We have an obesity crisis in American now, but the reasons for that are largely flipped. Poor people are overweight and obese while the wealthy are now the skinny ones. It turns out that nutritious foods are now more expensive, and people on the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder can only afford processed foods that are very low in nutritional content. Add to that a recent economic recovery that hasn’t really been there for the middle class and below and you have a real problem: overweight, yet nutritionally starved, people in the wealthiest country in the history of human beings.
The new documentary film, Can You Dig This, offers up a very real solution: urban farming. Los Angeles is obsessed with the farm-to-table concept, but what happens when you don’t have access to the farm?
Full disclosure (and I’m a little bit embarrassed to admit this): I’ve never been to South Central Los Angeles, and I’ve live here for over eight years. One of my closest friends graduated from Compton High School, and I’ve never even seen the school he went to. Los Angeles is such a sprawling metopolitan area, that it’s very easy to avoid certain places; in order to go to the them, you have to make a conscious decision to make that your destination. It’s one of the biggest poverty areas in LA and also one of the biggest poverty areas in the entire United States. You can go on about your business without ever even driving through. Out of sight, out of mind — it’s tragic the way we let communities slip through the cracks.
One of the great things about director Delia Vallot’s film is she plunges the audience into the neighborhoods most viewers have never experienced first hand. There’s an immediacy to that that’s highly effective.
Her main subject is a man named Ron, a man with an idea to create a community garden in unused or underutilized urban space. The garden would be used to provide nutritious fruits and vegetables to the lower-income residents in the area. Ron started his idea by first planting a garden at his home. Of course, he was almost immediately cited by the city for growing his garden without the proper permits. He worked to rally the community to his side.
The film focuses on a handful of people who have been involved in the gardening movement in South Central and points out how there is not just a practical aspect to creating a healthy food source in a place without a Whole Foods. Yes, gardening is pragmatic. But, as the film illustrates through an ex-con called Spicey, there is something greater than that, as getting your body outside and your hands into the earth connects you spiritually to something greater than yourself.
Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, this film made me think about philosophers like Thoreau and Emerson, who talked about the transcendental experience of communing with nature. I hear LA locals talk about their need to “get out of the city” and they take a weekend to drive to Big Bear or a nearby nature reserve. What about the poor who can’t afford a weekend trip or don’t have a car to drive? Can You Dig This reminded me that we can transcend the city by getting our hands a little dirty.
I’m often frustrated by mainstream cinema and the way it’s created an audience that is so limited in what kinds of films it will watch or even how those films can be dramatically structured. I wish people would be more open to documentaries like Can You Dig This, a smaller-scaled film that promotes good policy ideas and introduces the audience to people who are well worth getting to know.