With the growth of the local food movement and a rise in urban farming, Kansas City diners are increasingly discriminating about what goes on their plates. Yet a good number of people don't delve any more deeply into their meal other than what's tasty and convenient.
With the premiere of Eat This!, the University of Missouri-Kansas City's theatre department is serving up a unique theatrical experience that explores the social and political debates surrounding food's journey from land to plate.
At a recent rehearsal of the play by Stephanie Roberts, Assistant Professor with UMKC's theater department, about a dozen acting students are gathered around what looks like any suburban kitchen. Befitting the show's title, the actors are working on a scene that blends views from both sides about industrial farming, genetically modified food, and, in one speech,organically grown produce.
"Don't we have an obligation to help those countries feed their people and share with them the technology and the information so they can survive and subsist on their own?" asks one female character.
"Growing food organically in such limited quantities is wonderful if you have that income and that choice. It's a wealthy person's choice. But for someone who lives in a third world country, that's not a choice for them. It's not realistic. They can't grow food that way. And they can't feed a large population that way."
The show is being staged not unlike a three-dimensional documentary and came together in a style that Stephanie Roberts calls "devised" or "ensemble-generated" theater. She and the cast interviewed several people in the region connected to food and the food industry, and the show took shape from those chats and field trips.
"We went to a dairy farm, we went to a cattle farm, we went to a soy and corn farm," she says. "We went to a meat locker. We went to restaurants and interviewed chefs. Parents. School lunch people. We interviewed people about gluten intolerance, about hunger, and about obesity."
Roberts adds that among these visits, there was an unexpected common denominator.
"The majority of people we interviewed said, 'Well, my family comes from a farm'. Or 'I grew up on a farm. Or 'My dad came from a farm in Oklahoma… in Tennessee... in Iowa.' And so that was surprising to me. I knew this was a really rich urban farm area, urban agriculture, but I had no idea."
A trip to Heins Family Farm near Higginsville, Missouri helped UMKC theater student Vincent Wagner recall his own family's roots in farming and says the visit has altered his grocery shopping.
"My grandmother's family had a dairy in Jefferson City for awhile, but since I've been born it hasn't functioned as a dairy," Wagner says. "So it was my first chance to see the care these farmers have for their animals and the work they're very actively doing to do their work in an environmentally friendly way and in a humane way.
"And you don't always get that impression from things you might read so adding that personal element to it was very helpful and I think they sell their work to Roberts Dairy. So now when I got to the store and see that, I think, well that may be one of those cows I looked at that day."
Stephanie Roberts says that she and her students weren't caught off-guard by their interviewees' polarizing opinions about the state of modern agriculture.
"The farmers feel like they’re being misrepresented," Roberts explains. "They are people who really care about the land, they really care about their animals, they care about providing food to people. Yet they feel like they’re being put into a category as being either pawns to Monsanto or part of this industrial machine that is unfeeling and just wants to make money.
"On the other side, people who are in the organic or local food movement they might be stereotyped as really militant or hippies or not open to other people’s views or not aware of the bigger issues. So the idea was to find out everyone’s real story."
Roberts adds that the second half of the show will be catered, in a way, and looks forward to post-show discussions where the cast and the audience will literally break bread together.