This is the latest installment in our Nourishing Heroes series, in which we feature the individuals and organizations who inspire us with food that nourishes body, soul and planet. Do you know a Nourishing Hero we should feature on Nourish Network? Let us know who inspires you!
If you attended Yale University about 10 years ago, you may have crossed paths with Curt Ellis (above left) and Ian Cheney (right), members of the class of 2002 who combined a passionate commitment to consciousness-raising with a flair for the dramatic. To underscore students’ desire for Yale’s cafeterias to serve food that was minimally processed, pesticide-free and grown in a responsible manner, the two and their cohorts released live sheep onto the campus quad and brought in kiddie pools filled with manure.
“Part of it was to have fun,” Ellis now acknowledges, “but there were definitely politics involved.”
The Brooklyn-based pair has since gone on to interweave politics, advocacy and entertainment in their careers, most notably through the founding of their production company Wicked Delicate Films. Their 2004 release King Corn, produced and directed by Ellis’ cousin Aaron Woolf, followed the duo as they grew an acre of corn in Iowa and then traced its movement through America’s industrial food system. The film picked up a prestigious Peabody Award, and it came out when the cultural zeitgeist was beginning to focus on the multifaceted perils of what’s now referred to as Big Ag.
Ellis says books like The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Fast Food Nation and documentary SuperSize Me were all part of this same general movement toward greater transparency in food production, and within a few years, the growing public consciousness surrounding food issues suddenly picked up enormous traction. King Corn both reflected, and advanced, this burgeoning food consciousness.
Today, Ellis and Cheney work together on several advocacy programs and tour the country speaking at conferences and on college campuses. Each is also the point person for their newest slate of projects.
Ellis, for his part, is a founding member of FoodCorps, a national AmeriCorps public service initiative that will train a fresh generation of young people to work in school gardens, implement farm-to-cafeteria programs and lead nutrition education projects at sites across the country.
“We love working on something that can make such a tangible difference,” he says. “FoodCorps basically provides a troop surge in the response to the obesity epidemic.” (FoodCorps’ first host sites will be selected on Nov. 17.)
Cheney, meanwhile, is focusing on Truck Farm, a new documentary, slated to premiere this winter, that features the 1986 Dodge pick-up his grandfather gave him when he graduated from college. (It’s the same truck Cheney and Ellis drove to Iowa to shoot King Corn.) Cheney has since turned the truck into a green-roofed mobile garden with 20 varieties of fruits and vegetables, including serrano and poblano peppers, sugar snap peas, cherry tomatoes, okra, chard, kale, lettuce and a wide variety of herbs. Truck Farm (the vehicle) has traveled to 40 schools up and down the eastern seaboard, up the steps of the U.S. Botanic Garden and to the USDA in Washington, D.C. The pair uses the pickup to get people excited about how easy it is to grow food themselves.
The documentary, produced with the help of crowd-sourced funding from Kickstarter and a generous grant from the sustainable clothing company Nau, tells the story of how people around the country grow food in innovative places.
Ultimately, Ellis says, he and Cheney want to inspire America’s young people to pick up shovels and garden or farm–and to see that choice as a dignified one. The most important message, though, he adds, is: “It’s OK for food advocacy to be fun.”
Meet our other Nourishing Heroes:
- Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food
- Kelly Masini, San Jose, Calif.-based community garden activist
- Chris Guillebeau, author of The Art of Non-Conformity
- Rebecca Katz, author of The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen
- Ana Sofia Joanes, director/producer of FRESH: The Movie
Cheryl Sternman Rule is a food and nutrition writer whose work has appeared in numerous national magazines, including EatingWell and Body+Soul. She is the voice behind the food blog 5 Second Rule.