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Heroes, villains hard to peg in Lunch Line

Say this for Chicago filmmaker Michael Graziano: He has turned 60 years of the dry, political history of the national school lunch program into an engaging and entertaining werewolves-versus-vampires cartoon/documentary, with no obviously good guys to root for or clearly bad guys to boo.

Graziano was in Denver Thursday night for a special screening of Lunch Line, the much-talked-about hour-long documentary that examines why it’s so hard to serve healthy food in our nation’s school lunchrooms.

Fittingly, the screening took place in the cafeteria at SOAR, the Denver charter school in Green Valley Ranch that serves mostly organic, locally-produced vegetarian meals to students. SOAR also bans sugary treats brought from home, along with any beverage other than water or 100 percent fruit juice.

“It’s been screened around the country, and each time, a good dialogue gets started. At each screening, people meet who never met before and they see they have common ground,” said Graziano, who made the movie with Ernie Park.

“I hope the take-away is that compromise is not a dirty word. There is common ground. If you show a film about global warming, there’s not much you can do about it afterward. But when you show a film about school lunches, it’s remarkable what a group of committed people can really do. You can make changes at the micro level.”

The film is an often subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – political commentary on the politics of hunger and the politics of agriculture. But it started out to be something else altogether, Graziano said.

“We’re not food advocates,” he said. “We heard about this Organic Food Project in Chicago and thought it would be interesting to follow for a year.

But as got into it, we realized it wasn’t yielding answers to the questions we were asking: Why is it so hard to do something so obvious? It’s obvious we should feed kids better food. But it’s not so obvious what the right thing to do is.”

So the film begins as a documentary about some Chicago schoolchildren who win a contest for designing a low-cost, high-nutrition school lunch menu and how the efforts of one Chicago school to serve better food get derailed because of budget cuts.

But to put this in context, the film gets creative. To tell the back story of how the national school lunch program came to be in 1946, and the political battles that have embroiled it to this day, Graziano and partner Park borrow the vampires-versus-werewolves motif from the popular Twilight/NewMoon books and movies.

The liberal anti-hunger, progressive lawmakers are depicted as werewolves. Conservative legislators representing farm interests are drawn as vampires. The school lunch program benefits both, creating secure markets for farmers while ensuring schoolchildren are fed.

But sometimes, a vampire’s “secure market” starts looking like a werewolf’s glut of cheap non-nutritious commodities dumped on innocent schoolchildren who need and deserve better. Yet at other times, the powerful vampirish U.S. Department of Agriculture has been the key to keeping the werewolves’ beloved school lunch program alive through wave after wave of Congressional cost-cutting.

A promotional ad from the new documentary Lunch Line
A promotional ad from the new documentary Lunch Line

“It’s not always so clear who the good guys and the bad guys are,” Graziano said. “We worked hard not to create heroes and villains. That’s a trope in documentaries today. But to do so would do a disservice to this issue. We’ve gotten nearly universal positive feedback because everybody can see their interests represented in this film.”

About a hundred people turned out for the screening and post-screening panel discussion Thursday night. Among them was Ryan Galanaugh, community relations director for Metro CareRing, a large downtown Denver food pantry. He was there because he’s interested in eradicating hunger, and he has questions about how legislation to re-authorize the school lunch program might impact other anti-hunger programs.

“I enjoyed the movie,” he said. “It was very informative. Plus, I like vampires and werewolves. But I’d like to see some more practical steps, some more ideas about how I can get involved.”

Panelist Gabriel Gillaume, vice president with LiveWell Colorado, a non-profit organization that has launched a series of “culinary boot camps” for school food service workers across the state, said engaging parents will be key to ultimately making school food better.

“I tell doctors to tell parents who ask what to do about childhood obesity to ask what’s going on in their children’s school and to demand better. Get involved in the discussion,” he said.

For now, the only way to see the film is to contact Graziano’s company, Uji Films, and arrange a private screening. But come January, it will go into much wider distribution, Graziano said. He particularly hopes that schools, education advocacy groups and health advocacy groups will show it.

For more info on the film visit: http://www.facebook.com/lunchlinefilm

To see a teaser of the film visit: http://www.ujifilms.com/lunchline

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