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Interview With Filmmaker Robert Kenner of Food, Inc.

If you missed Robert Kenner’s documentary Food, Inc., at AFI Dallas, it hits the Magnolia Theatre next Friday night, June 19.  Go see it. I spoke to Kenner about the film yesterday. Interview after the jump.

D: This is such a complex film. How long did it take you to make?
RK: I thought about it for about six years, but it took three years to make. Which is a long time for a film; most of my films take a year. It took forever. It is just so many different movies boiled down into one. It was like connecting the dots of a system that has gone kind of crazy on so many levels. At one point we had food shortages, we had shortages of calories, and we had asked our farmers to produce more calories, more food.  They succeeded wildly.  Now we have a problem: we are producing too many calories with not enough nutrition. It’s time to fix that system again.

D: What was the catalyst for you to make the movie?
RK: I think on some levels it was Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation. That made us all open our eyes, and I think people became aware that fast food had dangers.  And then Michael’s book came out (Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemna) and I realized it’s really everything we are eating.  I mean, first Eric talked about how everything became industrialized and then Michael pointed out the crop that sort of personifies that is corn. So we had too few producers making, in effect, too few products.  It became a monoculture of sorts.

RK: McDonald’s wanted to have hamburgers that all tasted alike, and they didn’t want to buy from 50 producers, they wanted to buy from two or three.  So two or three producers wanted the exact same kind of meat, and the same thing happened with not only French fries but tomatoes, lettuce, apples…all the way across for McDonalds.  They were huge purchasers of this food. Then corn comes into the picture, and we are subsidizing a food that is now in 90 percent of the supermarket: corn and soy.  And they’re making us sick.  So we are paying to get sick.  So on one hand, its successful, it is bringing us calories, but it has no nutritional value. It’s not healthy. As a kid, food used to cost 18 percent of our paycheck.  Now it costs nine-point-something.  So that’s an incredible achievement. But, when I was a kid, healthcare cost 5 percent of our paycheck, and now it costs 18 percent. So in aggregate we are spending more on those two items, and there’s an absolute connection between them.

D: One of the parts of the movie that really struck me was the family in Calfornia. They had so many health problems, and not a lot of money. They went to the grocery store and the daughter wanted to buy pears, but they were too expensive, so they bought soda instead.
RK: You know, we had a great screening in New York the other night. It was just thrilling, and Alice Waters was there and Eric was there, and the head of the Greenmarkets was there.  It was just a great screening. But that night I got home, and a reporter from the L.A. Times wrote me and said she saw a Spanish language version of the film with these families from Whittier, which is a community like Baldwin Park (where the family is from that I mentioned above).  And she said she felt like she was at the birth of a movement. She said these families were so angry.  They had not realized what was happening.
And that’s the key thing here.  These companies have been able to keep this information from us.  For me, the most shocking part of the film was going to that hearing in Sacramento. That representative said, “I think it’s too confusing for the consumer to even have us label as food, it’s just going to confuse them.”  That’s what happens time and again. You know, with RBST, we don’t want you to have that information, it’s not good for you. It’ll confuse you.  Most consumers do want to know what they’re eating.  I think it was 90 percent if given the choice. If there was a label that said this meat contains fecal matter…

D: I think people will want to know that.
RK: We say we have a free market, and you have your choice.  But you don’t have choices if you don’t have information. That’s the parallel with tobacco.  We had powerful tobacco corporations that were totally connected to the government, and they had false information about quality and the health of their products.  And I think as Americans start to find out about the health of this food, things are going to change.
D: I hope you’re right.
RK: Well, one thing Eric said when he wrote his book was that, “no one was thinking about this.”  He says now when he goes around, it’s amazing the difference.  So he’s really optimistic, and we screened this film for (Tom) Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture, and a few other very high-level officials. I think food safety is going to change. It looks like the FDA will start having power, and hopefully the USDA will do meat recalls.  It looks like things are going to change on food safety, and could change this year. It just seems so obvious. It’s amazing. In terms of farm subsidies and national school lunch programs, we as consumers need to go out there and start asking: Where is this coming from?  Who grows it?  What’s in it?  We have to go to our school board and say we want good food for our kids.  If we added a dollar to start getting good school lunches, one, is it’s going to save us on healthcare, and it’s going to start creating more small farms.

D: I had no idea about the chicken farmers, for example, who are in so much debt because they have to keep updating the chicken coups.
RK: It’s like an indentured servitude.
D: And they can never get out of that debt.
RK: That’s true. When I was thinking of doing something based on Eric’s book, I was talking to people who own these franchises, and it’s true of almost all those people as well. They all generally go bankrupt within 2 years. The company gets their thing and they can resell it again. They thought they were living the American dream.

D: How has making this movie changed the way you eat?
RK: I still eat meat, but I’m trying to eat a lot less.  I’m trying to do it maybe once or twice a week.  But I really don’t want to eat industrial foods, certainly not industrial meats, and not industrial tomatoes or strawberries.  When I saw people out there in the fields wearing haz-mat suits, with spray, its makes me not want to eat it anymore.  There’s a site out there called the Dirty Dozen, which tells you which foods you should really eat organic and which are okay not to. I heard Michael mention it yesterday, so that’s a great point to pass on to people.

(The website he’s talking about is www.foodnews.org. Don’t type “dirty dozen” into your address bar unless you’re looking for something NSFW. whoops).