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Or: Why Triangle farmers' markets should accept food stamps

Food, Inc. explores the costs and horrors of consumption 

Eating disorders

click to enlarge The American way? The Orozcos eat on the run in "Food, Inc." - PHOTO COURTESY OF MAGNOLIA PICTURES

Food, Inc. opens Friday in select theaters

Robert Kenner's Food, Inc. paints a grim, Orwellian picture of our lives and how we put food in our bodies. Thanks to a confluence of greed, ruthless efficiency, indifferent regulators and complaisant courts, a small group of huge corporations has seized control of the food chain. The result is an increasing homogenous food supply that is dependent on antibiotics, petroleum, unnaturally engineered and cruelly treated animals (and humans) and produces unsafe, E. coli- and salmonella-tainted produce and meat. It's enough to put you off your food.

Some corporate-controlled aspects of life are fairly easy to opt out of (for example, not watching television) and others are relatively easy to accommodate oneself to (shopping at either Lowe's or Home Depot for every home improvement project). But extricating oneself from corporate food is difficult: You can't simply boycott food. Yet, as Kenner's film makes abundantly clear, the corporate ownership of food is so pervasive that it takes extraordinary consumer effort and education to begin to regain control of our diets.

The arguments in this film will be familiar to most people who have taken to shopping at farmers' markets, growing backyard vegetables or bringing shopping bags to a certain high-end supermarket chain (that, despite its eco-friendly reputation, persists in flying out-of-season produce halfway around the world). To Kenner's credit, he recognizes the class divisions within the food economy. Families with means and education make a point of avoiding the McDonald's drive-thru, but others have little choice: It's more expensive and time-consuming to eat healthier food. The result is a widening class schism based on the food we eat. As the author Michael Pollan notes in the film, "All those snack food calories are the ones that come from the commodity crops, from the wheat, from the corn and from the soybeans. By making those calories really cheap, it's one of the reasons that the biggest predictor of obesity is income level."

The film is largely a synthesis of two of this generation's most important popular books about food production and consumption: Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation, published in 2001, and Pollan's The Omnivore's Dilemma (2006). Both authors appear in the film and recapitulate the arguments from their books. Schlosser discusses the startling consolidation of the country's meatpacking industry, in which a handful of companies control the majority of beef, pork and poultry production, with odious consequences for the environment, public health and the workers and animals. Pollan points out that a system in which a bag of chips is a better buy than a head of lettuce is a result of deliberate policy choices. "The system is skewed toward bad calories. They come from the crops that are subsidized," Pollan says.

One of the film's most disturbing passages concerns the extraordinary death grip Monsanto has on the nation's soybean farmers. In 1996, Monsanto introduced a soybean seed that was "Roundup ready," meaning that it would survive treatment by the pesticide also made by Monsanto. The kicker was that farmers were not permitted to save the seeds from their crops; instead, they would have to buy a whole new supply from Monsanto the following season. This flies in the face of 10,000 years of agricultural practice, but Monsanto, with the aid of a Supreme Court opinion written by former Monsanto attorney Clarence Thomas, was able to win this extraordinary right. The result is a situation in which farmers who save seeds are legally thieves. Monsanto maintains an enforcement staff of 75, the film tells us, that investigates and prosecutes noncompliant, and increasingly terrified, farmers.

As a contrast to the Midwestern grain farmers and the Southern contract chicken keepers who have been reduced to near serfdom by corporate agriculture, Food, Inc. introduces us to the remarkable Joel Salatin, a Virginia farmer who is a hero in sustainable farming circles for his successful dedication to small-scale community agriculture. The film doesn't make this point, but it's striking how the debt-ensnared contract farmers have been trained to believe that they are partaking of the great American capitalist enterprise. Yet it is Salatin who embodies a kind of Jeffersonian rural ideal, a man of 19th-century sensibilities successfully doing business in the 21st century.

As a work of documentary art, Food, Inc. is your basic talking-heads advocacy doc, with experts, witnesses and graphics all shouting the message of the horrors of industrial agriculture and processed foods. There are hidden-camera images of slaughterhouse atrocities—including the notorious pork abattoir in Smithfield, N.C.—as well as footage of undocumented Latino laborers being arrested for deportation when their presence becomes a political liability. Some of the material feels pro forma, such as the food safety advocate we meet who lost her son to E. coli-infested hamburgers, and a sequence with a low-income Latino family—forced to choose between eating cheap fast food that causes Type 2 diabetes and purchasing medicine to treat said condition—which feels heavily massaged to make a rhetorical point.

The filmmakers requested interviews with the likes of Tyson, Perdue and Monsanto but were denied. Too bad, because the film would have benefited from a contrary view or two, perhaps in defense of the current system or an explanation of why greener models aren't feasible. Such arguments may not be convincing, but they would provide fresh grist for viewers who are most likely quite sympathetic to the film's agenda.

Food, Inc. closes on a series of exhortatory titles as Bruce Springsteen sings "This Land is Your Land": "You can vote to change this system ... three times a day." That's a great bit of wisdom to live by, but I was also struck by another bit of advice shown on the screen: Make sure your local farmers' market accepts food stamps. As it happens, of the Triangle markets, only Durham's accepts them—as of next month. Others surely would be willing to follow suit, but there are technological and bureaucratic obstacles, according to Robert Andrew Smith, executive director of Leaflight, a Chapel Hill-based nonprofit that works on this issue. For more information, visit www.leaflight.org/download.

  • Or: Why Triangle farmers' markets should accept food stamps

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