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Documentary envisions future of sustainable local food systems

Filmmaker Chris Bedford introduces his documentary film about sustainable food Friday at Christianson and Associates in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- In one of the scenes in Chris Bedford's new documentary about sustainable food, residents of the Jackson Hill neighborhood in Muskegon, Mich., reflect on the bounty of an organic community garden they established together.

"It was one of the best experiences of my life," a young man says.

Bedford was in Willmar on Friday to show the newly released film and help launch a discussion about how communities can create food systems that are local and sustainable.

"It's a moment of opportunity," he told the 40-some people who gathered Friday afternoon at Christianson and Associates to see the half-hour documentary. "The future is in our hands. We can create it."

Organizers of an initiative to establish a community-owned grocery store in Willmar hope the issues raised in the film will galvanize support for the project, which will soon begin soliciting $200 memberships.

The store is expected to open its doors in 2012.

"Start talking to your friends so that others understand how important this is," urged Bob Bonawitz, chairman of the organizing board for the community-owned grocery.

Bedford's independently produced documentary, "Getting Real About Food in the Future," was completed two months ago. Friday's showing in Willmar was only the second time the film has been shown.

Bedford, an award-winning filmmaker who has written and produced more than 100 films, said he has become increasingly focused on sustainability and on solutions to food production that tap into human creativity and the connections between people, communities and nature.

Climate change, the increasing cost of oil and global food and water shortages are making it urgent to find new, more sustainable and reliable ways of producing food, Bedford said in an interview.

"This film is very intentional. It's meant for communities and people who realize the world is changing and they don't know what to do," he said. "The film is about 'Where do you really start? What is it going to take?' It's going to mean we have a much more local economy."

Bedford, who also is president of the Center for Economic Security in Montague, Mich., spent a year and a half working on the documentary, much of which was filmed in his home area of Muskegon County in Michigan.

His filming brought him to diverse neighborhoods and people. He visited a parochial school in Traverse City to learn about a school lunch program that serves local food and meals made from scratch. He talked to an organic farmer and a soil scientist. He traveled to the Benton Harbor Fruit Market, the world's largest cash-to-grower market in the world.

One of his goals during the filmmaking was to show an alternative to the current food system. "It's a positive film," he said.

Bedford said he also wanted to portray a future in which local food systems can sustain entire communities. "Having a diverse food supply close to where you live is really going to be important," he said.

It won't happen overnight, he cautioned. It will be critical to develop local food processing and preservation and to establish capital funds that help small producers get started, he said.

For communities that succeed, however, it can be an important boost to economic development. When farmers sell directly to the consumer, they keep 95 cents of every dollar; farmers who sell to industrial processors retain 10 to 20 cents of every dollar, Bedford said.

Local food systems and food security also could prove to be the renaissance of rural communities, he said. "Living in a small town close to your food, being able to live in a place where family values and community values are not an abstract but how people live -- that's very attractive. I think the future of small towns is actually very bright."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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