By Mike Szymanski
Mike Szymanski is part of the California Institute of Contemporary Arts (www.cica.org) that helped fund the LA Food Ways documentary as well as the upcoming Atlanta project, and has funded Raphael’s GreenWish (https://www.greenwish.com) foundation.
Actor, activist and filmmaker Raphael Sbarge is obsessed with food lately.
In his latest documentary he melds the history of Los Angeles with the creation of food sources and ways to avoid wasting the large quantity of food produced in the area.
The reality is, he points out, that no one needs to go hungry in Los Angeles, or California, or even the nation, if we only can figure out ways to redistribute all the food produced and how to keep it from being tossed out.
The documentary “LA Food Ways” by KCET is available on local channels throughout the next month as well as via Roku, Amazon Prime, YouTube and AppleTV.
In February, Raphael kicked off a fundraiser that brought out some of his celebrity friends as well as panelists who are featured in the documentary and answered questions during a panel after the screening. Among the stars turning out included Celeste Thorson (“Antidote”), Mateus Ward (“Hostages,” “Lab Rats”), Tony Amendola (“Annabelle”), Lee Arenberg (“Pirates of the Carribbean”), Vivian Bang (“Swedish Dicks”), Jonathan Chase (“Gamer”), Karen David (“Legacies”), James Kyson (“Heroes”) and others who co-starred with Raphael in the TV shows “Murder in the First” and “Once Upon a Time.”
Raphael’s longtime friend, actor and environmentalist Ed Begley Jr., said, “I thought I knew a lot about food and the environment, but I learned a lot here today.” Begley who works with Raphael on GreenWish (https://www.greenwish.com), which helps local groups create environmental projects.
Rachelle Carson-Begley who also attended the screening and is on the GreenWish board of directors, said, “I was very impressed with the way it was all presented.”
And “Better Call Saul” actor Patrick Fabian said, “Raphael is a good storyteller and this is a good story to tell in a fascinating way.”
As the documentary details, it’s hard to believe that as recently as in the early 1900s most people never saw an orange, and didn’t know what one tasted like. The Sunkist Corporation then created the second gold rush for California with the blossoming citrus industry.
And quickly, by the 1920s, citrus became the second largest income-generator in the state, only behind oil.
And today — even with the abundance of produce all around — there are “food deserts” where it’s impossible to find good nutritious foods in certain areas of the Los Angeles urban sprawl. For example, the historically riot-torn neighborhood of Watts once was the location for alfalfa fields where barley and lima greens grew. Now, the good soil was covered over by concrete and it’s hard to find good food in the area.
But, a group called Food Forward is carting fruits and vegetables that would otherwise spoil and bringing it directly to the people of Watts for free. Rick Nahmias who helped start Food Forward said it’s a simple solution of picking off the fruit of neighbors trees that they can’t use, and getting it to people who can’t afford to buy it. Many subdivisions sprouted up in orange groves and people have the trees in their backyards with more fruit they can use personally.
“We give individuals the opportunity to eat healthier and they like the fresh fruit and vegetables,” Nahmias said, who has a group of volunteers that carts food to more needy communities.
Clare Fox from the Los Angeles Food Policy Council told the audience after the screening, “Food is political, it takes a lot of money. We need to have edible gardens in parkways and median strips and open up vacant lots. Simple policies like this can end hunger and change communities.”
For Los Angeles, the city council recently approved legalizing street vendors, which wasn’t always the case, but is also helping ease the food distribution problems.
Tim Watkins, of the Watts Labor Community Action Committee, said he was born and raised in Watts and “I had to fight powerful politicians to get what we have.”
After former First Lady Michelle Obama brought the importance of home-grown food to the attention of the nation, Watkins said many areas started community gardens like she did on the White House lawn.
“For a lot of people they are worried about where they are going to sleep tonight and where to find work, they do not worry about nutrition, and it doesn’t have to be that way,” Watkins said.
A.G. Kawamura, former secretary of the California Department of Food and Agriculture, said they are learning a lot of diverse ways to grow plants, in part because of the burgeoning marijuana industry.
“We are living in a renaissance because of all the new system that are emerging,” Kawamura said. “We still rely on soil, sun and water of course.”
Watkins added, “This new Jetson-type farming that is being developed can feed everyone.”
After the packed house and the positive reception at the first screening, Raphael said, “This has been a powerful journey for me. Incredible people have taken me on this journey.”
The documentary examines food in Los Angeles through six distinct episodes, including the agricultural history of the area and how that helps to understand the food waste challenges.
Panelists at the screening also depicted in the film also include Tim Alderson (Seeds of Hope; Solutions for Urban Agriculture), Rachel Surls (Master Gardener Program, UC Cooperative Extension, Los Angeles County) and actor-writer-producer Lakisha May.
Raphael made a big splash with his educational film “A Concrete River: Reviving the Waters of Los Angeles” (https://www.facebook.com/watch/?v=1929549457070621) and plans to continue fascinating documentary subjects. He just recently received a grant to start funding a documentary project based in Atlanta centering on a the adaptive reuse of the old historic Pullman train yard, (https://atlanta.curbed.com/2018/5/24/17387138/documentary-pratt-pullman-yard-kirkwood-atlanta-hollywood) restoring 13 buildings on 28 acres of state and federally historic landmarks.