The last thing on Ruth Reichl’s mind as the pandemic began in 2020 was to make a food documentary. Like the rest of us, she just wanted groceries.
“I went to our supermarket and the shelves were empty. It was shocking,” Reichl says. “I came home and told my husband: ‘I’ve been waiting for this my whole life. Maybe this is the moment when Americans stop taking food for granted.’”
Reichl is one of America’s foremost food writers. The former chef, dining critic and magazine editor is a best-selling author and winner of six James Beard Foundation Awards.
Facing those empty supermarket shelves, Reichl wondered how the thousands of independent farmers, ranchers and fishermen — and the restaurants and markets they supply — would survive.
“Would we end up with a completely industrialized food system?” she says. “I wanted to bear witness to it, so I started calling people without knowing how it’s going to end up on the other side. I wanted a record of what happened.”
Reichl says she eventually talked to more than 170 people, including folks who work farms, ranches and waters across the United States.
“I learned how resilient farmers were,” she says. “They all had operating loans they were afraid they weren’t going to be able to pay off. They’re always on the edge of disaster. A rancher in the film told me: ‘Every year I go to the bank and borrow $8 million. I work 100 hours a week. I work three jobs and, in a good year, I take home $50,000. You think I want my children to live like this? You Americans — you count on the fact that we love our work, that we’re dedicated to it to keep farming for you.’”
The result of her research has come together in Food and Country, a celebrated new documentary screening June 14 at Chautauqua Auditorium. Reichl teamed with film director Laura Gabbert, who produced City of Gold, a documentary about lauded LA food critic Jonathan Gold.
Farm Wars: A New Hope
Food and Country is not preachy; it’s personal.
“The farmers and the people we choose to focus on have come up with wonderful solutions on their own,” Reichl says.
“I didn’t want to talk to one of the young, hippie, New Age farmers. The average age of the farmer in America is 64,” she adds. “These are people who’ve been farming their whole lives and [in their family] for many generations. If younger farmers don’t take over from them, all of those farms will either be consolidated or turned into tract homes.”
One organic farmer featured in the film saw his neighbor’s farm fail and be sold to a solar panel corporation. They were set to spray Roundup on the weeds, which would have drifted to the organic farmer’s fields.
Instead, the farm’s sheep are now used to control the weeds, and the farmer is able to raise more sheep.
“There are practical ideas for regenerative agriculture and keeping family farmers alive that could be funded by local, state or federal government,” Reichl says.
It’s policy change, not organic asparagus
To know how we got here, you need to look back at government policy after the end of World War II.
“We would fight communism by having the cheapest, most abundant food on Earth,” Reichl says. “The result of these policies has been a disaster to our health, to our environment and to our communities.”
It has resulted in a change of focus for Reichl.
“I used to give these impassioned speeches about our food, insisting that we can change the system, that as consumers we can vote with our dollars,” she says. “My big takeaway now is that’s nonsense. We need to completely change the government policy. For us to feel like we’re changing the world by buying organic food from local farmers is wrong.”
Our responsibility, as with so many pressing issues, is to get involved in the icky business of politics, she says.
“You must ask the people who are running for election in your communities, states and nationally where they stand on these issues. If we are going to help farmers, read up on the farm bill, find out what’s in there and get involved.”
The devastating costs of cheap food
Globally, climate and water shortages are already playing havoc with farming, Reichl says.
“If we don’t deal with climate change, we’re not going to be able to grow enough food anywhere in the world. When another crisis comes along — and it is going to come along — we really should be able to feed ourselves using local food sheds.”
Food may be a more pressing national security problem than missile defense systems.
“Currently, we don’t grow enough food in this country to feed ourselves because we grow commodity crops, which are mostly animal food,” she says.
Ultimately, according to Reichl, the real cost of cheap crops is apparent in a nation where about six in 10 Americans have food-related chronic diseases.
“Do you want to spend your money at the supermarket or the doctor’s office? Maybe you don’t need that third pair of sneakers. Maybe you should spend more on your food,” she says.
“We ended up making this movie because I really do believe that these are life or death issues for us.”
Food and Country screens June 14 at Chautauqua Auditorium. Tickets: chautauqua.com. John Lehndorff will moderate an audience Q&A with Ruth Reichl following the screening.
Local Food News: Mushrooms to Burgundy
The colorful food history of Boulder is explored in a documentary about The Sink’s 100 years of burgers and beer, screening June 14 at Boulder Theater.
Elephant Fusion Cafe and Turkish bakery has closed at 4800 Baseline Road.
La Vita Bella restaurant, 471 Main St. in Longmont, closes June 23.
Words to Chew On: What Ruth Ate
“I made clam pasta last night that was a very simple, but really satisfying meal. All I added was garlic, parsley, steamed clams, and a little bit of wine. Gather all that clam liquid and cook the pasta in the juice from the clams. Clams are one of the best things you can eat because they’re filter feeders which improve the water they live in.”
— Ruth Reichl
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles Thursday mornings on KGNU. Podcasts: bit.ly/RadioNibbles