Bad chicken illness leads to "good food" movie

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Rogue chickens on the loose in Northbrook.
  • Food Patriots
  • Rogue chickens on the loose in Northbrook

When Jeff and Jennifer Spitz's son got sick from eating contaminated processed chicken, the first thing they did was spend more than a month growing increasingly frustrated and scared as he fought the antibiotic-resistant bug the chicken had given him.

The second thing they did was start making a movie about it. Specifically, as they tried to increase the amount of natural, nonprocessed, nonfrightening food in their lives by growing vegetables and raising chickens, Jeff, an experienced documentary filmmaker who teaches at Columbia College, began documenting it on video, both their own efforts and that of others, mostly in the Chicago area, including urban farms such as Growing Power and City Farm.

The result is a feature-length documentary called Food Patriots, intended to inspire people to increase the natural food in their lives by 10 percent. It will have its premiere tonight at the Chicago Cultural Center, followed by other screenings in the area and an online premiere with online chat on February 26. I spoke with Jennifer, a communications professional, about the film; an interview and a clip from the film are below.

What's the story that led you from bad chicken to growing your own food—and making a movie about it?

My son Sam went out to lunch with his friends after school, when he was in high school, and he got a chicken Caesar salad, thinking he was doing the healthy thing. And he got antibiotic-resistant camphylobacter. Camphylobacter is a common food-borne illness in chicken, but the antiobiotic resistance was new. He got sicker and sicker, he lost 30 pounds, and we kept bringing him back to the hospital and they'd give him more and more antibiotics.

So that really forced me to start looking at food. So I started researching and looking into it. We started making small changes in my family. This is over the course of several years. But I read Michael Pollan's books, and it was really alarming. So my husband pulled out his camera, and I got chickens to try to get my kids interested in where their food comes from—teenage boys, of course they couldn't be less interested.

Like many families, my family thought that if you bought it at the supermarket and it came in a pretty package, it was food. So it's been a process, and we eventually had a film. Which documents my family's journey, but also great, inspiring people that we found all around the country, who are changing how America eats, buys, and thinks about food.

What does the term "food patriots" mean?

As I started looking at our food system, I realized that it connects with so many things—health, health care costs. Jobs, local jobs, how many are created when you have a thriving economy. Even national security—in a national disaster, we have a three-day supply of food.

So people who are looking for ways to create a healthier and more sustainable food system are really patriots.

Well, and you got as local as you can get, growing food at your house. How did that work?

We live in Northbrook, where chickens are illegal, and of course I didn't know that until after I got them. Somebody tried to get an ordinance passed to make them legal, and it failed, but the village hasn't tried to take them away because our neighbors actually love them. The kids bring their friends over to see them, trick-or-treaters all ask to see the chickens.

When did they outlaw chickens? Because Northbrook must have still had farms not that long ago, at least within living memory.

The zoning is that you can have chickens if you have two acres or more. We live in a subdivision. Many municipalities allow chickens—Evanston does, I think Glencoe just passed the ordinance. So they're starting to wake up to that, that having a connection to where your food comes from, teaching your kids where food comes from, is a healthy thing.

So you got chickens, what else did you do?

I got chickens, I planted a garden, and then I really got involved with the antibiotic-resistance issue, and I went to Washington with a group called Supermoms Against Superbugs. Then I started a petition last spring on Change.org to get meat raised with antibiotics out of the school lunch program. At this point we have over 170,000 parents who have signed to get meat raised with antibiotics out of the schools, and over 4,000 pages of comments. So people really feel passionately about that issue.

It's a slow progress with the USDA, which is why we're really looking at empowering consumers to change what we do. Because we influence the food system by the choices we make.

It looks like you’re doing some innovative things to get this film out there and seen, in venues outside traditional movie theaters.

It's a very unusual film launch. We're launching it in the context of communities, where people can see it with people they love and eat with. We're showing it in the context of faith communities, and schools, college campuses, businesses are showing it to their employees. So there's always a film and a conversation.

Then we're doing our national online premiere. We're releasing it on the Internet on Wednesday, February 26, at 7 PM central time. So they can watch the full film, and following that there will be a Twitter chat, hashtag #foodpatschat, and people can have that follow-up conversation. We're doing that with Consumer Union and the Pew Foundation, so there will be experts from all walks of life who will be part of that, and it should be a fairly rich conversation.

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