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Food, Inc.'s Robert Kenner on Alice Waters, Food-Industry Titans and Fast Food Nation

Robert Kenner isn't really a food guy, or at least he didn't start out that way. As he puts it, he's just a guy who makes movies.

Yet it has come to pass that Kenner, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning director (TV's Two Days in October) who grew up favoring a diet of roast-beef sandwiches on rye, is traveling the country these days not only to promote his powerful new documentary Food, Inc., but also to discuss the state of the nation’s supermarkets, which are routinely stocked with genetically modified vegetables and chemically enhanced meats.

To Kenner, it was a subject vital enough to pique his journalistic curiosity. But he is quick to point out that unlike Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and U.C. Berkeley’s Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), two of his closest collaborators on Food, Inc., he is relatively new to the cause of organic farming.

You wouldn’t know it from talking to him, though. After nearly seven years of painstaking research on the subject, he comes across not just as a guy who makes movies but as one who has done the hard work to know what he's talking about.

On the time-consuming difficulties of trying to work with food-industry titans that wanted nothing to do with Food, Inc.:
I was naïve enough to think that we would be able to talk to all the different producers of our food, from organic farmers like Joel Salatin to the industrial producers, but I slowly realized that some of these people had no interest in talking to me. Ultimately, a lot of corporations didn’t want to be represented on camera, and they certainly didn’t want us to film where they created their food. It was frustrating, and it made the filmmaking process extremely long.

Now, they’re very anxious to talk. The National Meat Association and the cowmen came out and told some of these companies that Food, Inc. was going to be a major motion picture, and that they’d better see it because their customers would. Suddenly, Smithfield Foods wanted to be on a panel with us. And [agricultural biotechnology giant] Monsanto just came out with their own website. But before now, it was impossible even to talk with them, and I was becoming angry at how this world was being hidden from us. And not just by them, but also by the government. I went with Eric Schlosser to the state legislature, where he argued that meat from cloned animals should be labeled. The response was that labels would be too confusing for the customers.

To me, the idea that it's better for the consumer not to know where the food comes from and how it's grown is shocking. And I kept hearing that over and over.

On the significance of influential chefs and restaurateurs, like Alice Waters of Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, who have built their success by promoting organic and small-farm produce:
I think Alice was very important in creating a heightened consciousness about the quality of the product, but this movie isn't about how best to feed the upper one percent, it's about feeding a whole country good food. You can tell a lot about a society by how its food is grown. In the Roman Republic, food was grown by local farmers. In the Roman Empire, food was grown by slaves. Traveling around this country, you realize the food is grown by illegal aliens. Clearly, something has gone wrong.

I was at the Iowa State agricultural school talking to a lot of blond, blue-eyed kids, and I asked them what was most important to being a farmer. They said, "Speaking Spanish." So apparently we're too good to grow our own food. We're better than that, and we'll let people with no rights take care of it. We'll sell mortgages instead. Maybe now, people will treat growing food as a valid occupation rather than simply trying to work in financial institutions.

On how the experience of making
Food, Inc. has affected his own eating habits:

I was on an airplane, and there were two options – pasta and chicken, which is obviously industrial chicken, and I was going to order the chicken. My wife said, "Haven't you seen Food, Inc.?" I ordered the pasta, but I think it’s OK to break the rules sometimes, and it’s very hard when you travel to eat well. But whenever possible, if you can find a local farmer’s market where you can buy your food, you stand a much better chance of knowing where it comes from and how it was produced.

Of course, you can say it’s elitist to tell everyone to buy good, healthy food, but it’s also important to realize that when you buy cheaper, chemically processed foods, you’re not paying the real cost at the supermarket checkout counter. The health-care costs are astronomical. There are hidden environmental costs as well. When working-class families pay $400 or $500 a month for medicine to counter the health effects of cheap food, effects like diabetes, that cheap food just became very expensive.

On his hope that books like Fast Food Nation and movies like Food, Inc. will ultimately galvanize consumers hungry for change:

This film isn’t about turning your stomach, it’s about turning your mind. A young girl wrote that, and it’s true. It’s there to make people open their eyes. But at the same time I’m a filmmaker, and I want to make entertaining films. That’s why I wanted to make the opening fun and funny, so people know it’s OK to laugh and be entertained, but they’re also going to learn something. I wanted to empower people, to remind them that we changed Big Tobacco, and I don’t think food is that different from tobacco.

The problem is that we have too few corporations controlling too much of the system, but we can change the system. Separate of our film, there is a tremendous movement out there to improve the way Americans eat, and Food, Inc. feeds into that. Michael Pollan kept telling me I’d be surprised by how many people followed this movie, but I really didn’t know. I’m just a filmmaker who went out and talked to people, so I’m no expert. I wasn't of this world, I just came to this subject. Yet I came to realize that people are angry, and they should be. Food seems to be all about short-term profit, because corporations can’t keep acting recklessly and making their customers sick and expect long-term profit. It’s all about the short-term bottom line, and it’s criminal.