The film Fresh bills itself as “new thinking about what we’re eating.” New, that is, if you’ve never read anything by Michael Pollan, the seemingly omnipresent industrial agriculture critic and author of the best-selling Omnivore’s Dilemma. Because when it comes to surveying the landscape of the American meal, Fresh – like another new film, Food, Inc. – doesn’t cover any new ground. And that just might be the best thing about both movies.
Fresh and Food, Inc. start with the assumption that the US food system is deeply, dangerously flawed. If you’ve read any Pollan, or Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, this is old news. But the fact is, many people don’t read thick, fact-laden tomes. Even a blockbuster nonfiction book won’t reach more than a million or so people. The most important virtue of these films, then, is that they offer the opportunity of reaching a whole new group of people who remain unaware of the cruelties and perversities of our agriculture. The fast-food eaters at the multiplex don’t know what they’re in for.
Food, Inc. (the top grossing documentary so far of 2009) focuses on the bad news. Farm animals are treated horrendously and undocumented farm workers not much better; family farmers are pummeled into debt by large conglomerates; most of the “food” in the grocery store is reconstituted corn and soy. The villains are familiar – Monsanto goons, slaughterhouse union-busters, frighteningly mechanistic animal operations where chickens, bred to be all breast, sometimes collapse under their own weight. When the products of this system aren’t making us morbidly obese, they threaten to kill us. The most gripping part of Food, Inc. is the story of Barbara Kowalcyk, whose two-year-old son died of E. coli. It’s a tale that will get almost anyone to put down that chain burger and pick up a pitchfork.
What distinguishes Food, Inc. from similar treatments – say, Deborah Koons Garcia’s 2005 film The Future of Food – is its slick production values. As the aerial shots of giant feedlots and endless corn monocrops prove, this is a documentary with a real budget. The glossy production promises to attract a mainstream audience who might have missed more homespun documentaries. It’s also what’s necessary to fully capture the story: Only an overhead view can convey the scale of the Smithfield hog plant in North Carolina, the largest slaughterhouse in the world.
But Food, Inc. – like most muckraking – falls short when it comes to solutions. The positive alternatives are mostly left to fatuous slogans like “you can save the world with every bite” that are included in a tacked-on coda.
That’s where Fresh comes in. Like Food, Inc., it gives a look at the problems inherent in our industrial food economy. But this much more raw and unpolished film then quickly turns its attention to the good news and highlights the more environmentally sane and humane way of producing our food.
Will Allen, the founder of Milwaukee’s Growing Power urban farm, gives a standout performance. Allen’s enthusiasm for sustainable food is contagious. As he gives a tour of his innovative greenhouses to a group of novice organic gardeners, you can see inspiration taking root among his listeners. Allen makes clear that local food production isn’t rocket science.
Another living example of that fact is David Ball, the lovably unctuous manager of a chain of family-owned grocery stores in Missouri and Kansas that puts a priority on sourcing from nearby farmers. Ball’s stores look just like a Safeway, but alongside the national brands, he also sells fresh meats and local produce and jams.
The hero of both films is the rancher Joel Salatin. Made famous by Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, Salatin has become, in the words of the New York Times, “the high priest of pasture.” Viewers can see why. Salatin is not only a savvy businessman (his pastures, he says, are “real time, real solar dollars”) but also an articulate and energetic (you could say frenetic) spokesperson for Wendell Berry-style farming: “They eat herbs – that’s why they call them herbivores.”
At one point in Fresh, Salatin says that humane animal raising is straightforward: “Allow the chickens to fully express their chickenness.” Among sustainable food activists, this is common wisdom. Yet even at a screening in Berkeley, California – the home turf of Pollan and Alice Waters – the line elicited laughs across the room, which goes to show why these movies, despite all their redundancies, remain so relevant.
– Jason Mark
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