Change: It's What's for Dinner: 'Food, Inc.' Takes on Agribusiness
In a world dominated by corporations, it is no surprise that the American food system has been hijacked by the relentless drive for profit. Under the pretexts of affordability and convenience, modern industrialized agriculture has consistently ignored the unintended consequences of their "efficient" practices on our health and livelihoods, the environment and other species.
Equally implicated is the United States government, which simultaneously subsidizes and fails to adequately regulate the agriculture industrial complex. This reality, explored by Frederick Wiseman in his 1976 cinema vérité documentary Meat and more recently by Nikolaus Geyrhalter in the unnarrated montage film Unser täglich Brot (Our Daily Bread; 2005), is more explicitly tackled in Robert Kenner's Food, Inc., which opens June 12 in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco, and nationwide on June 19.
The issue of food and the many ways in which it affects our lives is an enormous one, and the film is a broad undertaking, exploring everything from the health impacts of ever ubiquitous high-fructose corn syrup (one out of three Americans born today is expected to develop early-onset diabetes), to water and air pollution caused by intensive factory farming, to human rights violations perpetrated against undocumented workers by mega corporations like Smithfield Foods, the world's largest pork producer. Viewers are aided in processing all of this information by motion graphics created by Big Star NYC, which worked with Kenner to create an entertaining and helpful visual language for the film.
Ultimately, Food, Inc. is an examination of free market capitalism's disregard for anything other than the bottom line. "This is a film that's about more than food," says Kenner. "It's really about corporate consolidation and irresponsibility and about the relationship of these companies with government. It's not that different from what happened with the financial crisis. These companies have been totally irresponsible and at the end of the day, we're the ones who pay the price."
Throughout his career, Kenner has made films that strive to expose truths about American society, including the Peabody Award-winning Two Days in October (2005), about the polarizing effect of the Vietnam War, and War Letters (2001), which brings to life correspondence between soldiers and loved ones from the Revolutionary War to the First Gulf War.
Despite experience with controversial subject matter, however, Kenner didn't realize what he was getting into when he turned his lens towards the food industry. "This is a much more frightening subject than I ever imagined, a much more litigious subject," Kenner maintains. Throughout the making of the film, he and his crew were denied interviews by agribusiness, and they encountered numerous people who were afraid to talk for fear of being sued. "I think you could be making a film about nuclear terrorism and have easier access. These people have a lot of clout and they use lawyers very freely to intimidate. I spent more on legal fees for this film than all my past 15 films combined."
Inspired by investigative journalist Eric Schlosser's best-selling Fast Food Nation (2001), Kenner felt compelled to explore the question, Where does our food come from? Schlosser, who is featured in interviews throughout the documentary along with fellow food author Michael Pollan, co-produced the film, which is presented by Participant Media, River Road Entertainment and Magnolia Pictures.
Participant is also taking the lead on the film's outreach campaign. An issue-focused production company complete with its own "Social Action" department, its goals are to reform food policies and empower individuals to influence corporations through their consumer choices. Participant has been involved with documentaries like Davis Guggenheim's global warming screed, An Inconvenient Truth, as well as hard-hitting narrative features like George Clooney's Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck.
"For Participant, the outreach program is just as important as the film," Kenner explains. "They want change to happen." Through strategic partnerships with nonprofits and corporations, Participant is working to get the film into diverse communities as well as organizing screenings for policy gatekeepers. They recently brought Food, Inc. to Washington, DC, where the film was shown to some very high level administrators including Congress and cabinet members, as well as figures at major regulatory agencies.
Participant is also trying to engage the general public on TakePart.com, where people inspired by the film can go to learn more about food issues and support legislation to get junk food out of schools and require restaurants to list the calorie content of menu items. While Food, Inc. portrays a vast interconnected system that is largely not looking out for our individual interests, the film and its complementary outreach campaign make a strong case for citizen action, reminding us that we "vote" on our food system three times a day--breakfast, lunch and dinner.
It is Kenner's belief that as people learn about what's really happening with food, they will demand better choices. "There's going to be a revolution, but it's going to be led by mothers who don't want to feed this food to their children," he asserts. But while the film drops some references to farmer's markets and urban gardening, it also makes a strong pragmatic case for engaging corporate giants like Wal-Mart, which are beginning to include more organic food in their stores in response to consumer demand.
And while Kenner acknowledges that "it would be much better for the planet if we started eating less meat," Food, Inc. steers clear of animal liberation arguments while pushing for a return to grass-fed, hormone-free meat production. One argument that Kenner rejects is that it's elitist to think we can feed people healthy, organic food. "What's elitist is to think we can subsidize food that's making people sick and think that poor people should be eating that," he counters.
Hopefully Food, Inc. will join the ranks of Super Size Me and succeed in both entertaining audiences and spurring them to investigate where their food comes from and demand a food system that is healthy and just for all.
Shira Golding is a filmmaker and food lover who strives to eat locally, sustainably and cruelty-free. She curated Arts Engine's Media That Matters: Good Food, a collection of short films on food justice that has been distributed to educators and activists around the country. Check out her work at www.shirari.com.