A local filmmaker is tackling the nation’s most pressing political issues through the lens of food in a five-part television series.
Brian Falk, a Santa Monica-based producer, writer and director, worked with James Beard Award-winning TV personality and chef Andrew Zimmern on “What’s Eating America,” a series airing each Sunday at 6 p.m. Pacific time on MSNBC through March 15. Zimmern calls the series a “return to kitchen table civics” at a time when Americans are deeply polarized over how to address the nazztion’s problems.
Falk started producing and directing food series for Zimmern three years ago and has worked on feature and documentary films about a range of political issues, including the war in Rwanda, children’s health in Nepal and the plight of Sudanese refugees.
For Falk, who calls himself a “storyteller” who “gets bored easily,” “What’s Eating America” presented an opportunity to dive into new territory by blending food and politics for the first time.
In the series’ first two episodes, which aired Feb. 16 and Feb. 23, Zimmern investigates how America’s food system depends on the labor of immigrants and how climate change is already affecting the country’s seafood harvests.
The opening, two-hour episode on immigration, “Who’s Feeding America,” tracks the supply chain of food served at Trump Grill and on Capitol Hill to juxtapose the reality that the country’s food system would collapse without immigrant and migrant workers against the federal government’s hostile immigration policy.
A segment on the large population of Marshallese people who work for the Springdale, Arkansas-based poultry processor Tyson Foods underscores that dissonance. After conducting nuclear testing in the Marshall Islands in the late 1940s through the early 1960s, the U.S. government allowed Marshallese people to work in the country without a visa and many settled in Springdale to work for Tyson.
Falk said the episode dispels the fallacy that migrants, whether they’re documented or undocumented, are stealing jobs from native-born Americans, who rarely take the type of labor-intensive farming, manufacturing or cooking jobs that keep the food system running.
In fact, he said, the rhetoric and policies coming out of the White House are making it difficult for food producers across the country to find workers.
“To the extent that we demean people and hunt them down with ICE raids, we affect our food system,” Falk said. “We are literally making it more difficult for us to eat.”
Last week, Zimmern visited communities that have been reliant on populations of fish and shellfish that are now disappearing. Florida’s Apalachicola Bay used to produce 10% of the country’s oysters, but rising ocean temperatures have decimated the bay’s ecosystem.
“We spent five or six hours on the water there and managed to rake up one live oyster,” Falk said.
The reason why the oysters vanished wasn’t immediately clear to the people of Apalachicola, though.
“They had been told by the previous Florida government that didn’t want the use of the term climate change in any of their documents that it was because of other reasons: the BP oil spill, or Atlanta holding back freshwater,” Falk said. “It’s a narrative created to boost the fossil fuel industry at the expense of the environment.”
Over the next three weeks, the show will tackle the growing problem of addiction in the restaurant business, voter suppression and the relationship between processed food and health.
The addiction episode, “A Chef’s Story,” will air Sunday. The episode reflects Zimmern’s personal connection with the topic — at the beginning of his career, he struggled with drug and alcohol addiction and was homeless for one year.
The episode features Ben’s Friends, a support group for culinary professionals dealing with addiction, and Zero Proof, which brings together award-winning chefs to create a dinner party with alcohol-free drinks.
“One of the things we made sure we were doing is spending some time being solution-oriented, looking at the fixes that are being made, the attempts being made to right the ship on whatever the issue is,” Falk said.
Listen to the interview in this week’s podcast.