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Q & A :: Filmmakers Helen De Michiel and Sophie Constantinou and Berkeley's School Lunch Revolution

At many public schools, students gobble up greasy, mass-produced tater tots and pizzas, courtesy of their school district’s lunch program. In the 1990s, Berkeley parents, educators, cooks, policymakers, and concerned citizens who believed that kids should—and could—eat better came together to form a pioneering reform movement that led to the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative. At Berkeley public schools, students now study gardening, learn to cook nutritious foods, and are provided with healthy, locally produced lunches.

Documentary filmmakers Helen De Michiel and Sophie Constantinou set out to make a movie about the years of debate and reform that resulted in this revolutionary school nutrition program, which is now being reproduced around the country and the world. Along the way, the filmmakers decided to take their project to the Internet, producing a series of short “webisodes” to share what they’ve learned, stimulate dialogue, and promote action on the topic of food in schools.

The “Lunch Love Community” project is coming to the PFA Theater on Sunday, February 13, for the inaugural community discussion session surrounding these films. Screenings of the short films will be interspersed with interactive conversations with guests, including De Michiel, Constantinou, the Berkeley School Lunch Initiative’s executive chef Bonnie Christensen, school lunch reform advocate Joy Moore, food science scholar Charlotte Biltekoff, and others.

De Michiel and Constantinou discuss this new form of “open-space documentary” and why providing healthy meals for young people has repercussions outside of school.

The eventual product of your filming will be a feature-length film. How did you decide to start producing short episodes for the Internet?

HDM: The form is shaped by the function. In 2009 and 2010, this topic became really big in our culture—really big!—and here we are trying to get a long-form film completed, but, meanwhile, we have all this amazing material. So we say to ourselves, ‘This is big now, so why don’t we try to do something completely different? There are a lot of people interested in the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act; there are a lot of activists out there, so why don’t we put work online for free and offer them to the world to be used in whatever way they want?’ As filmmakers, we weren’t thinking of them as segments that were newsy, we wanted a new way to make short non-fiction films that open up a space for the viewer rather than send the viewer a message.

SC: There is a movement going on throughout this country. There are advocates trying to change their school districts on one side and journalists on another side, telling what’s happening every day. Somewhere in the middle is where we live. I think that what we’re trying to do is put the tools in the hands of the advocates, inspire people who aren’t yet engaged or don’t know how to get engaged. What can connect people is to see the fruits of their labor actually go somewhere. By showing Berkeley, which is, within reason, a successful model, you can say, ‘Take a look at Berkeley, take a look at a garden, take a look in the kitchen, in the classroom. This is how it works having been in action for awhile. You can do this.’ They’re more than art pieces; they are tools. But they maintain a level of creative integrity. That’s been our big challenge, to stay independent and to stay outside the role of working for anyone in particular.

HDM: People are constantly being besieged by media. We’re saying, ‘How can you open up a dialogue in real life, with real people after a film?’ People watch a documentary and the big question becomes, ‘What do I do now?’ To me, in our culture right now, media is about conflict and partisanship. So, how does the public documentarian create stories that put that aside and look for the nuance to create common ground? That’s what happened with the school lunch reform movement in Berkeley. There was a lot of controversy, people from many different points of view. There were a lot of people with a lot of agendas around this topic, and a lot of emotion. It took them twelve years to really get to a point of implementing this initiative, but they did and they worked through controversy. So in a way, with these films, we got inspired by the way that they were able to take anger and frustration and persistence and create a document, a food policy, in 1999—the first of its kind in the United States, laughed at because it was Berkeley—then take that policy and figure out a way to make it real in the school district, which took another eight years.

So, the PFA event that’s coming up will be a way to create that dialogue.

SC: It’s a perfect example. For the event at PFA, we looked at who can talk about the subject and who will look at the good, bad and ugly: how did it happen, what works, what gets cooked, what gets taught, what’s the future? The website and the videos are online, but you have to have something that brings people together—otherwise, we all live in a vacuum. Action doesn’t happen unless real people get together; art doesn’t happen unless real people get together. There’s the community spirit which is deeply embedded in this story, and that has to continue.

HDM: We’re experimenting. Since the films are three to seven-minutes long each, we’ll show one, then have one of the presenters come out to thicken the dialogue around the film. The film opens up the space, and then one of the presenters will lead an interstitial dialogue that will lead to the next film and the next speaker.

SC: I think the shorter format is great for dialogue. As filmmakers, there’s always this crisis of the passive viewer and the movie doing all the work. This is a perfect opportunity to have active viewers and participatory media. The films frame questions, and each of our guests have their points of view, so they can contribute to the dialogue.

HDM: What’s really innovative about this project is that what happens at these dialogue events will inform how the actual long-form film is structured. Only because of technology could this have happened. No way, prior to the Web, could we have ever considered making short films before a long film, and then asking people to talk about it. I think for emerging filmmakers, given the way the economy is—public media is in disarray, we don’t know what the future is— this model is something people could run with, and really transform documentary filmmaking for the future.

SC: It also frees up the form. When you enter into a documentary, you enter into this world and try and capture as much of the layers and the history and the diversity, and suddenly there are all these movies you aren’t making in order to have a coherent narrative, in order to engage general audiences. This project allows opportunities for little pieces of the story to have their own life. They can be character-driven, experimental. When you make a long-format documentary, normally you have to choose a style; you have to commit to how you’re telling the story, to your characters. In the short-film structure, it’s a moment in time that doesn’t necessarily fit in a cohesive narrative.

President Obama recently signed a bill to authorize $4.5 billion in new money for school nutrition programs. Are you optimistic that the tide is turning toward healthier food in schools?

SC: I think it’s fantastic that the Child Nutrition Act has more money, but there aren’t functioning kitchens, so we aren’t going to be able to suddenly have great food. It’s school district by school district; a lot of changes would have to take place to see Berkeley reproduced. At the same time, there are glimmers of hope. You don’t have to do everything at once. There doesn’t have to be cooking and gardening classes and organic food; you can start with some piece of it.

When I watch your films and see children look so happy gardening and getting excited about eating vegetables, I wonder: If children are able to be so enthusiastic about this, why isn’t the default to try and feed them healthy food?

HDM: That question addresses one era, the 1950s and 60s, when they decided it was more important to have facilities for instruction, so they took away kitchens and didn’t think home economics was important. So when reformers came around in the 1990’s, they couldn’t find any space in any of the Berkeley schools to actually make any of the food. Every era has to confront a new reality. For people in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, processed food was modernity.

SC: There are food rules that we come up with. Suddenly, the new rule is that kids won’t eat food unless it looks good, or there’s a bribe factor, like chocolate in the milk, the dinosaur-shaped nuggets. Children are complicated and they go through phases of what they will and won’t eat, but the philosophy became, ‘They won’t eat it if it’s like this.

Why should people care about this issue if they don’t have children in a public school?

SC: If kids go to school and they didn’t have breakfast and lunch, if all they had was a bag of Cheetos, can they think when they’re hungry, when they’re starving? If classes are disrupted because of kids who are behaving badly because of their diet, you create generations of trouble. What about health care, with so many people being obese? … There are also sustainability issues - thinking about the way we produce and package food. People are realizing that seasonal vegetables and fruits make a lot more sense. We’re all realizing the global impact of eating real food and supporting local farmers.

HDM: There are generations that actually never learned how to cook anything, and are living in a processed food world, period. Children at Berkeley are now learning how to teach their parents to cook well. It’s about relearning parts of home culture that may have gotten lost in the last forty years, that are close to the soul—re-remembering food roots. Children are the ones who can recreate that.

Lunch Love Community Documentary Project happens at the PFA Theater on Sunday February 13 at 2:30 PM.

Andrew A. Sailer | July 18, 2012 12:58 AM

College has been the first time my Mom has ever been with me during school. I was in a five-day-a-week program starting at age two. From there, I went to The Children's Institute. Although she wasn't there with me every day, she attended every IEP meeting and fought for every right I had. My mom had a perfect life with my brother before I came along. She totally changed her life after she had me. My mom has been my biggest supporter, and I wouldn't be the woman I am today if it weren't for her.

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