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Isabel Cowles Headshot

Reclaiming America, Bite by Bite

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"Tell me what you eat and I'll tell you who you are." Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin

Food is everything, in the best of ways. It is what ties us to our friends and families, what holds us to our traditions and the planet, what keeps us coming together each day for nourishment and to express our values. It is the element of our humanity we share above all else: more than sleep, more than sex, more than childbearing and death, all of which come at different times, in different ways, for different people. But breaking bread is something we do together: elemental and symbolic, it is an act that binds our community in clear and subtle ways. Food is the source of the health and vitality of society--the foundation of a peoples' success and the prognostication of a peoples' future.

Because food is so enmeshed in our bodies, our communities and our environment, it can also be a source of tremendous cultural complication. Robert Kenner's new documentary Food Inc. explores some of America's seemingly unrelated ills and ties them together within the subversive--and shrinking--network of American factory farms. The film shows how the food industry has shifted from a broad network of producers and consumers towards a handful of corporate giants that control food culture not only in the grocery store, but also on the farm and on Capitol Hill.

On one hand, consumers are detached from what they eat--gone are the days of seasonally-imposed menus. On the other hand, Americans have fewer and fewer choices of what to eat and where it comes from--even if the options seem endless. Easily manipulated foods like corn, wheat and soy are engineered to enhance virtually every product found in a conventional grocery store. You may be drinking a soda, eating a steak or having a bowl of ice cream, but you're also having corn three ways, and in so doing, supporting multinational corporations that have usurped and exploited traditional American farmers, replacing them with engineers, machines and impoverished workers.

The film points to a litany of social ramifications brought on by the American food system, but I won't be a total spoiler. Either way, Food Inc., sets out to tell you things you've most likely already heard, or at least noticed. To wit, many Americans are getting sicker, fatter and poorer every year. This is happening, in large part, because of America's complex and hidden food system. Multi-layered elements of the food industry are deliberately withheld from the public because of how shocking and, frankly, unappetizing they are. Industrialized farms, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and large-scale meat packing plants (only 13 plants supply virtually all of America's beef, according to the film) create sick animals, a sick environment and sick people.

But Food, Inc. doesn't simply rely on a series of horrifying images of slaughterhouses and factory farms to get its cultural message across, although it certainly contains scenes unfit for the squeamish. Instead, the film uses real people and their struggles with financial, physical and emotional distress tied to industrialized food. One family is forced to choose between Burger King and broccoli in order to pay for diabetes medicine. One woman lost her child to an E.coli- infected hamburger and has spent the last six years fighting (unsuccessfully) for improved food safety standards. One farmer agrees to let the filmmakers see her chicken coup and subsequently loses her contract as a Purdue supplier. These people testify to the perversion of American nourishment. Something is amiss when a hamburger costs less than a head of broccoli. When spinach and tomatoes become a serious risk to public health, something beyond the individual is sick. The people who produce what we eat should not be forcefully silenced about their practices.

Human beings, economically and politically savvy as we may be, cannot exist for long outside of our ecosystem. Even if it seems cheaper today to buy a burger at a fast food restaurant than to buy seasonal vegetables from a local grower, the overall environmental cost is devastating in the long-run. Unfortunately, food calories have been re-routed so that energy-dense options often lack real nutritive value and require greater amounts of overall energy to produce. Efficient though the factory farm may currently seem, it will end our ability to feed ourselves as oil, clean water and healthy soil become increasingly limited. Alternatively, growing a wider variety of crops seasonally and humanely will keep people and the environment nourished for generations.

The film leaves us with an empowering extension of this message, reminding the viewer that while the high demand for food has gotten America into a threatening monopolistic mess, it is also the key to recovering our food heritage. Eating happens at least three times a day for most of us, and the choices we make at each meal greatly affect the state of our local growers and communities.

Food is everything: it is a reflection of how we value ourselves and the world, though the fact is often forgotten in a culture where fast, cheap and easy eating has become the norm. Emerging generations should not grow up believing that diseased bodies and a polluted world are necessary conditions. Food, Inc. empowers and challenges us to choose our food with a higher consciousness and care, reminding us that every product we buy and every bite we take can be a commitment to restoring an ailing network: the people, communities, animals and land that make America. The health and future of our society begins with the journey from seed to plate and perhaps for some, a ticket to this film.

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