Food, Inc.

October 5, 2009

Post image for Food, Inc.

I missed the other, more important, food movie this summer: Food, Inc.. Fortunately, my membership at the Museum of Science got me an invitation to a private screening that was followed by a panel discussion, with the whole event being sponsored by Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

All I knew about the movie beforehand was what I had seen in the trailer:

If it looks and sounds to you like a mashup of Fast Food Nation and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, you wouldn’t be that far off the mark. Food, Inc. hits the high points of both books, but adds a more human face to the issues. No time is wasted establishing the movie’s main points during the brilliant opening title sequence:

The film’s trajectory is predictable, but no less disturbing from familiarity with the information. We start with visits to farmers who grow chickens for Tyson and Perdue, move to Michael Pollan’s explanation of how most food products now contain a corn derivative, and then to the giant feedlots where most of our meat is raised.

We meet Barbara Kowalcyk, mother of a child who died from eating a hamburger contaminated with E. coli O157:H7. She’s in Washington, D.C., speaking to her representatives about the progress of a bill to create a law requiring tougher standards for meat inspection. Her sysiphean task is heartbreaking – no child should have to die from a hamburger – but, as yesterday’s New York Times article proves, the meat packing lobby will do anything in its power to prevent inspections, lest they have to spend a few more cents per pound to make meat safer.

We are then given a tour of  the Beef Products International (BPI) plant, where we see their “product” being created. What is the product? According to BPI’s proud owner, it’s “hamburger meat filler cleansed with ammonia to kill E. coli in beef patties.” At the time of the filming, BPI’s product could be found in 70% of all frozen beef patties, but they were hoping to get that number up to 90%.

With that horror fixed in our minds, we are then introduced to this family:

Dollar menu

You can see them in the trailer as well, the mother talks about not being able to afford vegetables. Their plight is meant to illustrate the food industry’s continued efforts to pack the cheapest food with the worst calories, all derived from fats, sugars, and other carbohydrates. The results of the family’s diet are predictable: the husband has diabetes, so money that could be spent on healthy food has to be used for his medicine. There’s a heartbreaking moment in a supermarket in which the younger daughter wants to buy some pears, but is told she can’t because they’re too expensive at 99 cents per pound.

Right after the bad news reaches this decrescendo, we finally get to meet a sane person: Joel Salatin, the hero of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He owns Polyface Farm, an all-organic operation in Virginia. Every sentence he speaks is a dose of much-needed common sense, but we quickly learn that his wisdom came from hard-fought battles with the food machine.

Joel Salatin

He’s what every small farmer should be or aspire to be: someone who cares about what he grows, who wants to feed people, make a decent living, and not have any dreams of building a farming empire.

There’s more, much more, but the most surprising section of Food, Inc. happens at a Wal-Mart, where Gary Hirshberg, CE-Yo (get it?) of Stonyfield Farm, has convinced the chain to stock his organic yogurt, in response to customer demand. It’s here that we see the most effective way to change our country’s food policy: not through toothless regulations, but through the supermarket. As Hirshbeg says: “Every time you scan a product at a cash register, you’re casting a vote.” There are very simple ways to modify your food buying and eating habits that will send a powerful message to food producers.

Of course, the self-selected, invited audience to a Cambridge science museum didn’t need much convincing, which rendered the panel discussion after the movie somewhat superfluous. We heard from Jessie Banhazi, whose company Green City Growers build backyard farms in the Boston area. She apologized for choosing the worst possible summer to get started, but hoped that more neighborhood groups would become interested in community farming. We also heard from Jody Adams, chef at the award-winning Rialto restaurant. She explained that she has always used locally-sourced ingredients whenever possible, because she likes knowing were her supplies come from. If it adds to her food costs, it’s a loss she’s willing to take.

Lastly, we heard from Hirshberg, who reiterated his capitalistic solution: vote with your wallet for better food, and buy organic products whenever possible. There wasn’t much time to discuss the co-opting of the “organic” label, but he closed the event with a perfect take-away line:

“Until World War II, everyone ate organic food.”

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