5 Questions for Food Forward Filmmaker Greg Roden

by Sarah Henry on June 2, 2011 · 19 comments

in bay area bites,berkeley bites,food events,food films

Gordon Ramsay, Jamie Oliver, and Jacques Pepin: Americans seem to have an insatiable appetite for cooking shows or reality TV series with a food focus (including on KQED, where Check, Please! Bay Area and Pepin’s programs are popular.)

But is there an audience hungry for a series that serves up solutions to this country’s collapsing food system? Especially one without a famous food icon (or, for that matter, foreign food personality with a flair for the dramatic) attached.

The Bay Area team behind Food Forward thinks so. Indeed, the creative crew on this prospective TV series is so confident (some might say crazily optimistic) that they’re kicking off their program with a pilot all about urban agriculture.

Andrew Coté is the beekeeper in our pilot from NYC
Andrew Coté, beekeeper in Food Forward pilot from NYC. Photo: Greg Roden

That’s right, readers, there isn’t a kitchen makeover or celebrity chef in sight. Instead, Food Forward profiles people around the country who are making a difference in communities where good food is hard to come by. These farm folk work in small-scale sustainable food production, as rooftop farmers in Brooklyn, New York, greenhouse growers in a mall in Cleveland, produce planters in abandoned lots in Detroit, or urban homesteaders on vacant land in Oakland.

On the surface such a series is a tough sell. But the concept, cooked up by local journalist Stett Holbrook, food editor for the alternative weekly Metro Silicon Valley in San Jose, and his long-time friend documentary filmmaker Greg Roden, impressed programmers at KQED Presents, who picked up the pilot. It is expected to air nationally later this year. Raising money for the series, a challenge for most documentary filmmakers, continues.

Abeni Ramsey. Photo by Wendy Goodfriend
Abeni Ramsey. Photo by Wendy Goodfriend

The film trailer boasts several food heroes with Bay Area roots including Oakland’s Abeni Ramsey (a beneficiary of the City Slicker Farms backyard garden building program, she now provides produce to community CSAs and local restaurants like Flora via Dig Deep Farms, and City Girl Farms), Santa Cruz fisherman Hans Haveman and school lunch reformer Ann Cooper, who moved on to Boulder, Colorado, after a stint in Berkeley schools.

Bay Area Bites spoke with Roden, producer/director of Food Forward, about the planned 13-part series and the almost-completed half-hour pilot, which screens in Berkeley on Thursday.

Why Food Forward and why now?

Everybody knows that our food system is broken and that factory farming is bad for us. That’s been well documented by people like Michael Pollan and films like Food, Inc. It’s also depressing: How much bad news can people take? We wanted to pick up where Food, Inc. left off and showcase some solutions to the problems around the country. There are a lot of positive things going on right now and we wanted to capture that. This is reality TV in a sense, but I prefer to think of it as cinema verite.

What qualities make a person a food hero in your mind?

Someone who is going beyond sustainable, local, organic — all these things we’ve heard about and get kicked around all the time — and is doing something cutting edge to help their community, like aquaponics or hydroponics. Our film has a bit of a punk rock aesthetic, these folks are a bit subversive, that’s why we call them food rebels. They’re not waiting for foundation grants or government assistance, they’re part of the D.I.Y. generation, they’re just doing it on their own and making change. They’re the next generation of farmers.

Who inspires you in the Food Forward pilot?

Abeni Ramsey was a wayward teen in West Oakland, who took a life-changing trip to Africa, where she witnessed hunger up close. She came back to the Bay Area and decided she wanted to make a difference, literally, in her own backyard. And she has: She’s worked to get food to people in need through community gardens.

NYC rooftop garden
A rooftop garden in Brooklyn, New York. Photo: Greg Roden

John Mooney, who owns Bell Book & Candle, runs an amazing rooftop garden in the West Village of New York City that, during the height of summer, provides something like 80 percent of his restaurant’s produce. He’s an example of what a little ingenuity, creativity, and patience can do.

Edith Floyd on red tractor
Edith Floyd of Growing Joy Garden in Detroit. Photo: Greg Roden

If one production still could speak for the series it would be an image of Edith Floyd, an African American woman on an orange tractor plowing an abandoned area in Detroit. We’ve all seen the pictures of urban devastation coming out of Detroit, but here is one woman making a huge impact on a whole neighborhood by planting all kinds of produce in her Growing Joy Garden.

Edith Floyd
Edith Floyd. Photo: Greg Roden

What’s the idea behind the Food Forward road trip this summer?

It’s both an awareness campaign and a fund-raising tool. We’ve identified enough food heroes to fill two 13-part series. We want to get out there and meet them, give people around the country an idea of who they are, and spread the word about the series. Stett Holbrook is towing a vintage 1965 Airstream trailer and people can follow his adventures and learn more about the food rebels we’re featuring on his blog and in other online content.

What’s your personal connection to food?

I’m a flexitarian, leaning towards the vegetarian end of the spectrum, who struggles every day to make healthy eating choices. Working on this project has helped get me back on track food wise. I grew up in Southern California on a ranch, my family grew citrus, it was a hobby farm. My maternal grandparents raised cattle in Southern Oregon. So farming is in my blood. But where my food came from was never that important to me. It is now.

What do you hope viewers take away from Food Forward?

As documentary filmmakers we want to educate, entertain, and inspire, of course. But we want to do more than that. We hope the series motivates people to take action on issues such as the Farm Bill, school lunch, and GMO-foods.

This post originally appeared on KQED’s Bay Area Bite and was featured on Food News Journal.

You might also like:

Jamie Oliver: School Food Revolution or Reality TV Rubbish?
Berkeley’s School Lunch Makes its Big Screen Debut
Urban Youth on Growing and Selling Good Food
Farm Together Now
10 Top Documentary Food Films
Food, Inc. May Make You Lose Your Lunch

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Kerry Dexter June 2, 2011 at 11:15 am

As someone who has produced and otherwise worked in documentary television, I know it takes a lot of collaboration, vision, stamina, and funding to get such programs done and to get the word out about them. I like this idea and wish them all the best with it. Thanks for writing about their work.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..Shania Twain- Why Not

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Sarah Henry June 2, 2011 at 2:12 pm

Hi Kerry, I did some doco work years ago too and so have some sense of what it takes (a relentless amount of team work) to get these shows on the air.

Telling a story, that’s the easy part. Cultivating funders, securing an outlet, and reaching an audience can take up lots of creative time and energy.

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Roxanne @ Champion of My Heart June 3, 2011 at 9:22 am

I love this idea and wish them well. I’m sure the funding, production logistics and other roadblocks are formidable. But, you never know which story or which example is going to inspire people to make a change or to support bigger change in their communities.

It’s finally warm enough here in the CO Rocky Mtns that I planted some veggie seeds in my hobby greenhouse over Memorial Day weekend. I’m even experimenting with planting some items into bales of straw since our rocky land doesn’t have much topsoil (an idea from Attainable Sustainable). I wish I could grow more, but it’s a start.

So far, we haven’t broken down and heated the greenhouse for either year-round or at least earlier gardening, but I did score 15 walls of water at a garage sale today for just $5. That will help a lot next spring when I want to start seeds earlier.

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Sarah Henry June 5, 2011 at 3:10 pm

Time will tell if the funding comes through on this project, a worthy one, but it’s touch at there on the financing front, as you noted. Roxanne. Happy harvesting.

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Danielle June 3, 2011 at 9:50 am

Wow this is such a cool project, I’m definitely spreading the word! We need more stories and documentaries like this to counter-balance all the negativity in the media about the sorry state of the US food system. I can only imagine how much work the team must put in to identify the individuals to profile, film, edit and then market the show. I hope they succeed!
Danielle´s last [type] ..Blue House Farm

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Sarah Henry June 5, 2011 at 3:11 pm

Yep, Danielle, from what I know of your blog, this project is right up your alley. I’m sure the filmmakers appreciate all the word of mouth they can get.

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Casey@Good. Food. Stories. June 5, 2011 at 5:14 am

A 13-part series! I’m following the Food Forward blog now – looking forward to see who they meet here on the East Coast.
Casey@Good. Food. Stories.´s last [type] ..Grabbing a Bite In and Around Yankee Stadium

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Sarah Henry June 5, 2011 at 3:12 pm

Let me know, Casey, if the Airstream makes it to your neck of the woods.

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Melanie Haiken June 6, 2011 at 10:21 am

Love the idea of highlighting “food heroes.” I agree there’s a big question whether mainstream audiences — particularly those 35 and older — will watch this without a celeb hook. But to the next generation, this is one of the hottest topics around, so as long as the filmmakers keep highlighting younger folks, I bet they’ll find loyal fans.

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Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 11:06 am

Interesting take, M. I would have thought the celebs would bring in the young ones, but you may be right on that score. What I liked about the pilot is that it’s pretty multigenerational — lots of 20- and 30somethings, for sure, but a few folks of, um, our vintage too. Good message: You can be a rebel regardless of your age.

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Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi June 6, 2011 at 12:21 pm

This sounds like a very exciting project. I’d love to hear about it again if it is ever available to watch on the web.
Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last [type] ..Lemon Honey Soother

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Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 6:34 pm

Good point, M, will keep you posted. It’s right on point for you.

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Jane Boursaw June 6, 2011 at 6:21 pm

Love this idea, especially that they’re offering up solutions and profiling people who make it happen. We hear so much bad stuff – let’s focus on healthy solutions and people who walk the walk.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..Hey- MTV! Your Movie Awards Are Crude- Lewd and Awkward

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Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 6:36 pm

That’s how I’ve felt this past few years, Jane, covering urban farmers, and folks who forage for people in need, and chefs who cook organic, sustainable, local food. There’s so much that’s good and it does get lost sometimes in the news about so much that is bad about American food.

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MyKidsEatSquid June 6, 2011 at 6:42 pm

So has he received much press so far? It does sound like such a great project.

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Sarah Henry June 7, 2011 at 9:48 am

They’re just starting to get some attention, MKES. I think the road trip will increase their visibility around the country. And, of course, once the pilot airs, they’ll have a whole new audience.

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Sheryl June 7, 2011 at 1:53 pm

I’d love to see a series like this come to life. After all, there are too many unsung heroes deserving who are NOT celebrities and may never garner the attention they deserve.

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