Periodically, a journalist or Congressional rep accepts the Food Stamp Challenge, which entails living for a week on the aid the government provides to low-income families. A more valuable test, nutrition education cooking coordinator Shira Potash decrees, is whether it’s possible to achieve a healthy diet on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"This started as a side project that a married couple thought would be a 10-minute video," recalls filmmaker Yoav Potash. "In trying to edit a 10-minute video, I told my wife, ‘We have at least a 26-minute PBS half-hour.’ So then we went for that."
But the Potashes were surprised by the comments after a December work-in-progress screening of Food Stamped in Monterey, from probing queries about the farm bill to a suggestion to include an on-camera interview with a nutritionist. The filmmakers used that feedback to lengthen and expand the film, integrating their first-person shopping-and-cooking experience into a broader context.
"Once you tug on the thread of a sweater, it leads to the next issue and the next issue," Yoav says. "You can’t take every idea. What we’ve been doing is talking to more and more people who have a stake in these issues. But the spine of the film is our experience with the food stamp challenge. If we stretch that out too much, the audience will feel that there’s a holding back on telling them the main story. We’re trying to weave it back and forth."
Like most social-issue documentaries, Food Stamped sprang from an activist impulse. Shira’s job with the Hayward Nutritional Learning Project (under the auspices of the Hayward Public School District) consists of teaching children to prepare and enjoy healthy foods and getting them to eat more vegetables and fruit. Meanwhile, the lunches they’re served in school are microwaved hot dogs in preservative-laced buns or starchy noodles. Another painful irony is that the USDA, which partially funds the program, forbids Potash from telling the kids not to eat junk food. She can’t tell them what not to eat, only what to eat.
In other words, the individual and social costs of a bad diet have their roots in institutional and political policies. "It is cheaper and easier to eat unhealthy," Shira explains, "and those cheap and unhealthy foods are what’s contributing to the diet-related diseases that are running rampant—diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease. But that’s not necessarily how it has to be. They are artificially cheap because of farm subsidies—cheap meat, high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils."
Food, Inc., opening this Friday, explores this latter point through a journalist’s lens. Morgan Spurlock’s fast-food expose Super Size Me struck a far different tone, provoking debate over whether it provided enough education along with its gimmickry, sensationalism and humor. Yoav Potash, whose resume includes the flamboyantly energetic 2002 short Minute Matrimony, is a fan of Spurlock’s 2004 hit and acutely aware of striking the right balance in Food Stamped.
"Shira’s bias is to make sure we cover the issues in a way that has enough depth and breadth to be meaningful," he allows. "She’s also attuned to the sensitivities of a couple of white people in North Berkeley pretending to be on food stamps, and has gone out of her way to make sure we talk to a whole variety of people who work in the nutrition and health field, as well as people who live on food stamps themselves. My basis is to make sure the film is enjoyable and entertaining."
Shira, who honed her producing skills and also learned to lay out selects in Final Cut Pro, sounds like a filmmaker with a half-dozen projects to her credit. "The most challenging thing has been that you’re never done," she states. "It always seems like it could be better."
For his part, Yoav laughs out loud at the suggestion that, as the professional filmmaker in the duo, he has final say-so on every cut. "In a husband-and-wife relationship, that’s like saying because the guy’s driving the car, he’s in control. In this case, Shira and I are co-producers. I’m the one who knows how to push the buttons, but we discuss each scene."
The couple, who’ve been together for six years, are coming up on their second wedding anniversary. Say what you will about the effects of working with your partner, but Shira remains an idealist.
"It’s been really exciting and refreshing to get to work with my husband on a creative project where we get to meld our two professions," she says. "It’s rare that you get to do that in life."
Food Stamped has its Bay Area premiere as a work-in-progress screening Saturday, June 20, 2009, at 8 p.m. at the JCC East Bay Theater, 1414 Walnut St. in Berkeley. (A second screening at the same location occurs Sunday, June 28, at 7 p.m.) Check out the trailer at http://vimeo.com/foodstamped or visit www.foodstamped.com or www.summitpictures.com.
Notes from the Underground
Pacific Film Archive publications director Judy Bloch and publicist extraordinaire Shelley Diekman, who started the same week 29 years ago, are departing together, coincidentally. Their last day at the vital Berkeley institution is June 29. A column, let alone a couple sentences, is insufficient to honor their contributions to the Bay Area film scene. … Speaking of top-rank cinematheques, there’s still time to reserve a ticket and book a flight for An Adventure with George Lucas, the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago’s gala fundraiser this Saturday, June 13. Lucas will receive the Center’s Visionary Award for Innovation in Filmmaking.
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