Food is at the core of human survival - it can be at the heart of a family's traditions and the key to a nation's cultural identity.
It has also been the source of war, conflict and devastation. Natural disasters can wipe out the food supply of an entire country but what happens when you live in the largest economy in the world, where food is ever abundant and yet you may still go to bed at night hungry?
Nineteen-year-old Chima, a homeless Nigerian immigrant, takes us on a journey through New York City to reveal what it means to be truly food insecure in the land of plenty. In his own neighbourhood he shows us what unhealthy food choices most of the poor must make each day and how part of the solution may be growing just around the corner.
By David Turner
In making this film we wanted to explore the impact of the food insecurity crisis in New York on those least able to navigate the impact. Going through the city we frequently see fashionably new, expensive restaurants opening with full houses night after night, while just a few blocks over soup kitchens are seeing the desperate crowds returning day after day. In the newest, trendiest grocery stores fresh, organic produce packs the aisles, while in poor neighbourhoods store aisles are packed only with an overabundance of cheap processed food.
We wanted to see if this imbalance was leading to action. With that in mind we sought out Family Cook Productions and HealthCorps, two organisations that help young food activists find their voices and engage in positive action. Through programmes like 'Teen Battle Chef', they train young people to ‘stir up change' in their relationship to food and teach others about how to make the best possible food choices
Through these groups we met two of their healthy food activists, Chima and Molly. For very different reasons, these are two teens impassioned about fighting the rising tide of chronic illness and obesity that is hitting the poor of New York the hardest.
Chima is a driven, charismatic kid who truly believes he can have a positive impact in his neighbourhood. He invited us to meet him at a homeless teens shelter where he was living in Brooklyn. He wanted us to see, first hand, what food disparity really means.
Chima's shelter is a non-descript, dorm-like building kept spotless by the boys living there. They follow a strict set of rules and duties until they transition out of the shelter system to life outside as adults. Chima told us about how he took a job at McDonalds when he first arrived at the shelter.
There he observed the most recognisable effects of fast food - obesity. He joked that he really owed the fast food chain because it inspired him to learn about healthier options and to inspire others to do the same so he contacted Family Cook Productions.
During our first moments at the shelter, we were struck by the close rapport he had with the other boys and the staff, and that they respected him. Here we learned about the death of Chima's parents and his grandmother in Nigeria. He spoke fondly of his mother's garden and the taste of her freshly grown vegetables. It is the legacy of that past experience, plus his work at New York's Botanical Gardens, that helped him recognise one tangible solution to food insecurity - converting unused property to community gardens.
Molly, a Bangladeshi born teenager, was equally passionate and certain she can make a difference. Her neighbourhood, like Chima's, is full of fast food restaurants and small bodegas selling only a limited number of fruits and vegetables, if any at all. She invited us to meet her loving and supportive parents, who speak very little English but feel lucky to be in the US.
Molly's father suffers from diabetes. She attributes his illness to his years of eating fatty foods and to his body's inability to digest highly processed American food. His illness is part of what has inspired her activism and why she can frequently be found selling organic vegetables from local farms, attending food conferences and teaching little kids about eating healthy.
In the end, we had found a story about resilience and resourcefulness in the face of real obstacles. In Chima and Molly we see a fierce determination to bring about real change.
This episode of Witness can be seen from Monday, June 13, at the following times GMT: Monday: 2230; Tuesday: 0930; Wednesday: 0330; Thursday: 1630.
Click here for more Witness films.