Where am I?
Curt Ellis: Convocation Speech
2012 Academic Convocation Speech: “Foodocracy”
Given by Curt Ellis, American filmmaker, social entrepreneur, and advocate for sustainable agriculture and healthy food
August 29, 2012
"Thank you. And welcome, or welcome back, to Fontbonne.
I first got interested in food when I was in college. Not having your parents around to cook for you will do that. I graduated ten years ago––but even that recently, Foodology, as Fontbonne is calling it this semester, was a subject many universities were still choosing to ignore.
I was lucky to have a roommate who was interested in food, too, so my friend Ian and I started cobbling together a curriculum of sorts on our own––a curriculum that wound up taking us through graduation, and well beyond––on a quest to understand food.
This interest came naturally to us. Ian and I had bonded our freshman year over the discovery that our new hometown––New Haven, Connecticut––had a higher per capita concentration of Dunkin’ Donuts than any city in America.
But better yet was our discovery that if we walked by the Chapel Street Dunkin’s just after closing time––right around 10:00 at night––we’d find this mound of garbage bags piled up by the curb. Clean, fresh, (don’t tell your Mom) appetizing garbage bags––overflowing with the day’s leftover donuts, ready to be carried home.
For us, hauling our Santa sacks back to the dorm, food was all about fun.
Then came the day that Ian walked in from class, and told me about the newspaper clipping his professor had shared––a story about a group of children growing up on a grape farm in Chile, where their parents all worked in the fields. Hurrying between shifts, one of the adults had mixed a batch of infant formula in a pesticide bucket––and the children, poisoned, had died. The grapes in our dining hall, Ian pointed out, came in bags marked “Grown in Chile.” “Is it possible,” we wondered, “that we could be connected to that farm? That we could be connected to those families?”
After that, food wasn’t just about fun anymore. That first lesson in Foodology taught us that what we eat has a real impact on real people, and real places, sometimes thousands of miles away. Food can be as powerful as any government or any economy in shaping what our world looks like; in defining the kind of opportunities people are given. But for all the attention we give to this Democracy of ours, why don’t we pause to ask every four years what kind of Foodocracy we’d like to live in?
It can be easy in this iPhone age to imagine that something as fundamental as food is so simple we just don’t need to worry about anymore. But in a time like this: in a time of increasing population and diminishing resources––in a time of heightened political tension and deepening economic disparity––it’s those fundamental things—it’s food, water, clothing, and shelter––that matter most of all.
In ways both successful and spectacularly failed, Ian and I have spent the fifteen years since we opened our eyes about food, trying to become active participants in this Foodocracy of ours––and trying to encourage our fellow citizens to do the same.
I like to think that we’ve gotten savvier since our early days. Back in college, doing everything we could think of to get our classmates to take an interest in where food came from, we released sheep onto the campus quad. That got the attention of the Frisbee team at least––after we destroyed their field––and it was a nice reminder––(I’m giving you a free tip here)––that a college president’s office isn’t very fast at stopping something they’ve forgotten to make a rule against.
Then there was the time we set up a kiddie pool on the path from the dorms to the classroom building––and filled it with manure––and tried to get our classmates to walk through it. We had a lot of bad ideas.
What we were trying to get at, though, was to show how incredibly disconnected all of us have become from that most fundamental thing of food. Here we were chasing fancy degrees in history and economics, and neither of us knew the basic facts of where our food came from. We didn’t know any of the human stories of the people who grew it. And from what we were eating, it was pretty clear we didn’t much care about the impact that food might have on our bodies.
When we graduated, and our parents told us that agricultural stunts weren’t exactly a viable career path, Ian and I did what unemployed college grads generally do: we decided to make a movie about ourselves.
We moved to Iowa, and with a cousin of mine, started work on a documentary we called King Corn––a film where we tried our hand at being farmers. Now some of you in this room probably know how to drive a combine, but for Ian and me, this was like putting two toddlers at the wheel of a nuclear submarine. If you’ve seen the film, you know we’re very bad at planting straight rows. You also know that we set out to grow one acre of corn––a football field’s worth of America’s #1 crop––and to follow its fate in our food supply.
Corn is king in this Foodocracy of ours, and the 90 million acres of land ruled by corn––and the 13 billion bushels of corn that we harvest––all subsidized by the government––have become the centerpiece of our current food supply.
There’s an old vinyl Steve Martin stand-up comedy album from the ‘70s that my siblings used to listen to when I was a kid. Steve Martin had this theory that maybe everything at McDonalds was actually made of the same thing; that if you snuck into the back of the restaurant you’d find a conveyor belt with these molds going by and a big vat full of this stuff: “hamburger; splat! fries; splat! paper box; splat!”
What I didn’t know back then––and what I don’t think Steve Martin knew either––is that it’s actually true! There is vat of stuff in the back––the feed that fattens the hamburgers, the oil that fries the fries, the sugar that sweetens the soda, even the polymer for the plastic bag you take it all home in––that stuff is all corn. Fast food wouldn’t be possible––or at least it wouldn’t be nearly as affordable, or nearly as heavily processed––if it weren’t for those 90 million acres of corn.
We did the math on our little football field, and in one year, Ian and I had grown enough corn to make the high-fructose corn syrup for 57,000 cans of soda––an incredible quantity of just the kind of empty calories that are abundant, affordable, and way to unhealthy in our food supply.
Now I don’t need to turn this into a “state of the fast-food nation” address, because you’ve probably heard the statistics about what our diet is doing to us: one in three children is overweight or obese; one in two of our kids of color is on track to develop Type II diabetes, one in four of our young people would be disqualified from military service because they’re just too fat to fight.
But I’m not that interested in dwelling on the problems of our Foodocracy anymore ––I’m interested in how we can fix them. How can we build a food system that doesn’t discriminate? That doesn’t sicken poor families and families of color more than wealthy or white ones? How can we foster a national diet that doesn’t waste $190 billion a year treating the medical costs of obesity? How can we become a country where no child is asked to learn on an empty stomach, or a sugar rush?
The answer, I think, goes back to healing that disconnection between ourselves and our food. We have an opportunity to get this fundamental thing right. To build an enduring relationship with good food. To insist that the stuff we put in our bodies not just be slopped out of a vat in the back of some McDonalds, but be good for us––and good for the farmers, farmworkers, and the land its grown on. We have an opportunity to treat food as if it were the most important thing. Because food is the most important thing.
I think that transformation will be led by people like you. I think that because I know that when you start learning about food, it’s hard to stop––and I think that because I’ve seen the big things that people like you are capable of.
Over the last year I’ve had a chance to witness this kind change taking root, through an organization Ian and I helped start, called FoodCorps. You can think of it as a kind of Peace Corps for food––one that works right here at home. This nationwide team of FoodCorps leaders––most of them recent college graduates––spend a year of paid public service connecting children to real food, and helping them grow up healthy.
Our first class just wrapped up their year of service last week. Fifty leaders who set out across ten states, with the goal of transforming the relationship children have with food, in three simple ways:
The first is knowledge. A typical elementary schooler gets 3.4 hours of nutrition education in a whole year of schooling––that’s less time than they spend watching TV in an average day. So FoodCorps service members work with kids to help them learn about real food––and learn to love it. As one third-grader told our Des Moines service member Dan Schultz, “You’re like Justin Bieber––but for vegetables”.
The second way FoodCorps service members connect kids to food is by getting their hands in the dirt in school gardens. Our service member Sara, from North Carolina, told us a story about a child who came up to her on his garden day and said “I just couldn’t sleep last night––it’s like Christmas!” Or there’s Jess, in Oregon, who took a request from one of her students, Eduar, who wanted to name their school garden “the golden garden.” “That’s nice, Eduar,” she said––“why do you want to name it the golden garden?” “Because when I close my eyes and think of the garden, everything turns to gold.”
The third ingredient in this recipe for reconnection to food––and at the end of the day the most important — is access. FoodCorps service members fight to give kids a chance to eat healthy food every day, in their school meals. Partnering with farmers and chefs, lunch ladies and lunch gentlemen, they make sure kids are getting the healthiest, highest-quality food in the world. Like in North Carolina, where our service member Sebastian got roasted local sweet potatoes on the menu. The kids loved them so much they’re now served in school districts across Moore County––14,000 kids at a time.
These little changes add up to a lot. In just one year of service, the 50 pioneering leaders in FoodCorps taught more than 51,000 kids about healthy food. They built or revitalized 531 school and community gardens. They donated nearly 15,000 pounds of garden-fresh produce to hungry kids and families. And they recruited 1,800 local volunteers to sustain and expand the work they started. Today, in 300 schools, children are now growing up with a fundamentally different connection to food.
What these young leaders have proven––and what all of you in this room can prove in your studies this semester, in your advocacy on this campus, and in the choices you will make throughout your lives––is that this Foodocracy of ours is a democracy. And it will only thrive if we make it a participatory one. It doesn’t matter if you’re releasing sheep on cross campus to get people’s attention, making a movie that shows where food comes from, helping a child grow and taste their first tomato, or just asking a simple question about who grew the grapes you’re eating––there’s a world of food waiting for you to join. And all you have to do to make that world healthier, happier and full of opportunities for all––is to roll up your sleeves and get involved.
Thank you, and God bless you."