Sundance Film Festival: Food and Country is a Vital Documentary That Explores America’s Problematic Food System During COVID

Sundance Film Festival: Food and Country is a Vital Documentary That Explores America’s Problematic Food System During COVID

Food critics who thrived in supporting restaurants before the COVID-19 pandemic closed dine-in services across America in March 2020 were forced to reevaluate their careers during the national lock down. But former Los Angeles Times and New York Times restaurant critic, Ruth Reichl, is one such food writer who was able to pivot in her career once the pandemic hit, due to her interest in supporting sustainability.

Reichl’s mission to champion  social justice in the food and restaurant industry is chronicled in the new compelling, inspiring documentary, Food and Country. The restaurant critic collaborated with acclaimed documentarian Laura Gabbert, on the new feature.

Gabbert directed and produced Food and Country to chronicle the expansive history behind an ever-increasing consolidating food industry. The movie covers a rich cultural spectrum, from fine dining rooms to farmlands, and chronicles the inspirational changemakers who helped redefine the food and restaurant industries since the beginning of the pandemic.

Food and Country follows the trailblazing Reichl, who worries about the fate of chefs, small farmers and ranchers as they wrestle with both immediate and systemic challenges. As the pandemic takes hold of not only the U.S., but also the world, she reaches across political and social divides to discover innovators who are risking it all to survive on the front lines. The film transcends the health crisis to share how America’s decades-old policy of producing cheap food at all costs restricts purveyors who are striving to stay independent.

What began as a journalistic endeavor blooms into a series of intimate friendships. As Reichl witnesses and follows intrepid characters as they contend with intractable circumstances, she takes stock of the path she’s traveled and the ideals she left behind. Through her perspective, she helps viewers understand the humanity and struggle behind the food they eat.

Food and Country emotionally revitalizes the national discussion about the role of food in American society and business through a unique perspective on culinary trends. The food writer engages in discussions with a diverse group of business owners within the food industry, from chefs to farmers and ranchers, who encourage all Americans to reevaluate America’s complicated relationship with food production and consumption.

Chef and farm-to-table innovator Alice Waters, San Francisco-based award-winning chef Reem Assil of Reem’s and Los Angeles-based chef Minh Phan of Porridge + Puffs and Phenakite are among those accomplished restaurateurs who are featured in the documentary. They engage in emotionally gripping and informational video calls with Reichl about the despair over the sudden collapse of the restaurant scene across the country over the past few years.

The restaurant critic also engages in captivating conversations with farmers and ranchers who reveal revolutionary secrets about their trades, which produce the raw ingredients for restaurant menus. Those farmers and ranchers honestly share the despair they felt when their clients had to close their restaurants, which led them to also face a nearly catastrophic loss of business.

Among the farmers and ranchers Reichl speaks to are brothers Lee and Bob Jones Jr., the owners of Chef’s Garden Farms in Huron, Ohio, a fresh produce supplier for the area’s top restaurants. Throughout the movie, the Jones family is shown being heartbreaking forced to reevaluate their business strategy in order to survive as they witness a significant drop in business.

Reichl also speaks with cattle rancher Steve Stratford of Kansas’ Stratford Angus, who’s forced to battle multinational meatpackers and consolidation in the beef industry. The food writer also speaks with south Bronx-based urban farmer and activist, Karen Washington, who fights for the rights of Black farmers and advocates for social justice through her Rise and Root Farms and community education programs. Stratford and Washington powerfully chronicle the structural barriers that small operators face in the food industry, and their determined fight for survival, especially during such a harrowing national health crisis as COVID.

Initially constrained by early pandemic travel restrictions, Gabbert expertly filmed Reichl’s interviews through a hybrid format that alternates between onsite sequences shot by local crews and the restaurant critic’s video calls with the chefs, farmers and ranchers who appear in the film. The diverse interactions between Reichl and her interview subjects are interwoven by Philip Owens’ insightful, intuitive editing. Owens also expertly blended the food writer’s engaging interviews with captivating archival photos and news footage that help personalize each interviewee’s story.

Food and Country thrives as an intriguing, vital exploration into the need for everyone in America to champion sustainability and social justice in the food and restaurant industry. The documentary perfectly chronicle the expansive history behind, and projected future of, the consolidating food industry, and celebrates the inspirational influencers who helped redefine the industries since the beginning of the pandemic.

Reichl and Gabbert assembled a diverse and engaging group of subjects who have a wide variety of backgrounds and viewpoints to participate in the movie and offer first-hand insight into their experiences. Reichl is a captivating interviewer on the subject, given her background as a restaurant critic, and approaches her interviews in a sympathetic way that readily elicits genuine, emotional responses.

Reichl’s authentic perspectives as a food writer also make Food and Country a diligent assessment into the contradictions and inadequacies of the nation’s food production and distribution systems. The film’s overall compassionate interview and editing styles help create an equitable and sustainable path for farmers, restaurants and consumers across America.

Grade: A-

Food and Country had its premiere on January 23 in the Premieres section at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

Check out more of Karen Benardello’s articles.

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