Food Forward: A Sustainable TV Show for All Americans

by Sarah Henry on June 5, 2011 · 27 comments

in bay area bites,civil eats,food events,food films

Stett Holbrook, with wife Deirdre and kids Ava and Everett, hit the road in search of sustainable food rebels. Photo: Rob Broadman

Filmmaker Stett Holbrook will be happy if food reform advocates (like Civil Eats readers) respond favorably to “Food Forward,” a television series he cooked up with old college pal Greg Roden. But he’s really trying to reach an audience who hasn’t heard of Ann Cooper or Will Allen — let alone the rest of the cast of characters the pair have filmed in their travels around the country documenting food renegades changing the way people eat in America.

Holbrook wants his pilot on urban agriculture to appeal to people beyond Berkeley and Brooklyn. “To grow this movement I’m interested in reaching people who eat, say, McDonald’s to help them realize that fast food is lame,” he says. “I want them to see the show and think it’s cool to know where your food comes from, it’s cool to eat sustainable food, and there are lots of cool solutions out there.”

And he’s putting his money where his mouth is. This summer he’s sub-leased his home, taken a sabbatical from his job as food editor at Metro, a Silicon Valley alternative weekly, and he and his young family have hit the road to spread the word about the pilot (and hustle up some significant funding, he hopes, for a 13- part series.)

Holbrook is towing a vintage 1965 Airstream trailer, no less, and people can follow his edible adventures and learn more about the farming folk he meets on the “Food Forward” blog.

“Food Forward” profiles people across the country making a difference in communities where good food is hard to come by, through their work in small-scale sustainable food production. The pilot, acquired by local PBS affiliate KQED, is expected to air nationally this fall. There’s not a celebrity chef or a cooking demo in sight. Instead, it picks up where Food, Inc. left off and makes a compelling showcase for the positive developments on the food and farming front across the U.S. And while Brooklyn and the Bay Area get screen time, there’s footage from less-well covered territory, too, such as Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland. 

The “Food Forward” crew sought out individuals they consider food rebels, meaning someone who is going beyond sustainable, local, and organic food production or distribution. We see farmers using hydroponic and aquaponic techniques, and people planting seeds in urban rooftop gardens, abandoned neighborhoods, even suburban malls. None of them are waiting for foundation grants or government assistance, they’re part of a new generation of D.I.Y. farmers, who just, well, do it themselves.

Abeni Ramsey speaking at a recent screening of "Food Forward" in Berkeley. Photo: Gustavo Fernandez

We meet Abeni Ramsey, who, as a young single mom, began growing her own food in West Oakland out of economic need. Ramsey, a beneficiary of the City Slicker Farms backyard garden building program, now provides produce to community CSAs and local restaurants like Flora via Dig Deep Farms, and City Girl Farms).

“In the pilot I was particularly inspired by the images from Detroit, like that young man who raises chickens for a living in his community,” says Ramsey, who describes herself as a delicious nugget who took a while to grow up. “This food movement is happening in an organic way all across the country but it’s not about politics or activism,” adds Ramsey, who spoke after a screening of the pilot in Berkeley last Thursday night.  “It’s about people in communities doing for themselves.”

Lisa Landi, project supervisor at KQED Presents, which picked up the pilot, couldn’t agree more. “This isn’t another anti-industry documentary filled with doom, gloom, and guilt,” says Landi, who also spoke at the screening. “These are well-told, beautifully-shot stories of people who are making a difference to the food and farming problems in this country.”

Detroit farmer Edith Floyd. Photo: Greg Roden

Case in point: Edith Floyd, a soft-spoken, middle-aged African American woman on a tractor plowing vacant lots in Detroit and replacing them with gardens full of greens, corn, okra, melons, and other produce as part of her Growing Joy Garden. Why not, she seems to say to the camera. Her quiet, can-do spirit permeates every frame she’s in.

Funding for the 13-part series is anything but secure. That’s where the road trip comes in. The “Food Forward” creators need a major donor (or two or three) to step up and underwrite the series, budgeted at around $1.5-$2 million. Holbrook hopes to meet folks with deep pockets during his four month edible adventure — he says he’s even willing to hit up Walmart for the money — if that’s what it takes to get the series funded.

Like all documentary filmmakers, Holbrook wants to educate, entertain, and inspire. He also wants to motivate people to take action on issues such as the Farm Bill, school lunch, and GMO-foods. “As a restaurant critic, I was often writing about food I didn’t really want to eat,” he explains. “I wanted to talk about antibiotics in food, soil problems, and industrial agriculture. That’s hard to do in restaurant reviews. That’s why I’m excited about what we’re doing with this series.”

This post also appears on Civil Eats.

You might also like:

5 Questions for Food Forward Filmmaker Greg Roden
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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{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Living Large June 6, 2011 at 7:47 am

Oh, I hope he does get the funding. People do not realize that food can be grown almost anywhere – on balconies, patios, decks and even on the roofs of apartment buildings in the middle of downtown!


Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 11:01 am

You’re so right, Living Large. Someone just told me about a thriving vegetable plot growing in bath tubs dumped on city streets.


ruth pennebaker June 6, 2011 at 12:10 pm

How impressive and admirable he’s taking such a risk. I hope it pays off.
ruth pennebaker´s last [type] ..Maturity Looks Like This


Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 6:27 pm

Stay tuned, Ruth.


NoPotCoooking June 6, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I would love to watch this.
NoPotCoooking´s last [type] ..Grouper with Macadamias and Brown Butter


Alexandra June 6, 2011 at 1:36 pm

I am really routing for this initiative! I have family here and they buy junk food. I had to eat with them, and I swear, the hamburger roll I ate made me crave Coke. They must add some chemical that creates thirst. I was thirsty all afternoon. Never get that with the healthy food I normally eat. Oh, do we ever need to raise awareness. Yes, the USA NEEDS this TV show! The more we spread the knowledge, the better the eating options will be. And, don’t even get me started on GMOs ….
Alexandra´s last [type] ..Knocked Out By Roses


Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 6:27 pm

I knew this series would be right up your alley, Sandy. All best with the junk food eating visitors. Sounds, ah, challenging.


Sheryl June 6, 2011 at 4:15 pm

I so hope he is able to get funding for this very important venture, and give him a lot of credit for all his hard work and dedication.


Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 6:28 pm

It just takes one or two funders with a big chunk of change to make the difference, Sheryl. I’ll keep you posted.


cheryl June 6, 2011 at 5:02 pm

Sarah, I loved reading about Stett’s venture on your site. He was my former editor at Metro, and I’m really excited that he’s pursuing this project wholeheartedly. He’s a stand-up guy, and one who has an important story to tell.
cheryl´s last [type] ..Mexico City- I like you part 1


Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Oh, Cheryl, I love these small world connections. I was sorry to miss you at IACP in Austin but then I wouldn’t have seen the Food Forward pilot and met your former editor, who, I must concur, struck me as the real deal.


Jane Boursaw June 6, 2011 at 6:13 pm

Oh this sounds awesome, and personally, I’d rather watch a show on urban ag withOUT a big star. Give us real people any day. Love the Airstream.
Jane Boursaw´s last [type] ..News From Middle Earth- Orlando Bloom! Hugo Weaving! Gandalf in 3D Glasses!


Sarah Henry June 6, 2011 at 6:31 pm

In my mind the folks in the field ARE the real rock stars, Jane. So you and I are on the same page on that matter.


MyKidsEatSquid June 6, 2011 at 6:38 pm

What a cool idea. I hope his project goes well–and that you update us too.


Sarah Henry June 7, 2011 at 9:42 am

I plan to, MKES, thanks for your interest.


Kerry Dexter June 7, 2011 at 6:15 am

look forward to hearing more about this from you, Sarah.
Kerry Dexter´s last [type] ..learning about Irish music


Sarah Henry June 8, 2011 at 1:49 pm

thanks, kerry, i’ll certainly let folks know when the pilot goes to air.


Kris @ Attainable Sustainable June 7, 2011 at 1:45 pm

What an awesome project. I really hope they manage to find a financial backer or two – I’d totally tune in for this, and I’m not much of a TV watcher.
Kris @ Attainable Sustainable´s last [type] ..Eliminating Pests in Compost


Sarah Henry June 8, 2011 at 1:50 pm

Rarely turn on the tube myself, Kris, so I know what you mean. Fingers crossed on the funding front. Seems to me the airwaves could use some “real” reality TV with a positive, feel good, authentic message.


Melanie Haiken June 8, 2011 at 11:35 pm

I’d love to see them get the funding to really venture out into the “hinterlands” away from both coasts and highlight the heroes there — and really, there are a lot of them! It’s so easy to stereotype the midwest and south as being bastions of fast food and everything fried, but actually there are lots and lots of admirable farming and food access pioneers all over the place and they get a lot less attention.


Sarah Henry June 9, 2011 at 7:05 am

Good point, Melanie, and I think you’ll find the Food Forward folks share your sensibility. The pilot includes interviews with folks from Detroit, Milwaukee, and Cleveland, for starters, so it’s not just a Berkeley-Brooklyn thing.


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