Eating bugs! Ask a middle schooler in St. Helena about the idea of eating a bug and you probably will hear “Ugh!” or “Yuck!”

But, on the other hand, from Robert Louis Stevenson students who saw a film, you might hear “You got some?”

Those were the interesting responses from about 40 kids who watched a documentary movie, "The Gateway Bug" at the Napa Valley Film Festival on Wednesday, Nov. 8.

“The Gateway Bug” is a film created by Johanna Kelly and Cameron Marshad and was shown at the St. Helena Performing Arts Center at the St. Helena High School. It is an award-winning documentary about a growing food phenomenon that is centered on entomophagy – the use of insects as food.

According to the film, eating bugs is a practice with roots that extend from prehistoric times to the present day in South America, Africa and Asia. Entomophagy includes eating the eggs, larvae, pupae, and adults of certain insects for protein. The film documents the attempts in the U.S. by a growing group of entrepreneurs who seek an economical and socially acceptable use of insects for the American food chain.

And those in the Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School's sixth grade class loved it.

Using a variety of interviews, research statistics, historical and original footage, the film shows how the human quest for protein is at a turning point in the American food industry. Raising food-quality insects, according to the interviewed experts, is a potential money-maker that uses fewer environmental resources while providing a sustainable protein resource that can be scaled to the growing world population.

All that’s needed, according to the entrepreneur's’ vision, is ingenuity, persistence, and good marketing to overcome the “Yuck Factor.”

The film features a startup called “Big Cricket Farms” in Youngstown, Ohio. It follows the enterprise over a number of years from conception through construction, production, marketing, and to successful FDA approval as a food-grade source of protein.

Starting with a reasonably small investment of capital, entrepreneur Kevin Bachhuber chose to start Big Cricket Farms in the rust-belt town of Youngstown for two reasons: Warehouse space was inexpensive and an ideological commitment to the needs for urban revitalization. 

Big Cricket Farms’ goal was to raise insects specifically for the American food industry, and the firm was becoming successful at both raising and packaging its products. It was achieving market visibility too, and the small firm  expanded rapidly until – according to the film – his entire urban farm along with his employees were poisoned by lead pollution caused by local government corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude.

Bachhuber was just one of many endomorphic entrepreneurs featured in “The Gateway Bug,” that included interviews with 20 other representatives from insect-supplying food startups as well as the USDA and United Nations officials.  Moreover, the film documents numerous success stories of firms overcoming the obstacles to successfully introducing their products to the American food industry.

But for the St. Helena sixth grade class viewing the film there was an added thrill of asking questions of both director Marshad and entrepreneur Bachhuber on stage. Their questions ranged from “What is your favorite insect to eat?” to “How long did it take to make the film?” One child even had humanitarian concerns for the crickets themselves. "How do you kill them?" she asked.

The film also amply documents the hurdles that a company must overcome to reach the wider consumer market – a market that each interviewee said was inevitably leading to an increase in the acceptance of entomophagy by the American consumer.

And as in proof of this growing acceptance, the kids were first asked by director Marshad: “How many of you thought eating bugs was ‘yucky’ at the beginning of the film?”

Hands were raised both north and south.

Then he asked: “Now how many of you would like to sample some crickets here today?”

An equal number of hands flew upwards as packaged samples of roasted honey-mustard crickets were passed out to awaiting fingers. In fact, following the talk, a dozen kids rushed to the stage to get extra samples, perhaps in demonstration of the valley’s growing sophistication in food tastes.

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Tom Stockwell is currently a staff writer for the St. Helena Star. He is an author of fiction and non-fiction books and has been a working journalist for a variety of technical publications as well as a consultant for numerous wineries in the Napa Valley.