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Filmmaker offers 'Food' for thought

“There’s a food Ponzi scheme going on,’’ says “Food, Inc.’’ producer and director Robert Kenner. “The system is totally unsustainable. It’s based on gasoline, based on pollution.’’ “There’s a food Ponzi scheme going on,’’ says “Food, Inc.’’ producer and director Robert Kenner. “The system is totally unsustainable. It’s based on gasoline, based on pollution.’’ (Aram Boghosian for The Boston Globe)
By Devra First
Globe Staff / June 21, 2009
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Where does our food come from? This is the question posed by producer and director Robert Kenner in his film “Food, Inc.’’ The answer is overwhelmingly “not farms.’’ Kenner creates a portrait of a food system controlled by corporate interests that put profit before people’s health. Putting a face to this are individuals such as food-safety advocate Barbara Kowalcyk, whose son died after eating E. coli-tainted meat; Moe Parr, a seed cleaner who was sued by Monsanto; Joel Salatin of Polyface Farm, where animals are fed grass and live in species-appropriate habitats; and food journalists Michael Pollan and film coproducer Eric Schlosser.

We recently spoke with Kenner about “Food, Inc.,’’ which opened in Boston on Friday.

Q. You’ve worked on topics from the blues to Vietnam. How did you come to make a movie about food?

A. I read Eric Schlosser’s book [“Fast Food Nation’’] and was really impressed. I thought it would be interesting to do a film about food, but instead of fast food, I wanted to make it about all food: How are we going to feed the world?

Q. When did you start working on it?

A. About 1930. [Laughs] Too long ago. Eric and I started talking about it six or seven years ago. I worked on it full time for three years.

Q. Yet it seems so perfectly timed, with all the food-safety scares we’ve seen recently, the growing interest in locally produced foods, books such as Michael Pollan’s “Omnivore’s Dilemma’’ . . .

A. I feel like we’re part of an exploding movement. There are so many things coming to a head. On the one hand, there’s the financial crisis. People are realizing there was a credit Ponzi scheme, and we’re all paying the price. The government didn’t regulate it. The parallels with the food world are pretty identical. There’s a food Ponzi scheme going on. The system is totally unsustainable. It’s based on gasoline, based on pollution. Twenty to 25 percent of our carbon footprint is from growing and transporting food.

Q. How did it get so out of whack?

A. We had food shortages and food prices were rising in the ’70s. I don’t believe it was evil that created the system. It was the desire to solve the problem. We solved it too well, creating an abundance of corn and soy, crops that don’t go bad, which we subsidize. And we basically eliminated or minimized all these other crops that do go bad. We had to figure out needs for corn, so we kept processing it. We created a food system that is incredibly cheap but comes to us at an incredibly high cost you don’t see when you go to the checkout counter.

Q. And that cost is to our health?

A. Sixty-four percent are either overweight or obese. The figures are stunning: 1 out of every 3 Americans born after 2000 and 1 out of every 2 minority Americans will contract early-onset diabetes. Twenty percent of healthcare costs are on diabetes, and that’s going to skyrocket. We spend less of our paychecks on food than at any point in history. When I was a kid, 18 percent of our income was spent on food. Today it’s a little over 9 percent. We spent something like 5 percent of our income on healthcare; today we spend 18 percent.

Q. It’s hard not to see this film in part as a call to arms for the Obama administration.

A. On some level what makes it a perfect time for this is that all of a sudden we have someone who might listen. Republicans and Democrats want to eat healthy food, and they have both been responsible for delivering us this bad food. But this administration is definitely listening. We screened “Food, Inc.’’ for [Secretary of Agriculture] Tom Vilsack.

Q. What did he say?

A. Basically the bottom line was that to change the system, we need a movement. We need people out there demanding that change. I can only hope this film contributes to this demand, that instead of a farm bill it turns into a food bill.

Q. So what can people do?

A. We have to start to think about this food. We have to open our eyes. How do we change it? Go to farmers’ markets, buy local, buy organic. Start to read labels. All those words you don’t know are corn or soy and turn into sugar and don’t have nutrients. Start asking for good food. We’re voting three times a day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The tobacco corporations were really powerful, with incredible wealth and very strong connections to government. When we start to realize the consequences of this food, we will change it like we changed tobacco.

Q. The movie seems as much about corporate power as it is about what we eat.

A. It’s about our rights, our First Amendment rights. We’re not being given information, and we’re being denied certain rights because of the “veggie libel laws’’ that make it dangerous to disparage a food. People used to be scared of governments having so much power. Now we’re realizing it’s the corporations that have it.

Q. And yet corporations aren’t particularly well represented in the film, often declining comment. It seems they missed their chance to control their message, leaving the floor to people like Barbara Kowalcyk and Moe Parr.

A. I could have done a film on nuclear terrorism and had greater access than I had here. I wanted to talk to all producers, organic and industrial. I found the industrial producers ultimately didn’t want me to look in their kitchens. They didn’t want to go on camera. They don’t want us thinking about our food. There’s this myth that our food still comes from farms. They don’t want you to know what’s in it or how it’s produced.

Q. Did making this movie change the way you eat?

A. I’m a lot more conscious now about eating industrial food. It just doesn’t taste good, on many levels. I crave farmers’ markets. They’re so good: We’re supporting our communities and eating food that has nutrients.

Q. For people who have read the work of Schlosser, Pollan, and others, much that’s in this film will be familiar. Who did you make “Food, Inc.’’ for?

A. I didn’t want to make a film for the converted. I’m trying to open people’s eyes. When people see Joel Salatin and that beautiful farm, it’s one thing to read about it, but when you see it, that’s where you want food to come from.

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com.

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