“Food Forward”: After the Apocalypse, Collards

A new TV pilot broadcasting on PBS this month takes a fresh point of view on America’s urban farming movement.

In Food Forward’s 30-minute pilot episode, the producers take a cross-country road trip to show how Americans are turning rooftops, empty lots, and abandoned buildings into farms.

What’s cool about Food Forward is the way it makes the case for urban ag as a powerful grassroots movement, without drawing on the usual clichés. No Michael Pollan or Alice Waters here talking about feedlots or farmers’ markets, only a fresh cast of urban farmers in places as unlikely as Milwaukee and the Bronx; men and women MacGyvering local fixes to a food industry overtaken by massive production and distribution systems. They're like the poor folk standing up to the corrupt elites of Panem in The Hunger Games.

For me, the most amazing scenes in Food Forward take place in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood, a place so scarred by poverty and crime it resembles the post-apocalypse. Like a set for the AMC zombie series The Walking Dead, it’s a place of abandoned houses and weirdly quiet streets.

Suddenly, Edith Floyd cuts through the squalor on a bright red tractor. Floyd is a middle-aged urban farmer who plants food gardens in abandoned Corktown lots. She seems patient but determined in her quest to have the city grant her farming rights to abandoned property. Floyd seems to have pretty much the same sense of purpose as another Corktown farmer, Travis Roberts, a kid who took up urban chicken farming (he sells hundreds of eggs a week to local restaurants). Between holding up a pair of adorable pit puppies, Roberts talks about how chicken farming turned his life around. I admit it: It made me a little misty.

You don’t walk away from the show with anything more than a vague impression of the size of the urban ag movement, since nothing is quantified—no figures about the volume of food that cities are producing, or how many dollars it generates, or even the zoning obstacles to turning your empty lot into a mini farm. Instead, you see Abeni Ramsey, an urban farmer and mom in West Oakland, California, say, “I think it’s a revolutionary act to plant a tomato plant in the backyard.” It’s a line Alice Waters has uttered so many times she should have trademarked it. From the lips of cool-looking, beanie-topped Ramsey, in a neighborhood that looks only slightly less ravaged than Corktown, the statement sounds fresh again.

The pilot was produced by a team that includes director Greg Roden and food writer Stett Holbrook. It's rolling out over various PBS stations in the coming weeks (check the broadcast schedule for dates). More episodes are planned for later this year.

Image source: Food Forward / Facebook

John Birdsall is senior editor at CHOW. You can follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW, too, and become a fan on Facebook.