We went to see Food, Inc. last night—we are at the cornucopia section of the summer, where there are so many movies we want to see, yet instead of the three options I usually send Darin for our movie choices, I sent him only this one. It’s a documentary, it’s not a fun topic, gosh only knows how long it will be in theaters. So off we went to see it, and of course Darin ran into someone he knows. (This is a fairly frequent occurrence, honestly.) I did get my usual Red Vines, but Darin passed on the popcorn. Which, really, was all for the best.
Food, Inc. is sort of a greatest hits of current factory farming/industrial food complex criticism that we’ve read about from such writers as Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), both of whom are featured prominently in the film. Their theses are, to logline it: We have become removed from the source of our food; if we knew what went into our food we’d demand serious change; it is in everyone’s best interest to be fully informed about what the food manufacturers are presenting to us.
The movie presents an overview of the major factors involved with the industrial-caloric complex: the political, the economic, the medical, and the environmental. The political, showing the toothlessness of the federal government (when the USDA can’t even shut down processing plants known to be producing unsanitary food). The economic, where food—by which I mean food “product,” or the crap that litters our stores—is made so cheap by the vast corn subsidies our government gives “farmers,” by which mean the multibillion dollar conglomerates like Archer Daniels Midland or ConAgra or Tyson. The medical, where there’s no debate about how our modern Western diet is killing us. The environmental, where the runoff from the CAFOs (Concentrated Animal Feeding Operation, where animals are grown and live their entire lives in a cesspool of their own manure) is destroying watersheds, killing towns, and encouraging the growth of diseases like our old friend, e coli.
I also have to criticize the movie for sacrificing depth for breadth. For example, one section of the movie is the story about the low-income family who can afford dinner for a family of 4 at the Burger King drive-through (primarily because everything at Burger King is heavily processed food, dependent on the ubiquity of cheap corn). The family goes to the supermarket to find healthier, fresher choices and they simply can’t afford it. Broccoli is not deeply subsidized. Burger King is. The father is taking various medications for diabetes, the cost of which severely reduces their food budget even more. The younger daughter is now at risk for developing diabetes soon. The film gives us lots of statistics about the rise of diabetes in our country…but then assumes we know the connection between this food and the diabetes, because it sure as hell doesn’t explain it to us.
The clear culprit of our current food system is the corn subsidy. Surprisingly, the film doesn’t call for the subsidy to be ended (or at least severely changed). That may be the take-away they’re hoping we get from it, but it never says it out loud. Of course, maybe they’re worried about being sued about that kind of thing. The film does explain that, unless you’re Oprah and have the money to pay the team of lawyers to fight the Man, you’d better shut up and keep your head down, or otherwise the ranchers/Monsanto/other will sue you to kingdom come.
Many people say, If the price of food rises, people won’t be able to afford it! The answer to that one is pretty goddamn clear to me: we can’t afford what we’ve got going on now, and if people can’t afford it, it’s time to pay them some more goddamn money, isn’t it. (And stop making them spend most of their food budget on diabetes medications.) Our American way of life is not sustainable, and we have to rethink what our real priorities are here. If Food, Inc. gets people curious about the topic, so much the better.
If you are interested in this topic and don’t know where to start, here are some great books to check out. They’re popular science, meaning they’re written for normal human beings to read. (With the possible exception of The China Study, which has lots and lots of scientific studies and research for the biggest wonk to wade through, but you can still read plenty of stuff in there without going cross-eyed.)
- Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser.
- The Omnivore’s Dilemma by Michael Pollan.
- In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan. This is a good overview of the problems and issues confronting us in the modern food age and asks us to really think about what we’re going to do about it.
- Food Matters by Mark Bittman. I like Bittman’s food writing for the NY Times a lot, and this book is another good overview of the issues we need to deal with, like, NOW about our the industrial-caloric complex. Plus: recipes!
- Food Politics by Marion Nestle. This is an excellent in-depth investigation of what makes it to your plate and why.
- What To Eat by Marion Nestle. After Food Politics so many of her friends said, “So what am I supposed to eat, anyhow?” Nestle then went into a supermarket and investigated what the hell is actually on the shelves. Wonderful reference tome.
- Fat Land: How Americans Became the Fattest People In the World by Greg Critser. Critser investigates where all this cheap corn came from (the Nixon administration) and the effects it’s had on our food and our health. If you want an explanation of what high fructose corn syrup is and why it’s bad for you, check this out.
- The China Study by T. Colin Campbell. If, like me (being a good indoctrinated American), you said, What on Earth can we learn from the Chinese about nutrition, the starvation of whom we’ve been made guilty about for years? Well, this ain’t the Cultural Revolution and China exports food to us. (Think about that.) Campbell makes it pretty clear that the absolute first line of defense against what’s known as “the Western diseases” is what goes into our mouth. You can argue with his conclusions—but this is a pretty dense scientific tome and he’s published, y’know, actual scientific papers on these topics.
- The Way We Eat: Why Our Food Choices Matter by Peter Singer and Jim Mason. Singer is a philosopher who specializes in the ethics of our food choices, which seems specialized and arcane until you realize it touches just about every single aspect of our lives. The book uses three families who have very different food philosophies (fast food, organic and free range food, vegan) as the jumping-off point to investigate where we get our food from and why it matters. I absolutely will not eat turkey ever again after reading this book (sorry, Aunt Lil, but no way, no how, am I eating turkey this Thanksgiving, or ever again at any other time). Singer is vegan but he doesn’t disparage the families who choose to eat meat: he investigates why and and where their food is coming from.
Feel free to suggest others in comments.
In my continuing quest to
go vegetarian cut way back on the amount of animal products I consume (I’m sorry, I’m such a weenie, I’m just not a labels person), I have started made it my default behavior to search restaurant menus for the most vegan meal possible. That is to say: a salad without cheese as a main listed ingredient >> a salad with cheese >> a salad with fish >> fried chicken sandwich with slab o’cheese and mayo.
Holy God, it’s nearly impossible.
Seriously, play this game at the next restaurant you go to. Look for the vegetarian dish. Find the meal where you can easily remove the animal products and have anything left. When vegetarians complain about pretty much being offered green salad (and usually iceberg at that) or maybe some roasted vegetables on pasta, they are not kidding. There is such a huge range of vegetarian cuisine out there and the general public does not see any of it, unless they go to an ethnic restaurant, such as Indian or Ethiopian. (Many vegetarian entrees at Chinese restaurants are often cooked in chicken broth, so that’s a big ol’ No.) And there’s an upper limit, even for me, on the amount of falafel and hummus I can consume. Admittedly, it’s a pretty high upper limit, but a limit nonetheless.
No wonder people think vegetarians are odd: they’ve been crammed into the odd corner.
I’ve taken to using apps such as VeganXpress and VegOut to try to find someplace in the neighborhood to get something to eat. I think I need a few new ones to help me out. If you have any suggestions, leave ‘em in comments.
After the movie last night we went to Rock Bottom Brewery, where I played the “anything but iceberg lettuce” game—I have nothing against salads, salads are the best, I actually love eating huge gigantic salads now, but I don’t want that to be my only thing—and came up with… the Tex-Asian vegetable potstickers. Which turned out to be (more or less) samosas in a vaguely potstickerish wrap. Well, I guess it’s a start.