Harsh fluorescent lights illuminate power lunchers, families and a few scrubby gutter punks seated on swivel chairs hunkered over blue plastic trays, chowing on burgers and slurping sodas.
“No. 38!” a sandpapered voice calls through the microphone. Customers belly up to the counter to receive their meals — taking part in a cattle call that has fed America for more than half a century.
Robert Kenner and I take a seat at a fast food joint in what could be in Anytown, USA: We’re here to discuss America’s culinary culture and the evolution of industrial eating — topics that are examined in his upcoming documentary, “Food, Inc.”
Kenner’s film, which took three years to produce, “started out as a story of how our food gets to our dinner table, and turned into a horror film…. I spent more on legal fees than we did on my past 15 films combined, times three [to protect against the industrial food producers].
” Kenner, who won an Emmy in 2006 for “The American Experience,” refrained from using narration in “Food, Inc.” Instead, he let interviews and images — which are shocking but nowhere near as disturbing as some PETA clips — tell the story. “We weren’t out to make a film that closes your eyes. We wanted to make a film that would make you open your eyes,” he says.
Kenner has cautiously ordered a veggie sandwich; for the sake of demonstration, I’ve ordered a bacon-avocado cheeseburger and some fried zucchini. Per my request, Kenner proceeds to dissect my meal.
What’s in it… after the jump. And the trailer too.
“Well, there’s corn in the bun. There’s corn in the pig feed for your bacon. There’s corn in the cattle feed, who aren’t meant to eat corn. All of a sudden we feed them corn, which their rumen is not designed to handle, and it’s resulting in all sorts of diseases like E. coli.
Then we have to feed them antibiotics. Of course there’s corn in the oil for your fried zucchini,” Kenner continues, moving on to critique my tomatoes. “They’re what Michael [Pollan, co-producer of “Food, Inc.”] calls ‘notional tomatoes’: They look like a tomato, but they don’t taste like one.” Plus, who knows how far those ingredients traveled to get to Anytown.
Eaters are hard-wired to crave the elements in fast food — the menu items satiate our three basic needs for sugar, fat and protein. The problem is that “we want it faster, fatter, bigger and cheaper,” says Polyface Farm owner Joel Salatin, who’s featured as a successful model of farming in the film. Salatin doesn’t tipple the industrial Kool-Aid; he raises many types of livestock without the use of pesticides, fertilizers or growth hormones at his farm south of Washington, D.C., including “salad bar beef” — cattle that graze on a variety of grasses and native forage.
But it’s debatable whether the world could survive solely off food produced by smaller sustainable farms and community-supported agriculture like Polyface under current governmental policies. The food system is set up to provide subsidies to industrial corn and soy farmers, allowing them to produce cheaper goods for the populace, making the price of Salatin’s products seem astronomical.
Kenner asserts that the price tags of cheaper commercial foods are deceiving: We are paying for it in healthcare costs. “One-third of the children born after the year 2000 will have early-onset diabetes. The population has to pay for that,” he says.
The statistics and disturbing visuals in “Food, Inc.” lead viewers to a conclusion that’s hard to swallow: Our food is making us sick, plaguing our country’s healthcare system and the environment and threatening human rights. “You can really tell a lot about our society by how our food is produced. Farmers grew food for the Roman Republic. Slaves grew the food for the Roman Empire…. Our food is grown and processed by illegal immigrants. It’s being produced in such a distasteful way that our own citizens don’t want to be involved,” Kenner says.
But unlike most apocalyptic investigative documentaries, “Food, Inc.” offers solutions, and not just in the form of a few footnotes at the end of the film. Participant Media has put out an accompanying book for the film, also titled “Food, Inc.,” which serves as a field guide for how to take part in the transition to a sustainable food system.
As we reach the end of our interview, Kenner asks, “So how does your burger taste?” I look down at the two mouse-sized nibbles carved out of my sandwich, repulsed by what some might see as bacon-avocado bliss. My stomach lurches; my appetite for change — and a farmers market salad — is heartier than ever.
— Krista Simmons
Photo: Magnolia Pictures