Recently we had the pleasure of getting to know Dan Susman, director and producer of the new documentary Growing Cities. The film follows Dan and his co-producer Andrew Monbouquette across the United States as they examine the growing urban farming movement. The Nebraska natives visited a total of 80 farms in vacant lots, rooftops, and backyards and interviewed the passionate people from all walks of life who tend them. Along the way, they learned a lot about community, food justice, and eating urban squirrels (spoiler: try at your own risk).
Sustainable America: What inspired you to make the film?
Dan Susman: We came back to our hometown, Omaha, after college and found very few sustainable farming projects. On top of that, we also saw billboards around town saying how unhealthy we were. At the same time, most of the media we saw around the food system was so negative. So we wanted to tell stories of people changing the food system where they lived. And for most people that is in cities.
SA: How did growing up in Nebraska shape your view of the food system?
DS: I grew up in Omaha, which is surrounded by giant farms of corn and soybeans, really the heart of industrial agriculture. But growing up I didn’t know that, and I planted veggies in my backyard with my mom and dad so I got really connected to food at an early age. I didn’t learn about the issues of industrial farming until college.
SA: You met with a variety of urban farmers and advocates throughout the film. How can average citizens navigate the world of urban farming and locate farms as well as like-minded community members nearby?
DS: A good place to start is where you live! The national urban farm map on our website is definitely a good tool to find urban farms in your area where you can get involved. I’d also suggest looking for community gardens or other local organizations you can volunteer with or join!
SA: What are some ways that individuals who feel inspired after watching the film can get involved in the cause?
DS: Our slogan is “Grow Where You Are.” For some that might mean planting something for the first time in their windowsill or backyard, while for others it might mean volunteering with a local farming organization or joining the food policy council.
SA: How did creating this film change your own perspective on urban agriculture?
DS: Personally, I didn’t realize how widespread and diverse the urban farming movement is. It’s not just hippies in Berkeley or hipsters in Bushwick. People from all across the political, economic, and social spectrum are growing food for a lot of different reasons. That’s what makes it so strong!
SA: What was the most valuable thing you learned in making this film?
DS: I think it was the realization that no matter who you are or where you come from that you can make a positive impact on your community. Obviously, we see food as that tool to make that change, but anyone, anywhere can do something, and that’s really what the film is about.
SA: What advice would you give to people who are considering starting a community garden or urban farm?
DS: Whatever you do, I’d suggest starting small and talking to community members before you get too far along. Get help from others, ask what they want, and make sure to have fun! An awesome group doing this work is 596 Acres.
SA: The film discusses food justice and its role in urban farming. What exactly is food justice and why is it important?
DS: Similar to social justice, food justice is the idea that everyone has the right to healthy, affordable, and culturally appropriate foods. So many folks, especially in low-income communities, don’t have this basic right so it’s really important we address that.
SA: Did you make any discoveries along the way that you weren’t expecting?
DS: Eating squirrel, especially urban squirrel, is not a good idea, especially if you’ve been a vegetarian for seven years. You’ll have to see DVD special features for that one though…
SA: The movie is centered around the message to “Grow Where You Are.” How have you seen this trend progress over the past five years?
DS: It’s incredible how fast the good food movement has grown in such a short time. Looking back historically and at what’s happening today, I think the movement is not just a trend, but something that will stick around for a long time.
Do you have the urban farming bug yet? If so, you can find a lot of resources for growing your own food on the film’s website.
Sustainable America believes that urban farming is one important way to make our food system more sustainable, and we hope this movie helps spread the word about the value of this movement and inspire more people to be a part of it. Here are some ways to join in: Grow some food, buy from an urban farm in your area, or eat at restaurants that do.