good reason—make the viewer scared to ever eat again; but our film is a celebration of cooking, eating and family. People leave, hungry for community and sustenance.”
What’s on Your Plate? has only been shown at limited screenings at this point, but there is much more to come. Discovery Channel’s Planet Green will be showing it in February of next year (check your local listings).
In November, a DVD of the film will be released for educational screenings targeted at groups and schools. The DVD will contain the full film, a Spanish translation and numerous other features. Since it’s tough to show an entire 76-minute film in one sitting, especially for children, the DVD will have the movie divided into three 20-minute segments, each on a certain theme. Included as well will be a 65-page standards-based middle-grade (third to eighth grade) curriculum to accompany the information in the film.
A general DVD release of the film is expected next year, but if you want to see What’s on Your Plate? sooner—and you should—go ahead and set up a group educational screening. You’ll then qualify to receive the educational DVD package.
To find out about all of the above, and to follow the latest news and projects related to the film (and there are many!), visit the What’s on Your Plate? website at www.whatsonyourplateproject.org.