Our largest-scale food production systems are frighteningly Orwellian, if you peek under the hood. That term works , even more so if we add health to George Orwell’s list of things – freedom and openness – that are undermined by societal and governmental policies of draconian control by propaganda, surveillance, misinformation, denial of truth, and manipulation of the past. That is the message of a number of documentaries that have appeared around the subject of food in recent years. Food, Inc. is probably the one most widely seen. It received a smidgen of the Oprah Boost after appearing on her show two years ago and received an Academy Award nomination. Watching it felt like an exercise in unpacking some deep instinctive feelings to view in a logical, connected form. We all know, deep down, that food does not appear by magic on a grocery store shelf. We also suspect that those impossible lists of strangely-named ingredients on the back of processed food packages signal we may not be eating real food at all. But who has the time to care, right? And what’s the alternative? Shopping at Whole Paycheck (a common pseudonym used to criticize the more-expensive-than-industrial-food Whole Foods Market)?
The thing is, if you take the time to patiently sit through Food, Inc. and ponder the way it connects the dots of a truly-screwed up industrial food/agriculture/chemical/medical complex lying there in plain sight, you won’t be able to be so easily dismissive of higher-priced organic foods and the campaigns for labeling accountability. Maybe you’re like me and my family. You were already trying to buy organic when you could, but still sitting the fence with a number of remaining compromises. I’m not sure we can ever eliminate all of those compromises, but our determination to buy more honest food grew out of an embrace of this quote from a farmer in the film.
Is cheapness everything that there is? I mean who wants to buy the cheapest car? We’re willing to subsidize the food system to create the mystique of cheap food, when actually it’s very expensive food. When you add up the environmental costs, societal costs, health costs, the industrial food is not honest food. It’s not priced honestly. It’s not produced honestly. It’s not processed honestly. There’s nothing honest about that food.
The testimony of the industrial contract chicken farmer in the following clip from Food, Inc. is heartbreaking. I think it also serves as a broader metaphor for the lives many of us are settling for – caught in a dependent cycle we don’t know how to get out of. For the vast majority, the only practical way to start eroding that cycle is to take what small steps we can, each day. And one of those steps available to us is voting with our food dollars. The stakes are rising higher every month, every year. Unlike the chickens in the clip, that have no say in how their lives unfold, we get to decide every day whether we’ll submit to the well-worn rut or push off that path to see what lies on one of the many trails being broken for us by friends. For those trail-breakers – organic farmers, farmer’s market participants, naturopath’s, midwives, apostles of sustainable living – are the definition of friend. And those on the fringe, just waiting to join a trending movement, are in need of them.