Film Review: A Place at the Table

Let's be honest:  we don’t get out to the movies much. We are the exact wrong people to give you any recommendation of the latest releases at your local theater.  But recently we've come across and enjoyed a few films on farming, food, and social justice that seemed so relevant, thought-provoking, and compelling, that we wanted to share them with you.  Our first film review covers a Magnolia Pictures documentary on hunger in the US.   

We saw A Place at the Table when it showed as part of the Peace and Justice Film Series at the University of Montana.  The film examines the issue of hunger, specifically child hunger, in the United States, where one in four children experiences food insecurity at some point in their life.  

The storytelling is good, offering a mix of compelling experts in the legal, policy, and health issues surrounding child hunger but anchoring the narrative firmly in the first-hand experience of several families, in both urban and rural settings across the US.  

One of the key issues the film illustrates very well is that childhood hunger and obesity are not problems on opposite ends of a spectrum, but are in fact intricately linked.  It is possible for a child to be both hungry (as in not knowing when or what the next meal might be) and obese. One mother, whose diabetic second-grade daughter illustrates the trend of the development of health problems in younger and younger children, talks about her challenge of trying to stretch dollars by buying the cheapest available foods available in her local stores--which are generally highly processed and less healthy. The girl answers the school health worker's questions about what she will eat when she goes home after school with a single word: chips.  

Another eye-opening point in the film was that agricultural subsidies in the US go overwhelmingly to crops that are the main components of highly processed foods.  Vegetables and fruits represent a tiny sliver of the agricultural subsidies to farmers.   This is reflected in the availability of healthy foods in some geographic areas; both of the urban families discuss how far they have to go to reach a fully stocked grocery store, or find any basic foods like whole fruits and vegetables.  The camera follows one mother on a three-bus, one-hour journey one way to the nearest grocery store.  

This is one of those films--the best sort, really--that leaves one asking "well, what can I do?"  I cringed at the well-meaning enthusiastic student coordinators of the film series who stood up after the showing, thanked everyone for coming, and asked for donations that would go to a Kiva account "to fund projects, like farming and food projects all over the world."  Though I understand the good intention, it seemed almost as though they had missed several key points of the film:  that hunger is not just a problem in other parts of the world, but a fundamental threat to the health and productivity of the United States, as well.  

Like most real issues, there is not a simple answer to "what can we do?" Certainly, giving to or volunteering at a food bank helps, in the short term.  Establishing community gardens in food-desert neighborhoods, or working to help schools incorporate fresh local farm products or simply acquaint kids with healthy whole foods, are all wonderful. The odds are high that an organization near you can provide that opportunity.  

But we can't let ourselves off the hook with a $10 donation to the local food bank; when we dig in it's clear that the root causes are grittier, less charming, and harder to tackle. Measures like private charity programs and government food assistance, which were intended as short-term stopgap measures, have become long-term projects that are not an effective way to accomplish the goal of food security. Poverty and government agriculture and food policies do not make for such satisfying volunteer opportunities.  But I'd encourage you to watch the film, think about the message, and look for ways to keep that in mind in your own actions, votes, and conversations. As the film explains, hunger in the US should be seen as an issue of national security:  when the children who could or should be the future leaders of science, engineering, military, and education, are unable to focus in school and chronically underperform because of their hunger, we are not setting ourselves to live up to full potential as communities or a nation. 


Plants we Love: Delicata Squash

In our garden, Delicata Squash have a special nickname.  Though they are one of our favorite varieties of winter squash, we refer to them mostly as "unauthorized cucurbita." Some plants we love for their flavor, their easy growth, heavy yields, or their striking colors.  The Delicata has all that.  But some plants we also love for the story they carry of their origin, or our personal discovery of them. The unauthorized cucurbita is one of those, with a history special to us.  

When we were first courting, I was teaching at a small college in Oregon, and Noah was  working in a wide range of places in Asia and Africa, based out of Malaysia.  It's not easy to woo someone from several continents away, but we managed, exchanging long and involved letters by email for months.  The first tangible letter came in a mysterious package Noah mailed between assignments when back at his home base in Kuala Lumpur. He'd alluded to something coming in the real mail in the electronic letters, but I had no idea what to expect.  The box, when it arrived, released a potent mix of exotic smells into the air of my Oregon porch:  cloves from Madagascar, farm-cured vanilla beans, coffee from Tanzania. All were carefully labelled in plastic bags with the bright yellow tape I now know also marks all Noah's photo gear. Deep inside the box was one very official and cryptic sheet of paper with the US customs stamp and a record of one confiscated item, listed as "Unauthorized Propagative Material: Cucurbita spp."  I am enough of a botanist to know that must mean seeds of something in the genus Cucurbita.  But that includes melons, cucumbers, and a whole host of varieties of squash and gourds. I wondered what special exotic forest-edge seeds he might have tried to send, and what their fate was at the US border.  

It turned out that in fact they were nothing so exotic, and of all the things in that package, the only one that actually originated in the US.  Knowing that spring was coming in the Pacific Northwest, he'd enclosed a packet of seeds he'd received while filming a farmer training class put on by friends in Wisconsin:  Delicata Squash seeds officially grown, packaged, and labeled by High Mowing Seeds, with a USDA stamp. They were certainly the most official and approved item in that box, but the only one held up at the border. 

Luckily, on returning to the US later that spring, Noah brought another packet to replace them, and I planted them in the small garden of my new Forest Grove home.  With such a history, and a tendency toward metaphor, I kept an extra careful eye on those plants as they grew in the raised bed garden that summer: a slow start, one seedling eaten by slugs, a bout of powdery mildew.  But they grew right through all of that, through tough clay soil and no small number of weeds. Through some smokey hot August days and into the drizzling Oregon fall.  By the time Noah moved permanently back to the US and joined me in the above-garage apartment we referred to as The Treehouse, we had an impressive basketful of striped oblong "unauthorized cucurbita" fruits: the first Delicata harvest.  

This year, we planted an entire 100-square foot bed of them, covering them with protective cloth through early and late season frosts, still with a watchful eye.  They produced at least 100 pounds, and we have entered full squash-eating season with delight.  They are one of the best squash for simply cutting in half and baking in the oven, then eating with butter and salt, a dash of pesto, or cheese, or maple syrup, depending on your squash-eating inclinations.  You might not expect romance in a winter squash. I never did.  But it's the surprises in the garden and the growing that are the best gifts.