Watching “Fertile Ground” on PBS

The documentary Fertile Ground originally aired on Mississippi Public Broadcasting in June 2020 and focuses on issues of food insecurity in Jackson, which is both the state’s capitol and its largest city. While the problems constitute the early portion of the 26-minute film, a solution is there, too: turning to localized food systems rather than continuing to rely on national, corporate, efficiency-based food options.  

Fertile Ground begins by explaining the effects that “food deserts” have on low-income people, especially African-Americans who disproportionately experience these problems. Fast food restaurants and small stores that sell mostly cheap, processed  food appear more prevalently in low-income, African American neighborhoods than do larger grocery stores that offer healthier options, which causes many residents to either buy what is readily available or take more long, inconvenient trips to stores in other areas of town. However, in Mississippi, there are local urban farmers, nonprofit leaders, and chefs who are trying to change that scenario by rethinking land use, educating people on how the system works, and offering options for buying better quality, healthier foods.  

There are several commonly held beliefs and myths at play here: that everyone simply chooses what foods to eat, that unhealthy choices are a personal problem affecting only individuals, and that food options are widely visible and prevalent so everyone must have access to them. Fertile Ground shows us that none of those oversimplified assumptions are correct.  People can only choose and buy the foods that are available to them, and factors like price and transportation affect what is available to whom. Consequently, unhealthy foods are not always consumed by choice, but often out of necessity, because time constraints and expense affect those choices. Finally, food may be everywhere we look, but it isn’t available to everyone— because lower-income people look around their neighborhoods and don’t have the options that affluent neighborhoods have.  So, the narrative that people choose what they eat is not as simple as that. 

Watching this short documentary, I was glad to see that the discussion included the school system and its lunch program. One person addressed the fact, which most people don’t know or understand, that schools and lunchrooms operate as separate entities while in the same space at the same time. Furthermore, for some children, the free meals they eat at school are the only meals that they eat, and beyond that, malnutrition affects the ability to learn. If anyone in our country needs a steady diet of plentiful and wholesome food, it is the children who utilize our schools’ free and reduced lunch programs. Beliefs and narratives aside, any decent person should oppose childhood hunger and should support any program and any cost that alleviates their hunger and nourishes their bodies and minds. 

Fertile Ground shows us, in the short space of less than a half-hour, that there are solutions to the problem of food insecurity in the South. But it will involve dispelling the narrative that food choices are made by unconstrained individuals, and it will involve giving up some beliefs about access. We often think that, in a free country, anyone can go anywhere they want and do anything they want. That’s just not true.  What is true was stated near the end of the documentary by chef Enrika Williams in one of the feature interviews: “sharing with everybody else helps us all.”

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