Eating Alabama: An Interview with Filmmaker Andrew Grace

Tomiko Peirano

Tomiko Peirano › Tomiko has amassed decades of experience in the food industry, from her family's restaurant in Oregon's ...

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Filmmaker Andrew Grace and his wife Rashmi Grace both grew up in Huntsville, Alabama. They attended graduate school at the University of Wyoming, but recently returned to their home state after earning their master’s degrees. What they discovered upon their return was a bit of a surprise and, ultimately, the inspiration for Andrew’s documentary Eating Alabama.

From the film’s website:

In search of a simpler life, a young couple returns home to Alabama where they set out to eat the way their grandparents did – locally and seasonally. But as they navigate the agro-industrial gastronomical complex, they soon realize that nearly everything about the food system has changed since farmers once populated their family histories. A thoughtful and often funny essay on community, the South and sustainability, “Eating Alabama” is a story about why food matters.

Andrew and Rashmi are also the founders of the Druid City Garden Project, a nonprofit that runs school gardens around Tuscaloosa, Alabama. With Rashmi working as the educational coordinator, the Druid City Garden Project aims to educate and inform students and citizens alike to make smarter choices about the food they eat – and to create more sustainable food systems in western Alabama.

I recently had the chance to interview Andrew and discuss some of the things he learned while making Eating Alabama, which will be shown nationally on PBS in July of this year. (You can watch the preview, above.)

Tomiko Peirano: What triggered the idea of making this documentary? Was it something you’d been toying with for awhile, or was it born out of your returning to Alabama?

Andrew Grace: Coming back home to Alabama I wanted to better understand the place – a place I’d always felt kind of isolated from when I was growing up. There were a lot of things I didn’t like about Alabama and about its image problem in the rest of the country. And I wanted out when I was a kid. Coming back was a process of trying to better understand the place and I thought this project – one that would get us out in the middle of the state talking to all kinds of folks – would help us do that.

TP: What was the most disappointing discovery you made while working on this project?

AG: In terms of the story, the most troubling thing to me was discovering just how few farmers there were left in Alabama and how much stress they were under with the corporate consolidation and the global market. My nostalgic and naive view of farmers living a kind of hard-working, but bucolic life was blown apart by the realities of seed contracts and consolidation and the futures market.

TP: Conversely, what was the greatest discovery you made?

AG: I don’t know if there was any overriding discovery other than the pure joy that I get in talking to lots of different kinds of people and listening to their stories. It’s why I became a filmmaker in the first place and I still get a huge kick of meeting folks and asking about their lives. When we can do this – talk to people from different walks of life and find our commonalities – the world gets smaller and easier to deal with.

TP: How has this project changed your definition or understanding of “food security”?

AG: That’s a term we throw around a lot and – like “organic” or “sustainable” – that has been ill-defined for most Americans. Food security for me means the ability for a location – be it a state or a city or even a neighborhood – to supply its own food securely. By that definition, there’s not much of our country where we’re food secure. We typically think of the concept as it relates to poor neighborhoods without access to grocery stores. But I would extend it to all of us. If your food comes in from a truck and your money and relationship with the grocer is the only way you can eat? Well, you might not be “food secure” either…

TP: What three points of advice would you give someone who is thinking about taking more control over their food source?

AG:
1) Visit the farmers market like it’s a grocery store. I think it’s important to grow a garden and to do other things yourself, but the truth is that your money supporting local farmers and their operations is the most sustainable way for us to make change. Gardens can be hit or miss. You might not like it. You might not have time. But if you get in the habit of religiously supporting your market and eating seasonally, you’ll have a far greater impact on the food security of your city.

2) Grow a garden. It’s hard work and it’s filled with failures and trials, but it’s enormously satisfying to see the fruits of your labor. And you will get better, too. And the more you visit the market while you’re growing your own food too, the more opportunity you’ll have to engage with farmers and ask them your gardening questions. I’ve had a ton of old country wisdom about growing plants passed down to me from the farmers at my local market.

3) Join and support a local sustainable food organization. There’s a great one in Alabama – the Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network – that connects sustainable farmers and consumers and offers young farmer training and other workshops for organic food production. Again, it’s great to do things on your own, like growing a garden, but if you have money to support an organization who is already devoted to helping make systemic change, that’s a great place to lend a hand.

TP: What kind of reception has Eating Alabama received so far?

AG: I think the film has been well-received. We premiered the movie at SXSW in March of 2012 and I’ve been taking the film all over the country since. Audiences in the South have been particularly pleased, I think. We have a problem in the South – especially among the progressive South – that our stories just don’t get told. It’s like we don’t exist. For progressive Southerners who are interested in sustainability issues and worried about the undue influence of corporations in our lives, there’s a huge lack of stories. I’m hoping this movie and my other work can speak to that experience.

TP: Are there plans for distribution of the film?

AG: The film will air nationally on PBS in July and we’ll be selling the film on DVD and through iTunes and other streaming services around then. I hope to also be able to do more screenings on college campuses and offer the film for farmers markets and sustainable food groups to do outreach screenings.

TP: If you were to make a sequel to Eating Alabama, what would it be about?

AG: In a way, I’m already working on something that feels like a companion to Eating Alabama – but it’s not about food. Instead, it’s about family and memory and how we come to tell the stories of who we are. That may sound dissimilar to a movie about food, but Eating Alabama is a lot about my family and our past and the way in which those stories influence who I am as a storyteller.

Be sure to tune in and watch Eating Alabama on PBS in July!

Photo Credit: EatingAlabama.com