All hail 'King Corn'   
By Eric Melin. Fri, Mar 25, 2011

In today’s fast-paced society, we don’t often have a lot of time to eat, much less actually stop and think about where the food we eat comes from. Monday night at Liberty Hall, 644 Mass., KU Environs, Films For Action and Chipotle Mexican Grill are partnering to answer that question in the most entertaining way possible — with a movie and free burritos.

The documentary “King Corn” follows two recent college graduates as they leave the East Coast and head to Iowa to grow an acre of the genetically modified corn — the most powerful crop in the U.S. Along the way, they discover some shocking truths about how government subsidies encourage corn crops to feed livestock and help make fast food cheap. Almost everything Americans eat, it turns out, contains corn.

The film had a theatrical run in 2007 and was a part of PBS’ Emmy-winning Independent Lens series, and co-star/producer Curt Ellis will be on-hand after Monday night’s screening for a Skype chat.

“Some important things have changed since we finished ‘King Corn,’ ” said Ellis, whose new project FoodCorps is recruiting young leaders to spend a year of paid public service to teach students about growing school gardens and to get healthy food into high-obesity, limited resource schools.

“Ethanol and speculation have pushed corn prices higher, so farmers are relying less on subsidy payments to make a living than they were when we were growing corn,” he said. “That seems like a good thing, but ethanol is heavily subsidized, and speculation is a big step removed from reality, so we still don't have a fair, open market in place for corn.”


Photo by Sam Cullman

Cheney, left, and Ellis moved to Greene, Iowa after college to grow an acre of genetically modified corn for the documentary "King Corn." Ellis' new project FoodCorps is recruiting young leaders to spend a year of paid public service teaching students about growing school gardens and getting healthy food into high-obesity, limited resource schools.

That said, there also have been a lot of positive changes since Ellis and his filmmaking team toured the country presenting the movie and participating in live Q&As about the industrialization of the food supply.

“There's a vegetable garden on the White House lawn now, and a growing national consensus that we have to treat the root problems of the obesity epidemic,” Ellis said. “We have to improve the food we eat, by choosing — and subsidizing — quality over quantity.”

This event has been in the works since last semester, when the KU Environs group was looking for a movie about the nation’s industrialized food system that would be both informational and fun.

“It was easy to decide on ‘King Corn,’ ” KU Environs’ local-foods group coordinator Kim Scherman says. “More than anything, we want to show the film to educate people on how prevalent corn is in the products around us and to stimulate conversations about both the positives and negatives of corn.”

As part of the company’s Food With Integrity mission, Chipotle is partnering with the student group on the screening. Ben Neis, in charge of local store marketing at Chipotle, says the burrito chain was thrilled when KU Environs asked them to take part. Bringing sustainably grown, naturally raised food to the masses is a company goal.

“At Chipotle, we serve more naturally raised meats — from animals raised in a humane way, never given antibiotics or added hormones, and fed a pure vegetarian diet — than any other restaurant company in the country and offer dairy products made with milk from cows not treated with the synthetic hormone rGBH.”

The co-sponsors are upping the ante to get people to Liberty Hall Monday night. There will be a raffle at the event of local food and gift certificates from local businesses, and each attendee will get a coupon for a free Chipotle burrito, burrito bowl, salad, or order of tacos.

Activism filmmaking has been on the rise for the last decade, and Ellis is encouraged by the continued interest in his film and other movies of its kind.

“Good storytelling has always been the engine of activism, and film is as powerful a storytelling tool as I know. So I'm glad to see documentaries rallying audiences to get to work on important causes,” Ellis says. Ellis has since made a short film follow-up to “King Corn” and a feature-length documentary about Boston’s first green building called “The Greening of Southie.”

“Some people criticize documentaries for ‘preaching to the choir,’ but if you inspire that choir to sing loud and sing the truth, they'll go out and convert the nonbelievers. So I don't think the choir is a bad audience to focus on,” he said.

Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Journalist and associate professor at KU Simran Sethi will speak at 7 p.m. just before the movie, and the Skpe chat with Ellis will directly follow “King Corn.”

A $3 donation is suggested and 70 percent of all proceeds will go to Just Food, a Lawrence food bank that fed 2,000 people last month. The other 30 percent of proceeds will go to Films For Action, an activist film website that operates out of Lawrence.