Tales from Planet Earth
Illustration by Brandon Raygo

The words "environmental issues" often evoke seemingly distant, intangible problems, like melting arctic ice or droughts on the other side of the globe, things that feel removed from our daily lives.

But the Tales of Planet Earth film festival shows us that the environment isn't something that happens out there; "it's where we live, work and play," said festival co-founder and UW-Madison professor Gregg Mitman.

And one of our most visible connections to the environment is our food. The film "What's On Your Plate?" by Catherine Gund screened Saturday morning at the MMoCA theater, followed by a Q&A with the filmmakers.

The plucky documentary follows Gund's daughter, Sadie, and friend Safiyah as they traipse across the city talking to friends, chefs and school and government leaders to find out what their friends are eating, where that food comes from, and how to increase access to fresh, healthy food.

"At first the movie was going to be about 'bad' vegetarians, the ones who don't eat any vegetables," said Sadie Hope-Gund, explaining that when she was around 10 years old, she'd noticed a bunch of her classmates were turning vegetarian and mostly ate pizza and pasta and cheese.

Then, she tasted a tomato on a family trip to Ohio that changed all that. After eating a plump, sweet cherry tomato, Sadie wanted to know why this one tasted so much better than any other tomato she'd ever had. They drove off to meet the local gardener, and the trip set in motion their journey to find the real stories behind our food.

The film follows the girls as they make changes in their own neighborhood. They convince their elementary school to start providing more vegetables at lunch, teach a friend's dad about local farmers' markets to help him eat better after his heart attack and help make connections between food growers and food eaters.

The girls also meet the Angel family, which grows veggies sold at a local market but is just barely making enough to cover business costs. The family needs a guaranteed income. The school needs veggies. A new partnership is born. Not only does Sadie's former elementary school buy weekly shares of the Angel family's produce, but the students actually visit the farm and learn about the growing process.

"With many environmental films about food, people leave the theater without ever wanting to eat again," says Gund, but she wanted "What's On Your Plate?" to be about solutions, about how to eat good food.

The film ends by asking "What's going on in your neighborhood?" One Madisonian, Nathan Larson of Community Groundworks at Troy Gardens, has some great answers to that question.

Community Groundworks at Troy Gardens is connecting people across the Madison community. Part of its work is teaching kids from low-income homes how to grow and harvest food. The garden gets seedlings donated by a horticulture program at Oak Hill Correctional Institution, and then the excess from the harvest is donated to local food pantries. Community Groundworks has also begun a teacher-training program and so far has trained more than 20 teachers to start gardens and integrate fresh veggies into students' meals and education.

After the movie screening on the Capitol Square, junior chefs Raymond Bailey and Japhy Wright Miller chopped, diced and rolled, making spring rolls from fresh ingredients they helped grow at Troy's Kids Garden. The kids' small hands confidently and comfortably handled ingredients that might have baffled lesser chefs -- pea-vine, kohlrabi and a turnip-looking vegetable.

Larson says that in addition to some great natural spaces to play in, the garden really gives the kids a chance to take ownership over their food, and be leaders. And their hard work means more local food and more healthy, fresh produce donated to food pantries.

And besides that, the food just tastes good, the kids attest. When asked about how students responded to more veggies in school lunches, filmmaker Sadie smiled and gave a thumbs up, "They like 'em."

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