On Thursday I enjoyed a free screening of the recent documentary Food, Inc., courtesy of Chipolte Mexican Grill. The "fast-casual" restaurant chain was sponsoring showings in 32 U.S. cities. It was a bold move for Chipolte, aligning with such rabble rousers as filmmaker Robert Kenner -- a veteran of muckraking TV -- and contributors Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser, and the result for the company isn't yet clear.
Earlier this year TDG had nominated Food, Inc. for a Heart of Green Award, but I hadn't had a chance to see it yet. I'm glad I did. It's very well made, inspiring and informative, and I agree with Marion Nestle that it's a "must-see, a terrific introduction to the way our food system works and to the effects of this system on the health of anyone who eats, as well as of farm workers, farm animals, and the planet."
Food, Inc. offers something for everyone, from the most dedicated greens and foodies to those who don't know Michael Pollan from Kevin Pollack. Speaking of Michael Pollan, it's a treat to see him and Eric Schlosser featured so prominently in the film, sharing their groundbreaking investigations of our food supply. Schlosser also served as a co-producer, Pollan as consultant, and both men narrated (one of them sounds an awful lot like David Duchovny, though I'm not sure which). Yet despite those journalistic heavyweights, Food, Inc. is far from a dry documentary, and offers much more than talking heads.
The film makes great use of animated sequences and chapter dividers, reminiscent of The Corporation or Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room (which, like Food, Inc., was distributed by Mark Cuban's Magnolia Pictures). The production company for Food, Inc. was Participant Media, which you may have heard of from a little movie called An Inconvenient Truth.
One of the stars of Food, Inc. is the emotionally charged Barbara Kowalcyk, an eminently relatable mother who became a food safety advocate after the death of her young son Kevin from E. coli O17:H7 food poisoning. It was cool to see Kowalcyk reading news on Care 2 in the film (go social media!), although it was the sobering topic of more children sickened from E. coli. Kowalcyk servers as a voice for reasonable concern and precaution on the part of consumers, and asks simply that we be told what's in our food, and be assured that companies and agencies are doing all they can to keep it safe. Since the tragic death of her son she's been campaigning for passage of Kevin's Law, named in his honor, to shore up our food safety system. Sadly, there are a number of obstacles to clear before the law will get passed, namely well-heeled agribiz lobbyists.
Other stars of the film include a brave conventional chicken farmer from the South, who invited the cameras into her barns. She ended up loosing her contract with a major chicken company, presumably as a result of her participation in the project. Viewers learn that chicken farmers make a paltry $18,000 a year, after racking up tremendous debt for equipment, and gain insight into the tremendous pressure they are allegedly under from the big-name brands to crowd birds, look the other way when it comes to illegal workers and toe the company line. Another major player is the Virginia farmer who serves as a counter model to factory farming, boasting a near idyllic spread of agrarian bliss, complete with happy hogs and free-roaming chickens. He argues that his productivity can match any industrialized operation, and that tests have shown his meat to have much lower bacteria counts than the chlorine-dipped cuts coming off factory lines.
Food, Inc. is like a hearty, spicy sausage made from grinding up Supersize Me, King Corn, Fast Food Nation and The Real Dirt on Farmer John, with a dash of An Inconvenient Truth. Even if you think you know everything it has to say, go see it. It's important and rewarding. Interestingly, a green friend of mine who hasn't seen the film remarked that she heard it's "pretty mainstream." It is fairly mainstream in the high production values and the way it moves along, without getting dry. But it's still a piece of strong-minded agitprop. The filmmakers are pretty clear about where they're coming from, so it's less like a Bowling for Columbine quest to find out the truth and more of an indictment of big agribusiness, especially a few of the most controversial corporations.
In fact, some audience members actually booed, as if responding to Darth Vader or another old-fashioned villain, when the film takes on Monsanto, alleging various strong-arm tactics against small farmers the company believes to be a threat. One of the most painful scenes in the movie, perhaps more than crushing of terrified hogs on the killing floor or brutal snatching of chickens, is the pre-trial testimony of an old man from my home state of Indiana. The man had made his living as a seed washer, but the film shows him progress from proud and self reliant to ruined, bankrupt and alienated from his life-long friends and community, his spirit broken by a big multinational company intent on owning life itself. It's also true that a dark cloud of powerful opposition hangs over the film, in part because none of the companies indicted chose to respond on camera (several have set up websites attacking the film), and partly because the film points to the First Amendment-busting efforts of big business to hide their actions from public view, going so far as to outlaw photographs or video of their activities (how the Supreme Court has not stricken these laws down I don't understand). The documentary also alludes to the famous food disparagement suit against Oprah (it does not mention the Mad Cowboy). In fact, the filmmakers are said to have spent considerable sums already getting a legal defense in place.
It's too early to say whether Food, Inc. will make much of a difference in terms of how most Americans eat. It's always difficult to ascribe cultural changes to any particular piece of art or journalism, and most often there are many forces at work. Even The Jungle, which the film mentions, failed to marshal much public support for the author's intended causes: workers' rights and socialism. Instead, it was the horrific conditions within meatpacking plants that got the public up in arms, although Upton Sinclair had included those details more as plot points than themes. The China Syndrome struck a major cord after Three Mile Island and Al Gore's movie hit the big time after years of warnings and actions by thousands of scientists and activists, as well as observable changes on the ground. Will it take another disastrous food scare, mad cow outbreak, more deaths of children or violence in agriculture-dependent developing countries before Americans take a second look at their cheap lunch?
Robert Redford recently said that he had faith in the American people if they are told the complete story. Well, after seeing Food, Inc. will they ask for better, safer food, even if it costs a little bit more in the short term?
Chipolte Mexican Grill is betting on it, which is why they sponsored Food, Inc.. It was probably a smart move, because I had no clue that the chain known for big burritos (often packed with up to 1,000 calories) has recently committed to buying from local and family farmers. The firm claims to be the world's biggest restaurant buyer of humanely raised and antibiotic and hormone-free meats and dairy products. It buys organic veggies, and says about a third of the beans it uses are organic. Chipolte used to be part owned by McDonald's, but the Golden Arches recently divested itself of the Denver-based public company.
Still, although director Robert Kenner praised Chipolte for its commitment to better food, he signed an open letter to the chain, along with Eric Schlosser, Frances Moore and Anna Lappe, Winona LaDuke, Ronnie Cummins, Kenny Ausubel and other progressive leaders, asking the restaurant chain to go further. Specifically, the writers want Chipolte to sign an agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers of Florida, to help improve working conditions in the area that supplies much of the nation's winter tomatoes. Activists were passing out copies of the letter in front of the theater, an odd juxtaposition to the free screening and the presentation of Chipolte's own literature.
Still, it's worth remembering that we don't have to all try to become "perfect" over night. We'll get the best results, and avoid driving ourselves crazy, if we all try to eat a little healthier every day, a little more mindfully of animals, workers, other countries and the environment. The good news is that eating lighter on the Earth also means better quality, fresher, better tasting and more nutritious food, too. It's really win-win-win, and there's a place for agribusiness to make a nice profit, too. Just as Gary Hirshberg's Stonyfield Farm has done, as profiled in the film.
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