Cheney and Ellis Recount Their Food Activism Journey

When a professor at Yale University told Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis about a batch of poisoned milk that had killed 24 Peruvian schoolchildren, they developed an interest in the harmful effects of processed foods. Having made that interest into their profession, the two filmmaker-activists presented their work tracing the sources of food in an All-School Meeting (ASM) to complement campus sustainability efforts for Earth Week.

Through staging on-campus demonstrations, producing their award winning documentary “King Corn” and founding their non-profit organization FoodCorps, which aims to educate children about healthy food from natural sources, Cheney and Ellis have dedicated themselves to raising awareness about food quality.

During their presentation, Cheney and Ellis discussed the development and progression of their interest in food and its sources. While attending Yale University, the pair released sheep on the campus green, filled kiddie pools with manure and brought local farmers to speak about their experiences to the student body.

After graduating, Cheney and Ellis went on a road trip from Connecticut to California to examine food sources and farms.

On their trip, the pair visited an egg farm, where they were exposed to cramped, smelly and unsanitary factory farms that are characteristic of many farms in the country. “After seeing that farm, the food we ate didn’t taste the same,” Cheney said.

They also talked to natural farmers and food activists, including Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” Wes Jackson, president of The Land Institute, and Alice Waters, chef and author of “In The Green Kitchen.”

“During our trip, we gained great mentors, and they really drove us to do something more, and to make people more aware of the problem,” Cheney said.

The pair then decided to make a documentary, “King Corn,” to increase public awareness about food. The documentary stars Ellis and Cheney and is directed by Ellis’ cousin, Aaron Woolf.

To film “King Corn,” Ellis and Cheney moved to Iowa and grew an acre of corn. The film follows the path of this acre of corn through the food industry and traces some of the 5,000 foods, healthy and not, that are derived from or associated with corn, ranging from high fructose corn syrup to beef.

Cheney and Ellis also discussed the impact of the government on the food industry.

“This year, Americans have given $5 billion in tax money to corn growers,” Ellis said.

While Cheney and Ellis support the Farm Bill, a government issues statute to regulate food prices, they have visited Washington twice to present their film and speak in front of Congress in favor of a reformed farm bill.

“We want a Farm Bill that can encourage young people to grow good food,” Ellis said.

The duo also started their own nonprofit, FoodCorps, designed to support leaders in a year of public service to encourage food awareness in children and supply healthier and more nutritious school lunches, through planting and education projects in schools.

The organization currently has 50 service members working in Arizona, Arkansas, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Carolina and Oregon.

Another project started by Cheney, Truck Farm, seeks to increase interest in gardening around the country. The program started when Cheney decided to grow a garden in the back of his 1986 Ford pickup truck due to a lack of green space in the city.

As of 2011, 25 truck farms have been established all across the country, according to the project’s website.

“Although the growing size and number of urban farms is encouraging, the enduring value of urban agriculture may be chiefly educational: Truck Farm helps young people think outside the box,” wrote Cheney in “The Huffington Post.”

“Food is an excellent topic to cover, because I’d say our eating habits affect ourselves and the environment possibly more than any other choice we make, which people don’t really realize,” wrote Amanda MacDonald ’12, who worked with the Eco-Action club and Carlos Hoyt, Associate Dean of Students, to bring Cheney and Ellis to campus, in an email to The Phillipian.

“They didn’t try to force too big a change on us, like ‘everyone become vegetarians!’ which was smart, because that kind of tends not to go over well with Andover students. Instead they encouraged us to be more inquiring about where our food comes from, which I think is very realistic,” continued MacDonald.

In addition to “King Corn,” Ellis and Cheney have produced “The Greening of Southie,” “Big River,” “Truck Farm,” and “The City Dark” with their production company, Wicked Delicate Films.