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Food Equity Film Fest kicks off Friday

Over the summer, the Rogue Valley Farm to School and Fry Family Farm foodbox program leveraged a nearly $1 million USDA grant to pack 2,000 boxes of fresh produce for weekly distribution over 12 weeks — May through early August.

The grant was built to tap into large-scale production operations, not local family farms and nonprofits, Rogue Valley Farm to School Executive Director Sheila Foster said, but she applied for it anyway.

Now in October, in recognition of National Farm to School month, Foster assembled an Oct. 23-25 film series with Ashland Independent Film Festival, focused on themes of food equity.

“Farm to Families,” a film by Katherine Roselli documenting the Rogue Valley Farm to School summer project, is on the list.

Looking back, navigating the logistics of filling and distributing so many boxes through schools was a challenge, packed within the complexities of the COVID-19 crisis, Foster said.

School staff were busy preparing lunches and didn’t have the resources to handle the sheer quantity of food. Enter 30 Rogue Valley Farm to School volunteers.

“Sure enough, it turned into this wonderful way in which the community could really be involved in helping to take care of families who lost their jobs,” Foster said. “I think everybody was wanting to do something if they could.”

Bus drivers took boxes out to homes in more remote locations. Farmers had another market in which to distribute their produce. A total of 240,000 pounds of food were directly shared with families, with a “Food for Thought” activity and recipe guide tucked inside boxes.

Schools stepped up to feed families during the coronavirus pandemic, when leaders realized how heavily some families rely on schools to help balance their monthly grocery bill, Foster said. Ensuring the food is healthful takes one step further toward food equity.

Locally, students might bring a home-packed lunch filled with fresh produce and healthful items, while their peers across the table have a predominantly processed meal with a small piece of lettuce or nothing at all, Foster said, in her experience witnessing food insecurity.

“It evens the playing field,” she said of food equity. “If every child that walks in that door is going to get a good, healthy lunch, they’re going to have a lot better chance of having full tummies and sitting down and studying and focusing.”

Rogue Valley Farm to School is pushing to raise $360,000 to pay for 250 boxes per week from Nov. 1 through June 2021, as a continuation of the foodbox program. For now, the organization works with Central Point students hands-on in the garden and contributes to virtual learning curriculums across the valley.

Over the past summer, Rogue Valley Farm to School began to explore better ways of incorporating cultural diversity, inclusivity and the true meaning of food equity in their educational curriculum.

Foster hopes the film “Gather,” which explores the meaning of traditional foods in tribal communities, will serve as a starting point for continued conversation among the Rogue Valley Food System Network, Native American Student Union at Southern Oregon University and others.

“We’re hoping that this film weekend is just the start of much longer conversations about how do we create food equity in our community, how do we be as inclusive as possible, how do we make sure that people have access to the food that makes sense to feel healthy — what does that mean?” Foster posed.

Meanwhile, back in May, Roselli was working with a filmmaker who had been quarantined in the area, Alyssa Gruhn, on some new camera techniques. By the time they said, “now we need to make a movie,” an open call from Rogue Valley Farm to School came into Roselli’s inbox, searching for filmmakers to craft some videos about the foodbox program.

Roselli had volunteered with the organization before and thought the opportunity was a perfect fit. Three women — Roselli, Gruhn and film editor Patricia Somers — cut the film together virtually in just a few months.

During filming, the team visited Fry Family Farm and participating schools — while observing COVID-19 protective protocols — and talked with families as they received fresh food boxes.

Through filmmaking, she was shocked to learn how many families were considered food insecure prior to the pandemic — about one in four in the area. Oregon and Jackson County’s food insecurity rate sits as one of the highest in the nation, according to the Ashland Emergency Food Bank.

Apart from its cinematic value, Roselli said, her film highlights the challenge of accessing organic, fresh food that persists in the Rogue Valley, heightened by 2020 crises.

“It underscores what a community can do when it rallies for people that don’t have the same access to food as members of the (Ashland Food) Co-Op, for example,” she said.

As a “particularly poetic cinematographer,” Gruhn’s influence on the film contributed slow motion capture, time lapse, drone footage and other artistic characteristics to Roselli’s traditionally journalistic style, she said.

“Fields of food are amazing anyway,” Roselli said, but the team found ways to uniquely capture the visual beauty of sweeping fields of ready-to-pick chard.

For Roselli, the film series presents an opportunity to recognize a harsh reality in the Rogue Valley in a creative and immersive way. For Foster, she hopes viewers internalize the positive messaging embedded in the films and cherish some good news about her organization’s work, amid relentless “bad news” today.

The three-day virtual film festival is part of AIFF’s “Best of the Fests” series.

Contact Ashland Tidings reporter Allayana Darrow at adarrow@rosebudmedia.com or 541-776-4497 and follow her on Twitter @AllayanaD.

courtesy photo“Farm to Families,” a film by Katherine Roselli documenting the Rogue Valley Farm to School summer project, will be shown at an Oct. 23-25 film series with Ashland Independent Film Festival, focused on themes of food equity.
courtesy photo“Farm to Families,” a film by Katherine Roselli documenting the Rogue Valley Farm to School summer project, will be shown at an Oct. 23-25 film series with Ashland Independent Film Festival, focused on themes of food equity.