June 18, 2009

An Inconvenient Food

(Food, Inc. opens tomorrow at the Landmark Lagoon Theater. This is a long and scattered follow-up to my preview of the film from April.)

It wasn't too long ago that Morgan Spurlock's mischievous Super Size Me successfully, and perhaps surprisingly, ended any argument in this country about the ill effects of consuming fast food. McDonald's immediately swapped their triple cheeseburgers (I remember eating one as a part of a Jurassic Park promotional meal that was literally fit for a dinosaur) and Super Sized fries for garden salads and apple slices; their audacious recent marketing campaign spelling out slogans in fruits and vegetables only brings to mind the music video for Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer", not necessarily a new identity.

Kentucky Fried Chicken, on the other hand, recently went so far as to launch a risky marketing campaign that wags a finger at their very own brand - fried chicken - in favor of a new line of Kentucky Grilled Chicken. Ooh. Whether these blatant about-faces in the fast food industry will result in a healthier populace is, in my opinion, unlikely, but that won't stop people from believing it. You may have noticed that in the face of this recession, fast food corporations haven't appeared to suffer quite as much as other American businesses.

So we're still eating plenty of fast food (or not, in my case), but we're making sure to order the side of fruit salad instead of cheese fries. Spurlock helped transform an industry and at least indirectly affect people's eating habits, while those of us who were not fast food loyalists in the first place, well we've just been able to scoff at the whole affair and continue to indulge in our own self-righteously "healthy" diets.

Until now.

Fast food establishments aside, it's evidently also no longer even safe, or in some cases even moral, to eat food from your local supermarket.

Like the indigestion that follows when you have one too many toaster-ovened Tyson Stuffed Chicken Cordon Bleu Minis (I looked them up), Robert Kenner's convicting documentary Food, Inc. leaves you squirming in your chair with a sweaty brow, taking a silent oath that you'll never eat that way again. Of course, decisions are always easiest made away from their corresponding action, and when your friend slides a basket of crisp, seasoned fries your way at the restaurant after the movie, well then you'll discover if your fears will really change your actions.

It should be noted that Kenner's documentary is arriving a little late in the game. Since Super Size Me, the documentaries Our Daily Bread and King Corn have criticized the food industry, while Richard Linklater's Fast Food Nation proved both that slaughterhouses are hellish dungeons and Avril Lavigne can't act. But where those films tried to deliver shock treatments that would send you out of the theater in an ill state, Food, Inc. uses a bit of a softer approach. Not quite as soft as Al Gore's soothing voiceovers behind shots of idyllic creeks, but still relatively gore-free, if not Gore-free, as it were. Kenner rightly assumes that legal injustices, animal abuse, and human rights violations can be just as disgusting as bloody carcasses, making Food, Inc. much more watchable than you might expect walking into the theater.

The film's central thesis, as I understand it, is that the industrialization of food production in the United States has created a perfect storm of greed and carelessness, which has in turn led to countless economic, health-related, and community-based problems, including but not limited to obesity, unemployment, exploitation of factory workers, bacteria-laden meat produced in mass quantities, special-interest legislation, and a complete lack of awareness of where our food actually comes from. Indeed, in a state of blissful ignorance, the majority of Americans fuel this fire with every meal we eat and food item we purchase. The solution: eat as much organic, unprocessed, locally-grown food as possible. Of course, "possible" is a very relative term, because organic, unprocessed, locally-grown food is neither accessible or affordable to millions of people.

That fact aside, authors Eric Schlosser ("Fast Food Nation") and especially Michael Pollan ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") have been leading this charge for a few years now, but most people are as unlikely to read as they are to grow their own vegetables, so for some viewers of Food, Inc. these may be revolutionary new ideas (i.e., "Hmm, I wonder why every chicken breast I buy is identical in size, shape, etc.?"). Unsatisfied with simply giving Schlosser (a co-producer on the film) and Pollan a forum to speak, Kenner also makes a strong case that agricultural monopolies and food conglomerates such as Tyson, Perdue, and Cargill are fully aware, and thus liable, for a host of the aforementioned problems.

Kenner positions agricultural company Monsanto, for example, as quite the evil empire (I began imagining the "Monsanto crime family" ruling some old world Italian hamlet), accusing them of running small farmers out of business and essentially infiltrating government agencies, including the U.S.D.A., with former Monsanto employees and board members.

It's all very scary and sinister - and backed by a Mark Adler score reminiscent of Philip Glass's haunting work - but honestly it did little to convince me that fighting these companies will amount to much change. Like the tobacco companies, they're well-funded and well-supported by all the right lobbyists and interest groups, and any attack will be met with a slippery rebuttal (how many companies have their own response blog?). Furthermore, as evidenced by the tragic case of Barbara Kowalcyk, in some cases it is literally against the law to make critical claims against these companies, even if they are thought to be complicit in the loss of life (her 2 year-old son died after eating E. coli-contaminated beef).

Much more persuasive, at least to me, was the voice Kenner gave to farmers like Joel Salatin, a philosophizing owner/operator of a Virginia farm with as much charisma and analytic panache as a star politician. I found his astute arguments both brilliant and entertaining, and it was important to hear from someone who is actually doing the work, not just prescribing it. His message of hope and doability may come off to some as naively optimistic, but it nonetheless leaves you feeling a little better on the way out than you did after flammable documentaries such as The Corporation or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room.

Moving forward then, will Food, Inc. change the national conversation in the same way An Inconvenient Truth did? Both films were produced by (the fantastic) Participant Productions, and a visit to their blog will give you a sense of the grassroots support behind both the film and the local food movement. If there is anything standing in the way of this film exhibiting its full power, I think it's the economy and socioeconomic disparity. If people can afford to see it, it's highly likely that won't be able to afford the lifestyle that goes along with it.

John and Jane Public, if still employed, are living in 2009 with an emaciated retirement plan, a refinanced mortgage, and zero discretionary income. Even if they have access to the co-op groceries and organic farmers in their area (which is unlikely), how will they able to afford and then justify a monthly grocery bill 3-5 times higher than what they pay now at the local big-box supermarket? Despite the Inconvenient Truth-style laundry list of tasks within the closing credits, the affordability of "good" food is the one question I felt was left unanswered here, at least to my satisfaction. Yes, as Pollan or Schlosser (I can't remember which) mentions at the end of the film, we'll know things are right when a bag of chips costs more than a bag of carrots. But I just don't see that happening anytime soon, and financially speaking, the best food remains the most inconvenient food.

But despite a couple of unanswered questions and a propensity for giving the issue a "good vs. evil" storyline that felt a little too black and white for my taste, Food, Inc. is possibly the most thought-provoking documentary so far in 2009. As it claims, "you'll never look at dinner the same way again". But then, you might not look at your grocery bill the same way again, either.


  1. Despite the Inconvenient Truth-style laundry list of tasks within the closing credits, the affordability of "good" food is the one question I felt was left unanswered here, at least to my satisfaction. ...

    Which is why the diets -- and thus the health -- of the poor are so much worse than even those of us in the middle class. Cheap food is really bad for you.

    Great piece, Daniel. I don't see this changing nationally anytime soon; if anything, it'll get worse, as the middle class stagnates and the capital all flows up to a smaller-and-smaller proportion of the population.

    I became a vegetarian four months ago, and my diet has become much more healthy, but I don't kid myself that all my food is ethically grown, or free completely of pesticides, etc.

  2. Thanks, Rick. I have never tried a vegetarian diet, even after seeing this and Fast Food Nation, but it's sure getting a lot harder to not think about where meat comes from.

    I hope it doesn't seem like my impression of this documentary came down to the issue food affordability, because it's still a really engaging film that I highly recommend. But as you already mention, there's really no getting around the fact that most people (and most people are in the lower and middle classes) can't afford to eat as directed here.

    I'd actually like to see this as companion piece with last year's Oscar-nominated "The Garden" about an urban farm in South Central L.A., which, as it happens, was bought out for development by the city, a situation that flies in the face of this documentary.

  3. You mentioned OUR DAILY BREAD, that most disturbing Austrian documentary that I did see several years back, and it was a damning indictment of slaughterhouses that makes you want to avoid animal flesh, particularly beef. I eat beef rarely anyway, but this film strengthens the resolve. As far as FOOD, INC., I intend to see it as soon as I can, and almost visited the Film Forum on Sunday night, but the weekend was occupied by several other features. I found FAST FOOD NATION less atisfactory, though.

  4. Yeah I only know Our Daily Bread was that harsh from your description of it at LiC, Sam. I meant to see it but it missed it when it came here. Probably for the best as I'm not looking for a reason to give up meat at this point. I couldn't even watch the slaughterhouse scenes in Fast Food Nation, which I was as overall unimpressed with as you were. Kind of a weird project for Linklater, too.

  5. 5 months later I finally caught up with Food Inc. The strongest argument I've heard against it is that there is little new information here. While that maybe be true, it's information many people still haven't heard and it's worth repeating over and over and over again until we finally learn that the basic things like our food supply, our healthcare and our defense are too important to be left up to the profit motive.

  6. Well said. I could have sworn you saw this much earlier in the year; in any case thanks for adding your thoughts here.

    It's now been a good seven months since I saw Food, Inc., and as it continues winning awards late in the year in what appears to be a potential Oscar run, I've found myself thinking about it more while at the (non-organic) supermarket. But then, it's hard to know if this film in particular or a national focus on healthy food in general has been more influential in my thinking.

    Maybe it doesn't matter as long as I'm more consciously considering my choices and trying to make changes when I can afford to. "Afford" being the operative word.


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