Doc Review #2: “Food, Inc.”

Food, Inc.

Runtime: 93 minutes

Currently on Netflix: Yes

Currently on Indieflix: No

IMDb page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1286537/?ref_=ttawd_awd_tt

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5eKYyD14d_0

Robert Kenner’s Oscar-nominated Food Inc. is one of those documentaries that gets me fired up no matter how many times I watch it, so please bear with me if this review morphs into a rant about the government. As someone interested in health and nutrition, I sometimes settle in to the idea that everyone has the choice of what food to eat, and that all one has to do to become healthy is eat a higher healthy fat, low-carb diet with foods from quality sources. It should be so simple, right? In a perfect world, maybe. But this is not a perfect world because I do not drive a Ferrari to work or own a unicorn that poops out grass-fed, organic cheeseburgers. Unfortunately, we live in a world with a government that was formed to protect the people but has instead been corrupted by large corporations, putting profits ahead of the health and livelihood of its people. Food, Inc. discusses the dishonesty fed to us in every step of food production even before the seed is planted in the ground or the chicken is hatched from the egg, and it does so with a barrage of stunning statistics that opens the viewer’s eyes a little wider with each one.

The film begins by interviewing Eric Schlosser, investigative journalist and author of Fast Food Nation. He explains that the vast majority of food companies are controlled by about half a dozen large corporations—corporations that keep their farmers so far in debt and fear that even the most ethical farmer is forced to grow chickens that can’t stand because they are too sick and fat, or risk a lawsuit they have no chance of winning. Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, then discusses the history and current uses of one of America’s favorite crops: corn. Farmers are subsidized and encouraged to grow as much corn as possible because it can be used to make all kinds of sweeteners, fuels, building materials, and, most disturbingly, animal feed. It is well known that cows and fish were never meant to eat corn and yet the majority are, which causes countless health problems in the animals and even in humans.

What can be made from corn? Probably more than you think-- and it turns out that's not necessarily a good thing.
What can be made from corn? Probably more than you think– and it turns out that’s not necessarily a good thing.

One of these health problems is caused by E. coli O157:H7, a strain of E. coli resistant to a cow’s stomach acids meaning it ends up in their feces and, in turn, ground beef. It is a strain that was never meant to exist in humans, yet by feeding cows food they weren’t meant to eat it was created, strengthened and introduced into the human population. In 2001, this virus killed a two-year-old named Kevin, a perfectly healthy boy who ate a hamburger while on vacation and died twelve days later of kidney failure. His mother, Barbara, is now a food safety advocate and is working hard to enact Kevin’s Law, which would allow the USDA to shut down processing plants that repeatedly produce contaminated food. This no-brainer law has not been passed thanks to lobbying from meat processors, though some aspects have been adopted into Obama’s 2011 FSMA Law.

The film then briefly investigates the correlation between obesity and income level, a relationship that shouldn’t be too surprising considering a cheeseburger at McDonalds costs less than many vegetables at the grocery store. This is in part because the foods that make the cheeseburger so unhealthy— corn and corn-based products, for example— are subsidized by the government. This leads to low-income families, who often work longer hours and have less time to cook or shop for healthy food, to go through the drive-thru or not eat at all (a fact not mentioned in the film is that there is a higher density of fast-food restaurants in lower-income housing areas—coincidence?)

The last sections of the film focus on the government tactics used to increase profits and control the agriculture and farming industry. A farmer who raises grass-fed animals explains that the government has tried shutting down his farm because of “unsanitary conditions” (he processes chickens by hand in an open-air shelter in his field, for example), which is odd because his chicken was tested at a local lab against store-bought chicken and was found to have 27x less harmful bacteria. He then discusses a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that allowed companies to patent genetically-modified organisms and fueled many biotechnology companies, namely Monsanto, to create GMO crops and then control farmers who use those crops through threats of patent infringement lawsuits. These companies can even investigate and sue farmers who never bought GMO seeds if some have blown into their field from a neighboring farm without them knowing. The film then discusses several key players in Monsanto’s strong grasp in the government including Monsanto attorney-turned Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, members of the Clinton and Bush administration, and several members of the USDA and FDA.

Just as I was feeling the overwhelming urge to punch a Monsanto lawyer in the face, the documentary ends with a short glimmer of hope. The conclusion reminds us that with every news story of salmonella or E. coli, and every documentary like Food Inc. (there are many), the curtain covering up the corruption in the food industry is slowly being pulled away, informing consumers who are then better able to vote with their dollar by purchasing local produce and food if possible. It cites the changes in the tobacco industry over the past few decades as evidence that the food industry can similarly improve.

This is another documentary that we watched before filming our own, and was the film I personally kept most in the back of my mind while filming and editing. Though our film focuses mostly on the labor behind the food, while Food Inc. focuses on the government corruption influencing food quality and safety, there is a short section in the film about the large corporation Smithfield arranging with government agencies to only arrest and deport a small number of illegal immigrant workers every night to satisfy the need for deportations with little impact to their workforce.

I couldn’t cover everything I wanted because the film is so densely packed with important information—all I can say is you just have to watch it. I highly recommend this documentary to anyone and everyone, especially those interested in food and health. No matter how many times I watch it I still find myself feeling depressed and angry at the government afterwards. The genius of this film is that I feel these things without the film even grazing the surface of animal rights and humane slaughtering practices— it doesn’t need to because your jaw is already on the floor without these. Funny enough, after watching the movie I had to cook some chicken breasts to bring to work and I just stared at them for a few minutes, glaring at the picture of a happy little farm on the package and thinking about how this chicken probably wasn’t an animal—just a fat, sickly blob of meat who couldn’t walk two steps.

 

Cinematography: 9/10 From the beginning, you see helicopter shots of rolling fields and smooth panning shots in a large grocery store. Knowing how hard it is to get permission to do these things (having tried myself with our film), I was impressed.

Soundtrack: 9/10 The music helped to elicit emotions; for example, during tense scenes involving the lawsuits between farmers and these corporations the music became dramatic and suspenseful.

Editing: 10/10 The structure of the film was easy to follow. The animations at the beginning explaining the companies who control meat processing or the difference between a chicken of the 1950’s and a chicken today were very well done, and again having tried doing creative animations like this in our own film (having to finally resort to kinetic typography) I was very impressed.

Impact: 10/10 If I could rate this one any higher I would (I guess I could since I made the scoring system, but I’ll resist the urge). This is an issue that affects everyone no matter their income level, race, or any other lifestyle characteristic. Anyone who eats food (which should be everyone) is affected by the laws and actions of the government AND has the power to improve the system.

Overall: 9.5/10

 

Remember, we love discussion about movies! If you have an opinion about this film, or know of a documentary we should review, email us at bsberries@gmail.com or hit us up on Twitter or Facebook.

 

-Scott Hines

Scott Hines is a Director for Blood, Sweat and Berries.

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Tips from Across the Atlantic

I spent last month traveling around Europe, where I mostly frolicked around in art museums and cathedrals. Not a bad life. I also ate some pretty fantastic food, and each time the bill came, I automatically started doing my usual mental math: there’s the total, move the decimal point, multiply by two. Oh wait was that the amount before tax? Do we have more than six in our party? More than once, I was reminded that we were not expected to leave anywhere near the familiar 15-20% tip, and a service charge was sometimes already in place.

Here in the States, tipping has become standard in the service industry, especially in  restaurant culture. Eateries that offer alternatives to the tipping system are far and few. Studies have shown that Americans overwhelmingly prefer tipping to a service charge. Maybe we feel that a service charge deprives us of the power to stick it to bad waiters, but studies have shown that the correlation between tips and service is weak. Tips are based largely on the bill amount, and customers usually tip the same percentage regardless of service quality.

Tipping

The U.S. is also one of the only countries to establish a separate minimum wage for tipped employees. While the current federal minimum wage is $7.25 an hour, the minimum tipped wage is only $2.13. Minimum wage in the U.S. lags behind much of western Europe, but the situation is worse for tipped employees. While minimum wage was last raised in 2009, tipped minimum wage has remained stagnant for the last twenty-two years. To put that into perspective, twenty-two years ago, a loaf of bread cost an average of 70 cents.

It’s common to think of tips as a reward for good service or the lack of tips as punishment for bad, but as it currently stands, restaurant workers rely almost entirely on tips to make a living. As a result, many struggle to make ends meet. Are we too cynical for the argument that decently paid workers will deliver good service without the additional incentive? I hope not. Employers should not be able to pay their wait staff the same wages as they did in 1991, and I challenge anyone to find bread now for 70 cents. As the battle for higher pay wages on (pun a little bit intended), let’s extend the case to include the tipped workers, lest we make them eat cake.

-Serena

Serena Yin graduated with a degree in English from Johns Hopkins University in 2013. A New England native, she loves ballet, beaches, and hamburgers. When she’s not on the hunt for the nearest Starbucks, she’s working on realizing her lifelong dream of meeting J.K. Rowling.

Food Aid, Amended?

On June 20th, an amendment designed to reform US food aid was narrowly defeated in the House of Representatives.

The amendment would have removed certain restrictions that require food destined for global aid be bought from US farmers and transported on US carriers. The stipulations were originally in place to benefit American farmers and corporations, but today are in direct conflict with the ultimate goal of food aid. By requiring food to be bought in the US and shipped by US carriers, aid costs are increased by up to a third, and delayed by as many as 14 weeks. Three months in a time of drought or famine is beyond significant, and “better late than never” is hardly applicable.

A Haitian woman carries a bag of rice donated by USAid

By easing restrictions on purchasing, USAID would be allowed to instead procure food from regions more local to the crisis area. This food could be purchased at better rates, and also result in shipping costs drastically reduced from those required to transport from the United States around the globe. Further, the current model of importing the entirety of aid has had drastic consequences for local markets. Following the earthquake in Haiti, many local rice farmers were put out of business when the market was flooded by cheap American rice imported to help in the time of crisis. This short-term fix, with long-term consequences for agriculture in the region, is not a point to be taken lightly. And yet the current model perpetuates this situation, in various iterations around the globe.

Ultimately what’s at stake for Americans, and what makes this a debate at all, is the effect this would have on US agriculture. However, food aid accounts for less than one percent of food exports from the US. The loss of a portion of this would have only minimal effect on US agricultural income.

Global relief provided by the United States is an important endeavor, but the photo ops provided by bags of grain stamped with US flags are becoming less and less relevant. Should we be so concerned about being recognized for the charitable work we do and the benefits as they relate to us? Or ultimately, should we be more concerned about the effect that charitable work has?

 

-David

David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.

Food Forests in Seattle?

Seattle’s urban fabric is about to have a new addition: a forest.

On a seven-acre plot in Beacon Hill, plans for a food forest are going ahead. The idea began in 2009 as a project for a permaculture class, and has since received funding for the design and procurement of seeds, and a land grant from Seattle Public Utilities.

So the question is: what is a food forest? Fair question. The concept of permaculture has been gradually gaining traction as issues of sustainability and green practice are pushed to the fore. And therein lies the idea for the food forest. A perennial, self-sustaining garden, operating as a public park and open to all. Blueberries in season? Feel free to harvest as many as you like. The same with anything else growing in the garden.

673893_orig

The idea isn’t necessarily new, but what is new is both the scale of the project, and the location of the park within the fabric of the city. It is this convenient location that raises a lot of questions amongst critics, primarily how to monitor collection and avoid abuse of the park by individuals. But then, the answer to that question could be the largest positive of the project. Those who harvest the most are those who need the most.

In response to the question of who is the food grown in the park available to, lead landscape architect Margarett Harrison responded: “Anyone and everyone. There was major discussion about it. People worried, ‘What if someone comes and takes all the blueberries?’ That could very well happen, but maybe someone needed those blueberries. We look at it this way—if we have none at the end of blueberry season, then it means we’re successful.”

And ultimately, that should be the mentality. Until the park actually opens and the first fruit is produced, no one can accurately predict the response. However, the community response simply to the development of the project, and the coverage the idea is getting, has already largely proven it a success. If further to that it can provide nutritional assistance to the underprivileged, well then, the negatives will be hard to find.

 

-David

David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.

“Celebrating” World Hunger Day

“There are starving children in Africa.”

That was the phrase I’d hear as a child if I didn’t want to finish a meal. The lesson I suppose being to be grateful for what you’ve got. It speaks to a deeper truth, though. While our personal food wastage, the level of which can sometimes be staggering, is a symptom of the problem, the root cause is an inequality of global food supply. Studies by the World Bank have shown there is enough food being produced worldwide to support a global population, and even create up to a 50% surplus if you look at the total yields before food storage issues and crop spoilage. Why then do one in eight people on this planet live their lives malnourished?

On May 28th we celebrated World Hunger Day. Celebrated? Poor word choice. Acknowledged? Highlighted? Called attention to the inequality of global food supply and raised awareness of the ongoing issue of global hunger? Better.

malnutrition

So what to do about this inequality? In the United States, less than one percent of the foreign aid budget is spent on improving nutrition. The irony there, though, is that the most value for our dollar could be garnered by spending it on just that. Annually, 2.5 million children are dying worldwide due to inadequate nutrition. That’s fully one third of all preventable childhood deaths. And that number just speaks to mortality, not to those children whose growth is retarded or who suffer lifelong damage due to malnutrition. This is where aid should be going. Preventing those losses would lead to stronger, healthier workforces as those children mature, and would increase the benefits of aid given at different levels.

In America, programs designed to improve child nutrition have seen significant success over the last 50 years. These programs, largely introduced through school meals, have traditionally focused more on under­-nourishment. Now there’s a shift to combating mal-nourishment. It’s an important distinction and a different gradient on the scale of poor nutrition. The difference between not having enough to eat, and not eating well. Quantity must definitely be addressed, especially in developing nations where famines can still wreak havoc, but quality must follow soon after, or better yet be tied in.

We have a duty here to combat global malnutrition, but the fight doesn’t begin outside of our borders. It’s merely a continuation.

-David

David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.

Superfood for Thought

We find ourselves caught up these days, especially in cities with a “foodie” culture, in the latest healthy trend. Superfoods, supplements, and exotic items on the menu are a natural outlet for disposable income, using it to improve the quality of our own lives with the added benefit of being environment- and health-conscious.

Give a thought next time though, as you bite into say, a delicious quinoa wrap, give a thought to the story of that quinoa—before you pat yourself on the back for supporting Peruvian farmers, choosing a more environmentally friendly crop, and embracing the health benefits of this miracle grain. There can be unfortunate global repercussions due to our increasing obsession with these products.

Quinoa harvest in Bolivia

It’s a great irony too. For in Peru, where the majority of quinoa is produced, many locals can no longer afford to eat it. Having been the staple food in this region for hundreds of years, Western demand has now pushed prices up to a level where the majority is exported, and the diet of locals has been supplanted by imported junk food. The push in the West to diversify our diet, and in a lot of circles reduce the impact of animal husbandry by moving towards vegetarianism, has led to the opposite effect in the countries from where we import these crops. In the US quinoa is added to the diet and junk foods reduced, and in Peru quinoa is removed from the diet and junk foods increased.

If everything ends up being in balance globally, one step forward one step back, are we really accomplishing anything by being “conscious”?

Answer that question and I’ll buy you the world. And all the quinoa in it. Truth is I feel torn, and I don’t think I’m the only one. Maybe we should be looking for alternatives. Maybe we should be moving away from such a focus on meat, especially red meat, in our diets. But we need to be aware that there’s a cost for everything. That quite often “local” is better than “organic.” Transferring our problems isn’t solving them—only making them somebody else’s.

-David

David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.

Living Below the Line: Challenge Accepted

Editor’s note: David recently participated in the Live Below the Line Challenge. Read on about his week below (and be grateful keeping your pantry unblocked).

Day 0

“This one’s 86 cents.”

“This one’s 88, but it’s slightly bigger.”

“Done.”

This is how Steph and I made our way around Winco today. In the bulk section, there’s “Bet I can get closer to exactly a pound without weighing it,” and “You’re on,” and debating the merits of bananas over other fruit, and whether a loaf of bread was a good idea.

Then we went home and tried to eat all the perishables in the fridge. How are we going to survive a week without salads and fruits? Or granola and yogurt? Tortillas or even bacon? Funny the things we think of as “essentials.” Well not this week. Essentials are rice and lentils and oatmeal. Salad’s gonna be a hard one though. There might be some foraging happening later this week…

David's Grocery List

Day 1

Ran into this dilemma today, not unanticipated, but still tough: I work in a café. Steph and I had already discussed whether or not I could partake in the free meals we’re offered at work. We decided no. But then all day I was surrounded by food, and especially this gorgeous coffee cake sitting on the counter in front of me all shift. I resisted. But… I must confess, what I couldn’t resist was the coffee. I mean, I’m a barista. How could I pull espresso shots all day and not partake? I don’t have that kind of will power. Plus I’m a blogger. And if you’ve never seen me writing whilst not hopped up on caffeine, it’s not a pretty picture.

So coffee, or the lack thereof, is no longer a part of the challenge.

Day 2

“Don’t rinse that!” I called hurriedly to Steph as she started to wash a pot used for pasta sauce. She had the same thought at the same moment, and so we poured beans into the pot to cook them for tomorrow. Can’t waste anything! Even leftover tomato paste. Maybe I’m getting overly concerned about still having food to eat on Friday. It’s hard enough being a grazer, as we both are, and coming home only to see the blocked door to the pantry. No admittance. Not for the rest of this week. Drink some more water. It’ll fill you up.

It might not be helping that we’re keeping our usual routine going. Which meant ultimate Frisbee yesterday evening, and an hour long swim this afternoon, and probably hot yoga tomorrow. I might waste away to nothing…

It’s only Day 2. Get over it David. You’ll be fine.

Day 3

Steph went foraging today. Dandelions and other greens, and they definitely made a nice addition to a baked potato for lunch and pasta for dinner. Oh, and eggs and toast for breakfast. I had forgotten we had eggs we could use. Was a welcome discovery. Not enough though. We went to hot yoga tonight, after swimming for thirty minutes at the gym, and almost the moment I got in that heated room I felt lightheaded. It cleared up after a bit, but talking to Steph afterwards, apparently both of us had been seeing spots and feeling dizzy at the beginning of class.

So we spent the drive home discussing food. Saturday is going to be an epic day. I think breakfast and brunch are both happening, and we’ll go from there.

Day 4

“Lead us not into temptation…” I broke under the strain. I was feeling right next door to rubbish mid-morning at work, and the realization hit me that it was probably because half a bowl of oatmeal was just not gonna do the trick. So I caved. Accepted a free breakfast burrito. I’m not sure what penance I can do to make amends, but I’ll have to figure something out. Although it was “free,” so there’s maybe some wiggle room for me…

It’s funny the impact that a lack of certain things can have on you. Calorically we could probably be ok, and maybe if there were no other options it would suffice. But there are other options! Glorious options! My kingdom for a giant bowl of fruit. Or gummi bears. Either way.

Day 5

I was better today. Maybe the guilt/calories of the breakfast burrito yesterday served to carry me over the finish line. Oatmeal, again, to start the day, a baked potato, and beans and rice to round out the day. And an egg or two. Steph has impressed me a few times this week by creating meals that almost let me forget we’re eating the same thing day after day. A necessary trick during a week like this.

Day 6

We celebrated today. The end of the Challenge. Blew twice last week’s budget… on a single meal. Breakfast of Eggs Benedict and a Belgian Waffle. That was perhaps the most eye-opening moment of the week, as I handed my card over to pay for it. The realization that we had eaten for five days (barring a slight blip on my part) on a budget of $15. And here we were paying the equivalent of ten days’ budget.

But that’s the West for you. Disposable income gives us a taste for luxury. Live without it for a time and you gain a sense of perspective.

Further reflections to follow. But right now dinner is calling. Not sure yet exactly what it’s gonna be, but I know it won’t contain rice, lentils, or black beans. Beyond that…

-David

David Wilson graduated from the University of Texas in 2006. Since then he has gone wherever the wind blows him, living in Europe, China, and the States, and traveling extensively throughout the rest of the world. When he’s not on the move, you can find him obsessing over latte art, playing piano, or trying to bleach his hair in the sunshine. Follow him on Twitter.