America Revealed’s Food Machine and Food Forward Premieres: A Tale of Two Totally Different PBS Programs

| April 2, 2012 | 11 Comments
  • 11 Comments

Host Yul Kwon skydiving in America Revealed. Photo: Courtesy of Lion Television
Yul Kwon takes to the skies — a lot — in the opening episode of America Revealed called “Food Machine.” Photo: Courtesy of Lion Television

Let’s begin, shall we, with the first episode of America Revealed, “Food Machine,” which sets out to explore the vast, industrial way food is grown, processed, and transported in this country. The four-part series on systems kicks off with its first episode on food on April 11 (subsequent programs tackle energy, transport, and industry).

The 56-minute program is hosted by the Bay Area native Yul Kwon, a former Survivor winner, among his eclectic accomplishments. Okay, let’s get some of the others out of the way: He’s been featured in an issue of People‘s “Sexiest Man Alive.” A lawyer by training, a graduate of Stanford and Yale, he helped draft the Homeland Security bill, worked for the Federal Communications Commission, and is a now a “daredevil television host,” according to his bio. Oh, and he opened a yogurt shop in Walnut Creek, his childhood hometown.

Regardless, this reviewer has one question for the good people of programming at PBS: What were you thinking?

The episode plays like propaganda (at first I wondered if it was going to morph into mockumentary-like parody, alas no). Everything is bigger and better in this great United States of America, Lion Television, who produced the series, would have viewers believe. (The program is based on an award-winning BBC series Britain from Above, by the independent production company, which has offices in the U.S. and the UK.)

You can practically taste the awe at the sheer scale of things in this land from our brothers and sisters across the pond. America Revealed is beamed at you via bright lights, aerial footage, high-definition video, real-time satellite data — in other words, a bunch of high-tech bells and whistles.

Then there’s Kwon who takes to the skies — a lot — to illustrate, well, to illustrate what exactly? Oh, yeah, this is a vast and complex country. And: I am a sexy survivor who skydives.

During the last century, an American industrial revolution has given rise to the biggest, most productive food machine the world has ever known, the show announces. Look at our marvels of engineering magic that allow 80 percent of the state of California’s water to go directly to Central Valley farms — in an area that was previously a desert — to produce 50 percent of the entire country’s fruits, nuts, and vegetables.

Might there be anything misguided about redirecting all that precious water? Just curious. But there’s no time for controversy here, we’re simply going to tell you how it is, with a grin, and move on.

The episode also explores how the U.S. food system feeds nearly 300 million Americans every day — an impressive feat for sure — at a time when less than two percent of the population produces food for the other 98 percent. Well, hello Big Ag.

America has put nature to work, the script explains, with a maddening neutrality that made this writer want to run screaming in frustration from the screen. See how the heartland is composed of massive corn farms, where ag pilots spray more than 40 pesticides — in the bad old days there were only a few! — on crops eventually destined for supermarket shelves.

Find out about the modern invention known as genetically modified corn that fills so many of the products in grocery stores. Could any of this be detrimental to human health or farmland? Just asking. But, no time, we must keep on trucking.

Speaking of corn, discover how clever Americans are feeding corn — not a natural source of food for cattle — to animals who get pumped up supernaturally in industrial food lots, where they’re also given doses of antibiotics and growth hormones for good measure, just so consumers might enjoy a large steak. At low cost. Should we discuss whether all this is good for the animals, land, or humans? Nah. The food machine just “gives us what we want.” Next segment please.

Let’s talk “craveability.” What Americans want, the New York restaurant experts explain on America Revealed, is big servings of so-called “celebration foods” and they want ‘em all the time. Case in point the restaurant hit known as the Bloomin’ Onion — soaked in buttermilk and batter and deep fried, this monster on a plate sells like hot cakes at that embarrassment to any self-respecting Aussie known as the Outback Steakhouse. (Walkabout Soup? Alice Springs Chicken Quesadillas? Chocolate Thunder Down Under? Some marketing guru got rich making this stuff up, but I digress.)

So much of this episode is just uncritical content presented without any context, which does a disservice to viewers like you, who expect more from PBS documentaries.

What if some social studies teacher showed this to a bunch of high school kids? They’d get the impression that the American system of food production and distribution is a well-oiled machine. And that’s just so far from the truth.

To be fair, if viewers stick around to the 40-minute mark, there are a few indications that all might not be golden in The Land of Oz. (Yes, folks, the camera crew visit Kansas and there are even references to Toto in this program.) Colony collapse disorder gets some attention. Those super-size-me steak and fried onion feasts are making Americans fat and fatter we learn. Kwon revisits water in California, but only from the perspective of the expense to farmers. Don’t get me started on the crop-dusting segment.

Towards the end of the hour the show explores the subject of food deserts — places where people can’t find any real food to eat, since they only have corner stores that specialize in liquor, Lottery tickets, and cigarettes. One guess where the camera crew is headed? Detroit it is.

The Motor City seems to have become the poster child for urban food renewal for visual media. Pans of vacant lots, abandoned buildings, and graffiti graphically illustrate something went horribly wrong in the home of Motown. Cut to images of urban farmers — many African American — growing fresh food for their people in a place that had little for a very long time and it’s clear that the city is undergoing a transformation.

Meet the aptly named Will Gardner, an enterprising edible entrepreneur, who sells his produce at a Detroit farmers’ market, and one of the few bright spots in an episode where a fourth-generation Midwesterner described himself not as a farmer but an “input-output manager.” Oh my.

What else not to like? The overwrought writing and soundtrack, the frenetic images that begin the episode, the host’s mug filmed from one too many planes.

Consider yourself warned.

Edith Floyd of Growing Joy Garden in Detroit. Photo: Greg Roden
Edith Floyd of Growing Joy Garden in Detroit. Photo: Greg Roden

Now, back to Detroit. The pilot of the series Food Forward, which showcases urban agriculture across America, reports on what’s gone down and what’s growing up in the Motor City too. The episode airs April 9.

The sight of Edith Floyd beaming on her bright orange tractor turning what were trash-strewn lots into thriving community gardens loaded with edibles is heart-warming and hopeful.

As are all the stories of urban farmers producing change in their own lives and others, such as IATP Food and Community Fellow Malik Kenyatta Yakini of the Detroit Community Food Security Network. These people don’t pretend they’re going to be able to feed an army let alone the entire country. They just want to do their part to get good food into the hands, mouths, and bellies of the people in their local area. You can’t help but root for these underdogs in this series premiere.

This writer has already covered Food Forward before — in an interview with producer Greg Roden for a previous Bay Area Bites post and in a story featuring writer Stett Holbrook for Civil Eats. Watch this program. Don’t just take this reviewer’s word for it. Food writer Sean Timberlake described the pilot as a celebration of the real food heroes around the country. Indeed.

This 13-part series needs support, just like the people it profiles, who are trying to bring about change in America’s troubled food systems, whether it’s a rooftop gardener in Brooklyn, a hydroponic grower in Milwaukee, or a self-described nugget of deliciousness dropping off boxes of freshly picked produce to neighbors in West Oakland.

Details:
Event April 5, 6-10pm: Nightlife at Cal Academy: Spring into Spring NightLife
KQED’s America Revealed & Food Forward Screenings & Talks by Yul Kwon & Abeni Ramsey/ African Hall

Food Forward: Urban Agriculture Across America
Premiere Airdate: April 9 (on KQED 9 Mon, Apr 9, 2012 — 7:30pm)
Twitter: @Food_Forward
Facebook: Food Forward
Food Forward Blog
Food Forward on PBS Food

America Revealed Episode 1: Food Machine
Premiere Airdate: April 11 (on KQED 9 Wed, Apr 11, 2012 — 10pm)

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Category: bay area, farmers and farms, food trends and technology, gardening and urban farming, KQED, reviews, tv, film, video, photography

About the Author ()

Sarah Henry hails from Sydney, Australia, where she grew up eating lamingtons, Vegemite, and prawns (not shrimp) on the barbie (barbecue). Sarah has called the Bay Area home for the past two decades and remembers how delighted she was when a modest farmers' market sprouted in downtown San Francisco years ago. As a freelance writer Sarah has covered local food people, places, politics, culture, and news for the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News, California, San Francisco, Diablo, Edible East Bay, Edible Marin & Wine Country, and Berkeleyside. A contributor to the national food policy site Civil Eats, her stories have also appeared in The Atlantic, AFAR, Gilt Taste, Ladies' Home Journal, Grist, Shareable, and Eating Well. An epicurean tour guide for Edible Excursions, Sarah is the voice behind the blog Lettuce Eat Kale and tweets under that moniker too.
  • KT-S

    This piece is very impressive — both the writing (I’ll look out for Sarah Henry’s work from now on) and the fact that KQED ran such a critical piece on its website. 

  • http://twitter.com/FrugalKiwi Melanie McMinn

    I can feel the frustration. People need to think about where their food really comes from…and at what price.

  • MDO

    Thanks for writing this review of “America Revealed.” I was very much looking forward to the series, but I couldn’t believe the rampant sensationalism of episode one, and I finally turned it off in disgust after their treatment of factory farms. (How efficient they are at turning all those cattle into steaks.) I have no plans to watch the other episodes, even though they cover different topics. I expect more from PBS, the same network that brings us “Nova.”

  • Anonymous

    What do you want, another biased “documentary” serving up holier-than-thou, biased, agenda-ridden “reporting”?  Go watch Michael Moore.  I’m glad you admitted you found the neutrality “maddening” so we have not doubt about where you’re coming from.  

    Of course I had concerns, as would anyone who watched (particularly PBS viewers), but that is not what the show was about.  Deal with it.

    Also, you spending so much time on the host was weird.  What’s that about?

  • Sarah Henry

    Go here to see what Fair and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has to say on the matter at “Is America Revealed” — or PBS?

    http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=4522

    And here to see what the broadcaster’s own ombudsman has to say at “Flunking the Perception Test”:

    http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/2012/04/flunking_the_perception_test.html

  • Tonya Kelley – Parks

    Shame on the host for being a total sell out. Shows his complete lack of character and ignorance on Dow, Monsanto, and GMO’s GE’s… Can you say Dow Chemical sponsored? Monsanto GMO and GE?? Wake up people… this is SUCH an lie. It disgusts me that this can be published at all… simply outrages. Anyone who thinks all this is a “good thing”?? Shame on you. Do 10 minutes worth of research, you’ll see right through this hype filled with lies and “feel good” spin. Appalling.

  • Kim McDonald

    Thanks for the review! After getting just half way through this show, I was screaming at the TV. I would go farther than you when you say that the show is neutral on the controversies surrounding corporate farming. I saw a bias toward how great corporate farming is for the US – hell even the cows run toward the corn feed trucks “like children to the ice cream truck”. Perhaps an apt analogy since the corn is about as healthy to cows as ice cream to children. I expected to see “brought to you by the good folks at ConAgra and Monsonto”. Total propaganda.

  • harpy

    I’m only somewhat relieved that I was not the only one appalled by this big ag commercial masquerading as public educational television. Shame on you, PBS. So not sexy, Yul Kwon.

  • RealityCheck131

    Please provide evidence for your claim that the corn is unhealthy. I see you’ve been duped by the nature fallacy propaganda. It would be nice if everyone could afford to eat fresh local food and maybe we’ll get there someday but all this hate of the food system just because it’s a system and this idea that the food is unhealthy because it didnt grow in your backyard are not supported by the research.

  • RealityCheck131

    Tonya obviously spent her 10 minutes of research at Mercola’s site or natural news. Maybe you should spend more than 10 minutes and get the real story.

  • RealityCheck131

    Nobody is allowed to disagree with your opinions? Shame for what? Presenting the food system as it exists? Funny stuff. PBS totally wanted to run a commercial about cows being slaughtered and giant onions getting deep-fried. Before you get too frothy in the mouth you should probably take some time away from the nature fallacy web sites like Mercola and Natural News and learn that there is zero evidence GMO food is unhealthy just because it wasn’t grown in your backyard.