Back Forty: ‘Vote with your fork’ was never going to be enough

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Food distribution by the Houston Food Bank at NRG Stadium Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021. Photo by Brett Coomer/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images.

By Samuel Fromartz

It’s surprising to realize that Food Inc., a hit documentary about the many problems with our industrial food system, came out 15 years ago. The film built on the work of authors Eric Schlosser and Michael Pollan, who had written bestsellers investigating everything from meat production and labor conditions to the farm subsidies that underpin the food we eat. “It was all brand new, people were so curious to look behind the curtain,” Robert Kenner, who directed the documentary, said in a recent interview discussing the original work and its forthcoming sequel Food Inc. 2

Food Inc. issued an individual call to action — get involved, vote with your fork, change the system. Through conscious eating choices, the argument went, consumers could chip away at an unsustainable system that brings food to our tables. At the time, it was a familiar trope, and it made sense in the context of the exposé. In the intervening years, alternatives to the mainstream food system did indeed blossom: farmers markets, multibillion-dollar organic food sales, local food hubs, farm-to-school programs, and endless products, like oat and nut milks and plant-based burgers. Not all were truly alternative, as conventional food giants quickly got in on the action, but the consumer impulse behind it was.

At the same time, a food media ecosystem sprouted, sustainable farm groups expanded, and reform campaigns flourished, focusing on everything from obesity and worker rights to rainforest deforestation and climate change. These issues were moving into the mainstream, and yes, maybe even chipping away at the predominant corporate food paradigm.

But then something big happened — the Covid-19 pandemic — that revealed just how precarious the food system was. In the meat industry, where companies fought attempts to halt processing lines, tens of thousands of workers got sick. Many died. “It just seemed unbelievable that the meatpacking plants were continuing to operate, and doing so knowing they were putting people at risk,” said Food Inc. 2 co-director Melissa Robledo. Supply chains broke down and crops that couldn’t get to market were plowed under, milk was dumped, and pigs were euthanized even as people waited for hours in lines at overburdened food banks. 

“Since Food Inc. there have been so many books and movies about the food movement. And so it didn’t occur to us that we would ever do a sequel,” Kenner said. “But we were just so outraged by what we saw happening during the pandemic — [Food Inc. 2] was definitely born at that point.”

What was also clear was that the call to action in the prior film, focused on consumer choice, wasn’t enough to solve the many problems of an industrial food system, controlled by a handful of global companies. “We realized that all the good things that had happened in the food movement were outweighed by the power of these companies,” Kenner said.

In the first movie, Pollan talks about the brittleness of the food system, though the potential threat he pointed to was a spike in oil prices, which could propel food prices higher. That didn’t come to pass, but the pandemic made clear just how reliant we are on a tenuous global food system that sacrifices resiliency for efficiency. It’s an idea that Pollan and Schlosser return to in the sequel. 

What unfolds are stories of people who are at the center of a host of systemic issues: The police chief in Waterloo, Iowa, who tried to protect a town from a spiraling Covid outbreak at a Tyson meat plant; the pressures faced by immigrant tomato pickers in Florida, where one labor organizer says, “Our work is essential but we as people are treated as disposable”; and the fast-food worker trying to make enough to feed her family and avoid disaster if the car breaks down or illness strikes. 

The villain in the film can be summed up in one word — concentration — with big companies, controlling the fate of workers, farmers, and consumer choice. This point is driven home by Schlosser:  “Why do companies buy up their competitors? Because they don’t want to compete. And when they don’t have to compete, consumers have to pay more, farmers and ranchers get paid less, and the difference goes to those corporations as higher profits.”

One Wisconsin dairy farmer in the film points out that with a few hundred cows, she’s competing against those farms with a thousand cows, and they in turn face farms with 5,000 cows, who are up against megadairy operations with 10,000 head. With fewer processors, thanks to consolidation, she has no choice about where to sell her milk or how much she gets paid.

After laying out the problem, the story pivots, to those fighting for change, and occasionally succeeding. The Coalition of Immokalee Farmworkers, for example, worked for years to raise wages for tomato pickers and eventually won. Food Inc. 2 also shines a light on Democratic Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jon Tester of Montana, both of whom explain the policies driving the current system. “I don’t want the government telling someone what to eat, but I sure as heck don’t want my tax dollars subsidizing the things that are making people sick,” Booker says. “And now we have to pay for the healthcare costs of the chronic disease that we’re fueling with our food system.”

The challenge of the film is to translate what may be abstract issues — farm policy, industry concentration, supply chains, labor practices — into stories and profiles an audience can grasp. The film succeeds on this score, with especially compelling voices. But the viewer may come away with a depressing sense of the vast challenge of changing the food system — this is definitely not a matter of voting with your fork.

“Since the first film, consumers are so much more educated and they know they should be asking questions,” Robledo said. “The consumer has some power, but it really is going to require much more power and higher levels of government to make changes.”

The film opens in theaters April 9 and will begin streaming April 12.