ReThink Review: <em>Food, Inc.</em> -- Food as Political Unified Theory

I'm sure most Americans have no idea how truly screwed up our food system is, and when they find out, they'll start looking for alternatives.
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Food, Inc.
might be the first real must-see film of 2009. Check out my review below.
Food, Inc.
may not be the year's best film, but it's probably the most important. That's because when you take a close look at the American diet as
Food, Inc.
does, you soon realize that the food we eat is connected to almost any political issue you can think of: the environment, health care, political corruption, education, workers rights, energy, immigration, climate change, uncontrolled capitalism, etc. By trying to address all of these topics in 93 minutes, director Robert Kenner may have cinematically bitten off more than he can chew (groan), but with so many interconnected secrets to reveal about the food we eat, it must have been hard deciding what to cut.

In my opinion, changing the American food system requires two things above all else: education and reprioritization. Food, Inc. does an excellent job of the first part. I'm sure most Americans have no idea how truly screwed up our food system is, and when they find out, they'll start looking for alternatives.

But a realignment of our priorities when it comes to food strikes me as the most important thing this country needs to change our food. For too long, eating healthy food was not a priority because many assumed that all food was equal and much of it was relatively healthy. We were told that Froot Loops was part of a healthy breakfast and that one apple was more or less identical to every other apple. That meant that there were only two real priorities when it came to food: cheapness and speed. If it cost less, it was better, and if it could be cooked and/or served quickly, even more so. But we're slowly learning that neither of these things are true.

A common complaint about the organic/sustainable/local food movement is that it's elitist because organic food are not affordable for most people. I don't believe this, simply for the fact that we seem to find money for new things all the time. As Michael Pollan has noted, Americans have found $40 -$100 a month for our mobile/smart phone plans, $60 a month for cable, and $4 a day for Starbucks. These are expenses that only recently started existing. Cut out a frappucino or two a week and you can afford an extra $1.50 for free-range eggs and an upgrade to organic bananas. You just have to decide that it's important to you. Besides, you don't save money from the dollar menu if it makes you sick, requiring thousands in medical bills and prescriptions, and it's hard to put a price on years of suffering, the burden on families, or premature death. Lax regulation doesn't save the food industry money either, since an outbreak of E.coli ends up costing the industry millions, especially if it scares consumers away for good or there are lawsuits to settle.

Some complain that we don't have time to cook, yet we routinely find hours to spend messing around on Facebook, becoming experts on the death of Michael Jackson, and watching an expanding roster of TV shows (including cooking shows). Many meals can be cooked in 20-30 minutes, so if you decide that a healthy, homecooked meal is more important than watching a gameshow or a sitcom a few nights a week, you'll have healthier food and leftovers. Cooking with a loved one is one of life's great joys, and there's a thrill of accomplishment from preparing a great meal that you simply won't get from adding water and microwaving. One of the best cooking tips I ever received was from my uncle, who said that you should always pour yourself a drink while cooking. I later realized that this made cooking part of my winding down routine after a day at work, not a chore I had to endure before I could eat. It's something I make time for.

If we change our priorities when it comes to the food we eat, we'll look for elected officials who share our priorities and vote for them. That's when voting with your fork becomes voting with your vote.

Some great news arrived this week as the House passed an extensive food safety bill, the Food Safety Enhancement Act (H.R. 2749). Among other things, the bill calls for more inspections of food facilities, helps the FDA trace the sources of foodborne illness outbreaks, protects whistleblowers who reveal violations of food safety rules, and increases the FDA's powers to enforce regulations. While Congressmen from farm states (who probably receive large donations from big agribusiness) tried to stop the bill, it passed with a two-thirds majority. A loss for big agribusiness is a victory for the rest of us.

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