A couple of weeks ago, we went to a pre-release screening of Food, Inc., downtown at the E Street Theater. We’d never been; it’s nice and worth the trip downtown to be able to see limited run films in a contemporary setting. Old theaters have a lot of charm, however there’s a lot to be said for being able to feel your kneecaps when you get up to leave.
The film itself was well done. There wasn’t much new information in it, although I was pleased to see that my favorite parts of Pollan’s book—the bit about the pastured chickens and the section about corn corn corn—were apparently everyone’s favorites, as they were the basis for a large segment of the film. I had a reaction similar to my response to The Omnivore’s Dilemma, which was to think that either I was even more unusual than I realized (there is at least one person in our household who is a proponent of this view) or the authors really misunderestimated their audience’s knowledge. In support of seeing the film even if you already know everything it’s telling you, it’s definitely more striking seeing an aerial view of factory cow farms and an up close view of chickens that are simultaneously too big and underdeveloped to be able to hold themselves up than just reading the book (or watching Chicken Run for the gazillionth time). It’s easy to see footage of bushels of potatoes rolling down assembly lines being cleaned and sorted and be lulled into an easy contentment about how nearly Jetson-like our current era is; it’s nearly impossible to do the same when the potatoes are chickens. Similarly, while reading anything about Monsanto is enraging, the segment covering their persecution of an old Hoosier over his seed-cleaning business made me feel more loyalty to where I grew up than ever before. Also, I wanted to fly back home and personally beat to death (this is hyperbole, FBI) the schmuck of a lawyer who was willing to get his minute of fame stating on camera that losing this case would set a terrible precedent, but wasn’t willing to see it through to the end pro bono. [Insert your favorite ass-word derived expletive here.] Yes, it’s true that every time I see an old guy operating somewhat arcane machinery I think of my grandfather, and that makes me sentimental; it’s also true that the Indiana I grew up in may look the same—miles and miles of corn and soybeans destined for industrial processing—but it’s been totally transformed socioeconomically by Monsanto and that idiotic Thomas-driven decision. (If you’re reading this, Supreme Court, that one is high on the list of ‘stupid things that never should have happened, that we can get down to work reversing just as soon as humanly possible.’)
Besides rousing my ire, only moderately soothed by having had the foresight to wear my ‘Food for people, not for profit!’ t-shirt from the UMD food coop, the film did a decent job of highlighting the way in which our food choices are about more than just the concentration of pesticides in our toddlers’ urine. They are about the way the workers who harvest our food are treated, the health of the communities uphill from the slaughterhouses and downstream from the CAFOs, the economic solvency of the farmers who buy the seeds and rent out the chickens, and the preservation of the natural variety that makes our ecosystems more resilient when faced with pests and disease. This is the part where my partner believes I’m the unusual one, because I think about all those things when I decide how to spend our money, and at this point I’m feeling pretty confident about our mish-mash of choices. I know that we are privileged to have the marginal income to choose to spend on food rather than cable TV, and still pay for health care as well. I know that, and I’m not talking about personal economic choices made by the working poor. I’m talking about the choice to take the time to cook something from scratch, rather than buy the thing that’s full of corn syrup made from the corn grown by a guy in Indiana under the yoke of Monsanto and dependent on federal subsidies. I’m talking about the choice to pay more per gallon of milk to know that the money is going to farmers who are treating their animals well rather than to the shareholders of an enormous company that buys up farms and consolidates them just as soon as organic food starts to look profitable. I’m talking about making this balance work by eating less meat and processed food, and shifting the savings toward the budget for organic vegetables and dairy.
Really, I’m talking about putting your money where your mouth is and making a commitment to a way of participating in the food provision system in this country that reflects your core values about workplaces, environmental impacts, and product quality. Yes, I know not everyone cares as much as I do about whose pockets the profits from my dollars go into at the end of the day (or the quarter), and that’s fine. But everyone cares about something that can be reflected in how we spend our money and obtain our food, and that’s really the larger point that Food, Inc. is making. Figure out what that thing is for you, and let it guide the way you shop and eat, whether it be workers or green spaces or farmers or pesticides. It may take longer and appear to cost more than the alternatives, but we’ll all be part of a happier and healthier society for it.