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. 

Source: http://www.magpictures.com/aplaceatthetabl...

Plants We Love: Black Turtle Beans

I have one sharp memory of harvesting and winnowing dry beans as a young child in the family garden, perhaps becuse the process involved jumping and stomping on a truckbed full of dry pods on a chilly fall day. Most years, though, our family garden did not include dry beans, and this year was the first I've grown them myself. 

Once we decided to include dry beans in the garden, it took considerable restraint to limit ourselves to 4 or 5 varieties. Heirloom beans are one of those crops with a diversity of colors and patterns that draws me in to a point perhaps beyond reason; the flavor descriptions only furthered the obsession. I poured over the bean section of the seed catalog and found myself wanting to collect these varieties the way birders accumulate species on their life lists.  And yet, this was new to me, the first time I'd planted them in a garden of my own.  Most backyard growers I know don't bother with dry beans.  We've been missing out. 

A double handful of Black Turtle Beans, and two stray Jacob's Cattle Beans, straight from the garden.  

Dry beans are one of those crops that often cause people to ask "is that really worth growing yourself?"  It's a question worth asking.  Buying enough fresh basil to make our year's worth of pesto would be drastically expensive, so certain crops like that make clear economic sense.  Cooking beans, on the other hand, are already one of the most affordable foods available, especially in bulk.  If you credit any sort of value to your time, you probably aren't going to put away much savings by growing your own black beans.  But of course that isn't the only reason we plant. 

One of our goals this year has been to go beyond just vegetable-growing, to really think about and learn what it takes to feed ourselves completely, to grow the staple calorie and protein crops that provide the base of the diet.  When we think about the feasibility of feeding the world--filling the billions of bellies--these kinds of crops seem important to know and understand. 

This is a food you can raise yourself and easily eat throughout the year, without any special means of putting-up. No canning, freezing, or special dehydrating needed. Once they dry on the vine, it's actually quite quick to crush the pods and blow the peices off the top of the heavier beans.  Or you can sit around and shell them by hand if you happen to be having a long conversation with a neighbor who also isn't used to sitting with hands still. Now we have quart jars filled on the shelf for winter, and another box of dry pods that can just wait till we have time for it.  In the end, these were one of our easiest crops.  

They were remarkably simple to grow, essentially taking care of themselves after initial planting and a few passes of weeding and mulch.  By mid-summer they were a thick jungle of leaves well capable of holding out against any weeds--almost impossible to walk through, but that was fine since they didn't really need any attention again till fall, when we collected dry pods from the frost-killed vines. 

The beans pictured here, and appearing most frequently on our table lately, are the Black Turtle Beans, grown from seeds from the High Mowing catalog.  They are the most-mainstream of the bean varieties we grew, in part because black beans are our favorite bean for burritos, a frequent food on our table.  I was skeptical of whether there would be much taste difference between our home-grown and store-bought black beans.  It's not the level of difference that we notice between purchased and home-grown tomatoes, but it's there.  The beans cook more quickly (probably because they did not get an additional heated drying period on a warehouse after harvesting), and we think they do have a richer, deeper flavor. Though they'd be cheap to buy, growing them ourselves was well worth it.