June 25, 2009

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Food, Inc. (PG)
Add high calories, environmental concerns, questions about labor practices and genetically modified farming to the toppings on your national chain fast food sandwich- product with Food, Inc., a documentary about modern food production in America.

Uhm, or don’t add those things — do what you want, eat as many McWhopperFilets as you’d like. One of the things Food, Inc. scares the bejesus out of you about is the veggie libel laws in some states that make it difficult (or at least expensive) to speak ill of the dominant agricultural industry. So, to be clear, no actionable ill-speaking here.

You probably already know which of your food choices are not the right ones — you eat in the car instead of at the table, you eat too much meat and fat and not enough vegetables, you think enough snack cakes can equal a dinner. (And, yes, by “you” I mean me.) Food, Inc. gives you some science to add deeper perspective (though, sadly for me, not any excuses) to your questionable nutritional choices. It explains some of the government policy and economic reasons behind why soda is cheaper than broccoli and what some of the effects of that kind of food pricing are, particularly for people at the lower end of the economic scale. It tours the chicken coops of farmers for the big chicken producers, it looks at the negative side of modern slaughter houses (both for animal and for worker), it considers the effects that genetically modified seed (and its patenting) have had on farmers. In the movie’s most heart-rending scenes, we also meet a woman whose toddler son died after eating an E.Coli-tainted burger. She has now become a food safety advocate and we meet her tirelessly pushing Congress to pass stricter enforcement laws. Well, not tirelessly, really, because as passionate as she clearly is about her cause you can see the weariness (from her grief, maybe, and having to constantly relive it to make her case) on her face and in her posture.

Balancing out the in-the-field-style reporting are interviews with Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma. New Hampshire’s own Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farm also makes an appearance. His part in the film is during one of the movie’s more forward-looking segments, which considers Walmart’s entry to the organic business. I would have liked more from him (and not just because he’s a local) and more about this idea of big box stores answering consumer demand for green and organic products. You can’t let perfect be the enemy of good, he says, and I am interested in just how “good” the Walmart impact is and what “perfect” might look like. (And I’m not saying this snidely — consumers voting with their dollars is one of the things the film advocates. Shoppers voted for organic foods and Walmart responded — there is much that the movie could have discussed in that one corporate decision.)

My biggest qualm with Food, Inc. as a new entry in the “eat local” media canon is that it doesn’t have quite enough of that forward-looking-ness, not quite enough of the “new.” Food, Inc. feels in many places like a Cliffs Notes version of other things — the Schlosser and Pollan books; Mark Bittman’s latest book on eating green and healthy, Food Matters; the documentary King Corn, which looks more deeply at the public policy behind the explosion of the corn crop and at were all that corn goes. Food, Inc. feels like a survey, touching briefly on so many subjects (food safety, labor practices, immigration, nutrition, environmental concerns) that we can’t get too deep on any one, nor do we get the kind of sketched out images of the future (positive, negative, whatever) that can spur action or at least more interest in a subject.

If you’ve read the books of the men featured in this movie, started shopping at your farmers’ market, been paying more attention to your labels, you’re likely the choir to which parts of this documentary are needlessly preaching. But for those who are new to the “eat local” movement, Food, Inc. does offer a way to get an idea how the whole locavore discussion came about. C+

Rated PG for some thematic material and disturbing images. Directed by Robert Kenner, Food, Inc. is an hour and 34 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Magnolia. The film is scheduled to open at Red River Theatre in late July as well as Wilton Town Hall Theatre in coming weeks.