Watching: “Sustenance” (2020)
The Canadian documentary Sustenance, released in 2020, centers on a small group of friends who agree to have their eating habits examined to determine whether they’re making sustainable choices. In the beginning, we only meet three of those friends, among them the filmmaker Yasi Gerami, but three more appear later. By taking a look at their food choices for one meal, Gerami delves deeper into what it takes to bring those foods to their plates.
Ultimately, Sustenance presented some of what I expected, but also things that I didn’t. I was surprised to learn how vegans’ eating habits can be damaging and unhealthy. I had assumed that the highly disciplined herbivores were making the best choices. Yet, according to this film, we’re a meat-eating species, so we’ve got to figure that out.
Though I’m not a scientist, farmer, or nutritionist, I’ve been interested in these questions for some time now: How can ordinary people truly live, eat, work, etc. in sustainable ways? Those of us who are so inclined can go about doing what the people in the film do – buy organic, choose veggies, eat less meat – but this treatment shows that those barely inconvenient acts may not be enough. And in Sustenance, the focus is not on the evils of agri-business – though it is mentioned – but on how individuals and small farmers can do things differently, and on how some choices are beyond our control. People constantly have innumerable choices to make, and we have to rely on producers, marketers, and corporations to give us the information involved in making those choices. The problem is two-fold: locally grown food isn’t super-abundant, and the big-time producers focus on the information that helps them make money. So, most of us are stuck, and sustainable living, working, and eating become inordinately difficult.
The experience that drew my interest to these issues happened about ten years ago, when I learned that going all the way self-sufficient/sustainable isn’t really possible for the Average Joe. In 2010, I interviewed a couple who operate a CSA, and one of them told me emphatically that most people can’t raise and grow enough food to sustain their families. It takes land, time, energy, equipment, and knowledge that most people don’t have, and even if they did, they’d have to earn some cash for property taxes, fuel, and other needs. This couple had inherited the land, equipment, and knowledge and were sharing with others, since most people have to buy their food. In today’s economy, very few people can avoid the larger food distribution system.
I watch documentaries like Sustenance not because I believe that they’ll have all the answers, but because I know they contain some information that aligns with what I’d like to know: how to live sustainably. I have a grassroots mindset about most things, and I believe that sustainability will be achieved when ordinary people are on board, whether that’s done governmentally through mandates and public policy or naturally through everyday changes in habits that cause unhealthy foods to go unpurchased. If spending an hour or so on a documentary pushes me one step closer to something better, I’d say that’s an hour well-spent.