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Bad corn, good movies, and healthy school lunches
From cornfield to classroom, Curt Ellis confronts the industrialized American food system at its rotten roots. In 2004, the Yale-educated native Oregonian left his urban digs to farm one acre of corn in the country’s high-fructose corn syrup breadbasket, an experience he chronicled in the award-winning documentary film King Corn. Ellis has since produced films about the environmental effects of the industrialized food system and the potential for planting urban gardens in quirky places—like the back of pickup trucks. Most recently, he has helped establish FoodCorps, the new AmeriCorps farm-and-garden-to-school program designed to combat skyrocketing childhood obesity rates.
Ellis visited Portland State on May 3 to speak at an event hosted by the School of the Environment, and I was able to steal him away for a stroll to the campus gardens to ask a few questions about his efforts in the food movement.
Laura Gleim: What roles do you see universities and university students playing in the sustainable food movement?
Curt Ellis: The present momentum of the sustainable food movement has largely come out of college campuses. It’s the revolution that students have led to get gardens on their campuses and get local or sustainably grown food served in their campus cafeterias that has energized the whole movement and driven a bunch of things forward. I see those young leaders as being central to the solution. They really are pushing the intellectual conversation forward too, in terms of how we think about food policy, and whether we even think about food policy at all. The administration has come to recognize the value of it; they see that they need to put themselves out as leaders in the marketplace in terms of attracting students; they have to have a strong sustainability initiative; they have to have campus dining services that serve healthy—and actually tasty—food. And they’re kind of learning this stuff from the students, which I think is awesome.
LG: Regardless of how different their lives are from yours, everybody likes you guys in King Corn—they laugh with you and engage in conversation. So what do you think the role of comedy is in reaching outside the choir to new audiences?
CE: Well, for us it’s just personal. The only way we can keep doing this work is if it’s fun. There’s so much bad news in the world, and these are really heavy issues—like type 2 diabetes, and farm subsidies, and corn processing—unless you find the small ways in which there’s humor to be found, it gets really depressing really fast, and you decide to quit doing the good work in the world and move on to something that pays better or is more naturally entertaining.
LG: After King Corn was released, you went back and showed the film in Iowa. How was that experience, was there any backlash?
CE: Oh, it was great. Iowans happen to be the nicest people on the planet, so showing a film in Iowa that is somewhat critical of Iowa agriculture is kind of anticlimactic. I think what was really important was that where King Corn is critical of the kind of agriculture that’s practiced in Iowa, that critique comes mostly from Iowa farmers. And, Ian and I, in a sense, are in the film as Iowa farmers, and part of the thinking behind that was that you can’t go point fingers at someone else who you don’t understand. To put ourselves in their shoes for a year and grow corn ourselves, and understand the very real complexity that’s out there in the world made us rethink a lot of the solutions we imagined were reasonable when we first went into making the film.
LG: Why did you choose film for this project?
CE: Well, we chose film largely for two reasons. One, I had a cousin who was a filmmaker who could be teaching us how to make a film and be behind the camera. But the other big reason was that nobody wants to read a book by two 22-year-old guys. I think that film is the language of young people, in a sense. And it’s an opportunity to show rather than tell. Nobody wants to be told what to eat, nobody wants to be told that it’s their fault we have a bunch of high fructose corn syrup in the world. We kind of just showed the system as it is, and showed the fact that all of us are complicit in creating the world around us, and that all of us have the power to make a difference.
LG: You recently gave a TED Talk about FoodCorps and mentioned the idea of obesity as a national security issue. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about that intriguing idea.
CE: Sure. I think if we actually want to change food and agriculture, it’s going to take some unexpected alliances. It’s going to take a realization of the fact that this is a completely bipartisan issue. We spend something like 150 billion dollars a year treating obesity-related illnesses. We are subsidizing production of corn that becomes high fructose corn syrup and soybeans that become partially hydrogenated soybean oil, and that’s a big government program that’s a waste. We’re seeing the rise of an obesity epidemic that has U.S. military leaders so concerned about actually being able to field an army that can run that they have decided a major priority for the U.S. armed forces is to have the country be fit again. We have a handful of major meatpackers that control the livestock industry, we have a subsidy system that tilts the playing field strongly in favor of a certain set of crops and strangely against a certain set of others. We’ve really taken the free market out of food and replaced it with something that turns out to be tremendously expensive to our national treasury.
LG: There are ten states for FoodCorps right now. How did you guys choose those 10 states?
CE: There are 10 states right now, there will be 12 starting this August. We’re adding Connecticut and Montana. The first ten we chose in a competitive process, we had 108 organizations apply from 39 states and D.C. The idea was that you applied to be the host site, or the state-level partner for FoodCorps.
LG: So you’re hoping to add two more states, and what are you thinking for service members?
CE: It’s a little messy because we’re tied up in federal funding, but we’re hoping to be almost a hundred people in the field. We’re adding a second-year position called the FoodCorps Fellows, and that is a non-AmeriCorps position that’s compensated at a slightly higher level. It’s a state level team leader role to provide field support for the teams that are out there. We had more than a thousand people apply to serve in the program this year again, and more than sixty percent of the current class either wants to be a fellow or spend another year at their current site.
LG: What about all those applicants and state-level partners that didn’t get selected. Do you have suggestions for what they should or could be doing?
CE: Well, the reason organizations are applying to FoodCorps is because they are already doing this work really successfully in their communities and they want to scale up. That’s a great sign, and a sign that this is a really growing movement right now across the country. Those organizations are going to find ways to scale up, whether it’s through FoodCorps just yet or not. We love to be playing the role we’re playing, and we’re trying to get to all 50 states, and we’d love to be putting a thousand people in the field this year. But we have to grow responsibly from our perspective and be sure that the levels of service member we’re putting out there can be supported. In terms of other opportunities for service members, there’s a real bottleneck in the food movement right now. We have a ton of people who want to be working in this field, and there are very few jobs. So, a big goal of ours is to create more pathways for these people to do this kind of work.
LG: You’ve touched on health and political issues in King Corn, environmental issues in Big River, and now you’re implementing direct change through the FoodCorps program—so what’s next?
CE: Oh, we’re making a movie about Chinese food, called The Search for General Tso—it’s going to be great. We’re making a movie about who was General Tso and why do 40,000 American Chinese restaurants serve his chicken. No, but really, FoodCorps is where I am, I love it and I’m going to stay there for a long time. I just dabble in the filmmaking stuff, so I get to do the fun projects—like that one.