This coming Saturday, The Alabama Poverty Project will team up with several other local non-profits interested in poverty’s ties to food insecurity and obesity, to host a screening of the documentary film Lunch Line at Bottletree. The film, co-directed by Michael Graziano and Ernie Park of Uji Films, was shown last month in Chicago and heralded by The Atlantic as “an excellent primer on how our school lunch came to be what it is—and thus should be required viewing for anyone seeking to change it.”
Graziano will be a part of a panel discussion following the screening. Also present will be Scott Silver of Jones Valley Urban Farm (JVUF), Amanda Storey of the United Way’s Healthy Kids, Healthy Community Grant and Maureen Alexander, Child Nutrition Program Director for Shelby County.
As a way to mobilize like-minded individuals and organizations, Kristina Scott, Executive Director of the Alabama Poverty Project, thought a film like Lunch Line would be a perfect way to initiate discussion about the ties between poverty and obesity. “I think the film does a really great job of pointing out the subtlety of the issues,” she says. “It’s not just about marching into a school and changing to all organic produce. It really breaks down how difficult it is to do social change and to make policy change.”
Scott is not the only one working to put together a local action team. Elisa Muñoz, of the Greater Birmingham Community Food Partners, is another. Working with recently awarded funding, she has partnered with people from various non and for-profit organizations in the city and state to organize what’s called a “health action partnership.” Together, this group is working on writing a charter that will lay out the county’s revised plan to carry out some healthier initiatives. Over the next four years, Jefferson County will collect over $400,000 from two different grants to help implement the new policies, hoping to make marked improvements on our current poor health standings.
Alabama is the tenth poorest state in the country, according to an Alabama Possible press release about the event. One in four children in the state live below the poverty line and 54% receive free or federally-reduced school lunches. “We are a challenged state,” Muñoz says. “If you live below the poverty line, there’s a pretty good chance you live in what’s called a food desert, which means it’s easier for you to get to nutritionally inadequate food like fast food or a corner store than to get to fresh healthy food. If kids are getting most of their calories from school and those calories are empty calories, then we’re just setting them up for failure.”
Thankfully, there is an army of people feeding the hope that change is on our horizon. Silver, JVUF’s Farm to School Coordinator, is working to get more fresh fruits and vegetables onto school lunch menus, using national policies like the Child Nutrition Reauthorization Act as leverage. That act, up for Congress review this year, proposes to award schools money for use in educating cafeteria employees and procuring healthier foods for school lunches. “The film does a good job of pointing out changes that you can make incrementally: how you can impact children’s health and work within the system,” says Scott.
Though it has proved to be fodder for local discussions about the long-term implications of our own food system, Lunch Line’s filmmakers didn’t start out to affect change. Several years ago, Graziano and Park caught wind of a Chicago public school that had paired with a nonprofit agency to turn their cafeteria organic. “We thought it’d be interesting as a film, not necessarily as an advocacy tool,” says Graziano. “So, we shot for a year and then realized that school lunch begged all these other questions that this quiet observation film wasn’t addressing.”
So, they went back in and broadened the film’s message with more information about the history and policy behind school lunches, seeking to provide perspective balance. “It raises and addresses issues without creating either villains or heroes,” he says. “It’s not an exposé about how awful school lunch is, and on the flip side, it’s not a romantic story about some small program that’s trying to buck the system. We tried to avoid either extreme, though the film does definitely take a position.”
The event organizers and local food policy advocates invite viewers and Jefferson County citizens to take their own positions. “I think the biggest thing we can do is just use our voices,” says Scott, “and look to see how we can engage.”
Bottletree’s doors open at 2 p.m. on Saturday, August 28. The film is set to begin at 2:30 p.m., with a panel discussion directly following. Tickets are $7 for kids and $10 for adults. Buy them online at www.thebottletree.com. For more information about the film, visit www.ujifilms.com or www.facebook.com/lunchlinefilm.
Cory Bordonaro writes about food and other topics for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.