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Review: Food Inc.

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Chickens - hundreds of them, all plucked, gutted, and dangling from hooks by their legs as they move slowly along a long and winding conveyor. It's not an unexpected sight at a chicken processing plant, but as the camera pulls back, the viewer can see how each chicken is identical in shape and size. This oddity, the "uniform" chicken and the highly mechanized system that replaces human workers, has the feel of a remake of the 1973 science fiction movie Soylent Green, but this is not the case. The scene is from Robert Kenner's documentary Food Inc., and the viewing on April 1 and discussion panel that followed were part of Grand Rapids Community College's (GRCC) Spring Sustainability Series: Visioning the Change.

Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media, and River Road Entertainment released the award-winning documentary, Food Inc. in June of 2009. The film's producer/director Robert Kenner collaborates with Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation, and food expert Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma, to expose the truth about the food we eat. Food Inc. demonstrates how four major companies predominantly control the production of our nation's entire food supply, and do so with little concern for our health and safety.

Kenner's documentary quickly dispels the façade that our food grows on picturesque farms even though the big food companies work hard to fool us by carefully naming their products. Pollan speaking about those mythical farms says, "…The reality is…it's not a farm, it's a factory. That meat is being processed by huge multi-national corporations that have very little to do with ranches and farmers." Kenner skillfully uses the obstacles he runs into while making Food Inc. to impress upon a viewer just how much power these large meat producers have over the farmers. The speed with which Tyson swoops in to stop one of their farmers from allowing the filmmakers into his chicken house is alarming; moreover, Monsanto, an ex-chemical company that made DDT, Agent Orange, and Round Up, spends millions of dollars searching for farmers who save seeds and suing them for patent infringement of their insecticide-resistant soybean. Through intimate interviews with farmers, safe food advocates, and slaughterhouse workers wearing hidden cameras, Food Inc. reveals how raising livestock on corn feed laced with antibiotics and growth hormones is producing sick and deformed animals that can barely walk. The new strains of E-coli that are causing death and debilitating illnesses are also a result of the corn feed, and the high fructose corn syrup and corn fillers that are in most of our processed foods are causing obesity and early onset diabetes at an alarming rate. These facts become more outrageous when Pollan explains, "If you take feedlot cattle off their corn diet, give them grass for five days, they will shed eighty percent of the E. coli in their gut." The corporations that control our food supply know this, but corn is cheap and makes livestock fatter faster.

What Food Inc. reveals is often difficult to watch. Thankfully, Kenner includes uplifting interviews with people like Joe Salatin, owner of Polyface Farms, and Tony Airosa, chief dairy purchaser for Wal-Mart. Salatin supports buying local, his livestock is clean, they roam free feeding on (foraged) grass, and he says profit will never take precedence over quality on Polyface Farms. Airosa explains that there is hope for a supermarket filled with healthy and safe food and says, “Actually, it’s a pretty easy decision to try to support things like organics or whatever it might be based on what the consumer wants. We see that and we react to it. If it’s clear that the customer wants it, it’s really easy to get behind it and to push forward and try to make that happen.” We vote for what is on our stores shelves each time we scan our purchases. Food Inc. serves as a reminder to us that we do have power over the large corporations that control our food supply.

Food Inc. is certain to stir a gamut of emotions in any viewer, ranging from shock and outrage to relief. Barbara Kowalcyk's voice trembles as she tells how her two year old son died from a hamburger tainted with E-coli and it is heart wrenching. Heartache quickly turns to shock when Kowalcyk, now a safe food advocate fighting to pass Kevin's Law, explains that the USDA has no authority to shut down processing plants that continually produce contaminated meat. Even more outrageous is the fact that Kowalcyk cannot tell us what she eats now for fear of prosecution under the veggie libel law, which makes it illegal to criticize the ground beef that the meat packers produce.More emotions stir during an interview with seed saver Moe Parr. Even though Parr did nothing wrong, Monsanto sued him for patent infringement. The lighting and camera angles were very effective when Parr, forced to divulge names of farmers who saved seeds, shrunk just a little with each name. Sadly, small farmers like Parr do not have the resources to fight the big corporations and the scene ends with a broken man who not only lost the lawsuit but his livelihood as well.

Kenner's documentary is full of poignant interviews, but Salatin struck a (happy) chord with me. Salatin is standing in one of his pastures wearing jeans, suspenders, and a beat up hat, and while talking, he absent mindedly reaches down to scratch the snout of one of his pigs. The pig, obviously very content, lets out a little grunt as he hops off his front feet to meet Salatin's hand half way. This is very different from the scenes that reveal how the factory farms and meat processing plants treat their livestock, and I realize that I would much rather spend a little more time and money to get my nourishment from animals who lived happily than from the tormented livestock of the factory farms.

Magnolia Pictures and Robert Kenner's Food Inc., rated PG, is a must see for everybody. The documentary enlightens us to the deceptive images in our grocery stores and compels us to think twice before we purchase unhealthy foods. Some of the images are disturbing, but there are funny and touching moments as well, and the bottom line is that Food Inc. tells a story we all need to hear.

GRCC's selection of discussion panel members continued the "We can take back the control" message of Food Inc. All are part of the solution: Dan Gendler, owner of San Chez, Anja Mast, co-founder of Trillium Haven CSA Farm, Jerry Adams, Founder of West Michigan Co-op, and Devin Maloney who is a GRCC culinary student. The panel's discussion not only reiterated the fact that we vote for what our grocers carry with every meal, but also provided us with local alternatives to corn fed and genetically altered foods.

The showing of Food Inc. at GRCC's Spring Sustainability Series: Visioning the Change was entertaining, educational, and provided solutions for a better, more wholesome way of life, and I for one, am glad I attended.

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Being a part of Trillium's CSA and the West Michigan Co-op help me "put my money where my mouth is," so to speak. Sometimes the problems can seem overwhelming and you wonder what just one person can do. These are two ways you can help make a change.