Food in the News and on the ‘Net

Confused by the “new and improved” food guide pyramid? (I think the old one was much more understandable!) Help may be on the way, as the USDA considers updating the 5-year-old plan.

Women are turning out to be a major force in the sustainable food movement, according to (And cheers for, which now has a female food editor.) There are some interesting points raised about whether standards for acknowledgment differ between men and women in the food field.

Speaking of adhering to particular standards, I’ve been waiting to see the documentary Lunch Line and was reading’s post about a potential conflict of interest involving the movie and Applegate Farms. Having seen Food, Inc. and knowing about the negative press it received regarding the featuring of Stonyfield Farm, I was intrigued by the conclusion of the post:

Maybe this is what it takes to get certain documentaries made: partnering with a company whose interests intersect with the film’s message. Documentaries aren’t cheap, and yet their goal, oftentimes, is to foment change. And change, as everyone working to improve the National School Lunch Program knows, takes a lot of money. Switching from mystery-meat to organic hot dogs would cost millions of taxpayer dollars, but it might be worth it. Last night I ate one of those dogs, all slathered in spicy mustard, and for the first time, ever, I didn’t get a stomach ache.

Hard to say whether “good food movements” should adhere to higher ethical standards when creating documentaries if “big food” is criticized for funding programs that boil down to advertisements for Monsanto and Cargill. Is it better to make a documentary with the involvement of companies whose products are promoted or take the high road and possibly not have the funds to make the project happen?

Food in the News and on the ‘Net

Did you know that Michigan is second only to California in terms of agricultural diversity? Learn more about the opportunity for agriculture to save Michigan’s economy in Eating in Place, a new documentary that explores Michigan’s local food economy.

And to add to the reading list: Animal Factory by journalist David Kirby, recently interviewed in TIME.

GE crops, continued: the National Research Council has released a report on the advantages and disadvantages of genetically engineered crops. While I fall firmly on the side against GMOs, it’s good to see someone presenting both sides of the issue.

Is there a trend here?

Like many parents, I’m sure, we took our kids to see WALL-E last year, and frankly we were a bit disappointed. Not in the movie itself, but in the way it was marketed as a funny kids’ flick. It was way over their heads (they were 5 & 9), and they didn’t enjoy it much – in fact, our 5-year-old found it horribly sad and cried a lot.

Yesterday, I took them (now 6 & 10) to see Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. And I had the same reaction. I liked the movie’s sense of humor, there were some great jokes for adults, and the film really does raise a lot of food system and envrironmental issues: GMOs, portion sizes, food as entertainment, obesity, environmental impact of food and food waste, etc. But once again, it was mostly over the kids’ heads, and mine are pretty aware of food issues because we talk about them a lot. My biggest disappointment was that again it had been marketed as a kids’ movie AND it is purportedly based (verrrrrrry marginally) on one of our favorite children’s books. There were only a few moments when the kids laughed out loud, and the plot was unrecognizable as being related to the book.

I am not against educating children about important contemporary issues through humor, but somehow I haven’t seen children’s filmmakers strike the right notes yet. They’ve learned a lot more by watching “adult” documentaries, such as Our Daily Bread and A Passion for Sustainability.

I’m hoping that Where the Wild Things Are turns out to be 1) closer to the book and 2) a fun kids’ movie! And in the meantime, I’ll keep looking for films that entertain AND educate kids on important issues – any suggestions out there?

The Future of Food

I finally got around to watching The Future of Food this weekend. By now this movie has become one of the cornerstones of the local/organic/sustainable movement, often quoted and referred to and listed as a resource by such writers as Michael Pollan among others. But somehow it had sat at the foot of my Netflix queue for too long, so it was high time to watch it, and what an eye-opener it proved to be!

Made in 2004, the movie is no less chilling (if not more so) now. Deborah Koons Garcia’s investigation into the connections between government and agribusiness are frightening, and her exploration of genetically modified food does indeed make you want to head for the hills and start growing all your own food – except that if you were to do so and some of those GM seeds found their way into your garden and your life, you would end up like Percy Schmeiser, fighting the agribusiness giants with all you can muster….

Stephen Holden’s review in the New York Times summarizes the documentary very succintly:

The film poses many ticklish ethical and scientific questions:

  • Since genetic material is life, should corporations have the right to patent genes?
  • What are the long-term effects on humans of consuming genetically engineered food, which is still largely unlabeled in the United States?
  • Can the crossbreeding of wild and genetically modified plants be controlled?
  • Might genetically engineered food be the answer to world hunger? 
  • And finally, could the reduction of biodiversity, which has quickened since the introduction of genetically modified plants, lead to catastrophe?

The film’s answers to these five questions are: No. Possibly damaging. Probably not. Probably not. Possibly.

Naturally, the Goliaths of the story (represented by Monsanto) would probably cry foul, but if they were invited to comment, they didn’t show up for the interview. Instead we see plenty of spin provided by their own PR machine.

In any case, the movie definitely impresses upon the watcher that buying and eating locally from small, independent farmers and farmers’ markets  is more important than ever. Labeled or not, GM foods (aka “Frankenfoods”, a word which now appears in the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary!) are everywhere in conventional stores and restaurants:

Since genetically engineered soy and corn are used in many processed foods, it is estimated that over 70 percent of the foods in grocery stores in the U.S. and Canada contain genetically engineered ingredients. (The Campaign)

Enough to make me even more convinced that it is time for Americans to vote with their forks, walk away from those oh-so-convenient processed foods that clutter our grocery store aisles, and re-learn how to cook from scratch using whole, close to the source ingredients!

The Future of Food deservedly holds its place as a cornerstone of the local/organic/sustainable food movement: as Jonathan Curiel of the San Francisco Chronicle writes, “The Future of Food will motivate many of its audience members to reconsider their eating (and purchasing) habits.”

…and forgive us our sins?

Last week I finally watched Our Daily Bread, a documentary by Nikolaus Geyrhalter about industrialized food production in Europe. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it highly (and so did the New York Times, LA Times, and a host of other reviewers!) There are a plethora of movies and videos produced on this subject by folks with a very clear agenda – PETA, the Humane Society, etc. – but as effective as those are in showing the revolting side of industrial-sized agriculture (and making many converts to vegetarianism/veganism along the way!), they come across as shrill, even desperate in comparison to this fine film.


The movie brought to mind Jesus Camp a documentary that I came in contact with through my job with Diane Winston, the USC Annenberg Knight Chair in Media and Religion. Most of the audience that watches Jesus Camp most likely falls at one end of the spectrum or the other: a person can either be of the born-again tradition or be a critic of it. And what the film can do is feed the point of view that many audience members came in with: the makers shared their film with those who appeared in it before taking it public, and the children and parents basically said, “YES! This is who we are!” and were happy to have their story told in this way. Someone coming from the opposite direction could watch the film and scream, “OMG!!! Look what they’re doing to these children! This is child abuse! This is brainwashing! This needs to be stopped!”

Likewise, the viewers of Our Daily Bread probably mostly come from two opposite sides: the confirmed vegan would watch this film as further proof that his/her choice of diet is the only morally acceptable one. But someone who eats unthinkingly from the industrial food chain could just as easily enjoy the film for its portrayal of what man has created to feed the world –  the machinery that runs nonstop to ensure that we are fed. Richard Pena, chairman of the New York Film Festival selection committee even commented admiringly that “ ‘Our Daily Bread’ is a documentary that could probably find a place in a course on science fiction films.”

Not being an expert on film, I have to wonder – how is it possible to make films like these? Did the filmmakers create a masterpiece by pleasing both sides, or did they just let us go on believing what we already knew to be true?

And what about those who go to see these films without coming down hard on either side of the questions asked? Or those who go without having thought much about those questions? I can’t really judge, since I stand pretty firmly on the side (but not at the extreme) of opting out of the industrial food chain as much as possible. I found Our Daily Bread intriguing and powerful in its total lack of narrative voice-over and interviews. I have seen the PETA-style horror flicks of animal slaughter, so the scenes portraying pigs and cattle being slaughtered and eviscerated were not new to me. Oddy, what scared me most was the scene of 2 workers suiting up to spray a crop in a greenhouse – I couldn’t help but think, “If you are covering yourself head to toe with this protective gear before spraying, why would I want to put that produce in my mouth?!?”

Regardless of where you fall in the spectrum, I highly recommend Our Daily Bread – it’s available on dvd – and then visit the film’s website to read the interviews with the director and editor. My kids watched the film with me (the nine-year-old with much more concentration than the five-year-old of course, although he was fascinated by the pig slaughter scene!), and my daughter did NOT become a vegetarian, although she now questions more intelligently where the food I serve her comes from. Food for thought, indeed.

TGIF – Movie Night!

Looking for a fun Chinese movie (or 2) for the dvd player? Check out pre-Brokeback-Mountain Ang Lee: his Eat, Drink, Man, Woman and The Wedding Banquet both explore “ethnic and sexual conflicts in a Chinese family, with meals as a centerpiece of the film.”(Janet Maslin, New York Times) You’ll see some fantastic banquet-style Chinese cooking – some of it so enticing you’ll want to reach onto the screen and grab a bite!