Lately, we have seen documentaries with a huge range of subjects, from war to religion, from art to video games. Those subjects are interesting and newsworthy and perhaps even moving or entertaining, but there are only two subjects that directly affect the people of the world on a daily, hourly basis. The first is the climate crisis, for which folks need to learn how to adjust their lifestyle in order to prevent further damage and encourage healing. But even more urgent is the issue of food. Every living man, woman and child eats, or thinks about eating, every single day, several times a day. Yet, as the new Food, Inc. points out, most of us know very little about our food. A very deliberate veil has sprung up between us and what we eat. Fortunately, little by little, we're learning.
In 2004, the Oscar-nominated hit documentary Super Size Me shed some new light on this subject by pointing out the ugly truth behind fast food; that film changed my life and stopped my daily soda intake. In 2006, Richard Linklater made the very good, mostly underrated Fast Food Nation, a fiction film based on Eric Schlosser's non-fiction book. It was a multi-character piece that brought up many issues, from the treatment of immigrant workers to slaughterhouse conditions. (Schlosser appears in Food, Inc. as an expert commentator.) Then came the entertaining, horrifying King Corn (2007), which revealed some of the awful facts behind corn-fed beef and high fructose corn syrup, as well as good ol' corn on the cob. Directed by Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. plays a bit like a greatest hits collection, looking briefly at all these issues and a few others. But the film's bright, cheerful tone, colorful graphics and bite-sized snippets will hopefully appeal to larger crowd, thereby spreading this vital information to new areas.
Normally, I'm not that interested in how many people listen to a movie's message, but in this case, the number of viewers of this film will be equivalent to the number of people who buy food, and their vote can begin to change things. Already we can see this happening, as the film indicates, when Wal-Mart begins carrying Stonyfield organic yogurt. That means the consumers proved that they wanted it, and the corporate giant responded. Fortunately, the film is far from an advocate of Wal-Mart. It also includes a segment with organic farmer Joel Salatin, who feeds his cattle with grass (which they were biologically programmed to eat in the first place) and provides other veggies and meats to locals. Salatin is one of the film's most interesting characters, highly intelligent and scornful of corporate practices, and totally unwilling to sell his products on a Wal-Mart scale. (Of course, the USDA has tried to shut him down.)
Another interesting interviewee is Barbara Kowalcyk, whose 2-1/2 year old son went from being healthy to dead in a matter of days after eating a hamburger tainted with E. coli. She since become a food safety advocate, traveling from office to office to meet with politicians and ask for their help. Barbara has probably told her story in countless office chairs and boardrooms and she tells it again, here, and it's heartbreaking. Oddly, she's not allowed to talk about the food item in question, or she can be sued. That's the type of law currently in place protecting the food corporations and not the consumer. A farmer that grows regular soybeans is likewise threatened by the corporation that holds the patent for genetically altered soybeans. The farmer has to prove that he's not using their beans, which -- unless you have millions for slick lawyers -- is pretty much impossible. (All his neighbors use the beans, and even if the wind blows some stray seed onto his property, he can be sued.)
The main theme of Food, Inc., for the most part has to do with the second part of its title, the "incorporated" part. What looks like a lot of variety in the supermarket is actually controlled and manufactured by only a few companies, and they do their best to hide this information. Like the old tidbit about the making of hot dogs, the corporations deliberately want us not to ask questions or think about where our food comes from. The film's first segment looks at where chicken is grown, in dark, windowless facilities designed so that people can't see inside. Sadly, some food choices are all too visible: corporations have also decided that cheeseburgers from the "dollar menu" shall be cheaper than broccoli or carrots, forcing low-income families to choose the bad stuff over the good; the film reports that, because of this kind of marketing, diabetes in kids has become rampant. The movie tries to leave off on a positive note, though it will undoubtedly be a long, hard road to get some of these policies changed. Either way, it's better to know these issues exist than to blithely continue eating in ignorance. The movie's website has more information.