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Interview with Robert Kenner – Director “Food, Inc”

By Jordan Wright
June 16, 2009

Robert Kenner, director of FOOD, INC., a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Robert Kenner, director of FOOD, INC., a Magnolia Pictures release. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

In a conversation with Executive Director Robert Kenner the week before the June 19th Washington, DC release of his new film, “Food, Inc.”, I had a chance to follow up on a review I wrote about the documentary earlier this month. This searing expose of the food industry that plays out like an eco-thriller is going to have a big impact on the industry and he told me he was very encouraged by the response so far. The film profiles agri-business villains, who currently hold the world hostage with their domination of our planet’s food supply, facing off against the small American farmer practicing sustainable farming methods. The good news Kenner wants you to know is that you, the consumer, can write a happier ending to this real-life tragedy with your daily food choices.

Jordan Wright – Food, Inc. is as powerful a documentary as any ever produced. How do you hope it will be received?

Robert Kenner – I hope this makes people start to think about where there food comes from. And it wasn’t just the food that I found to be important in the making of this film I discovered all the information that’s being denied to us. I was just shocked at the power of these mega-corporations. Our food has been fundamentally transformed in the last fifty years, without us seeing it. It’s become a totally different food than we’ve ever eaten before.

Wright – An Inconvenient Truth has done more to shine a spotlight on the dangers of global warming than any scientific treatise, government agency or print article. Given its worldwide success, do you envision Food, Inc. will have the same far-reaching impact on policy-makers and the general public in reigning in world domination of the agri-business conglomerates?

Kenner – Agri-business spends a fortune, billions of dollars, and people are not aware of the consequences of this system. We are spending less of our money on our food than any time in history. However, this inexpensive food is coming to us at a very high cost in the long run. It’s time to think about what those costs really are. The system that we have now is not a sustainable system and cannot continue its dependence on polluting the earth.

Wright – I’m currently working on a story about the importance of pollinators to our food supply.

Kenner – That’s an amazing story…and for me it was like connecting the dots. There are many familiar stories out there about food and when you start to put them together you realize that there’s something totally out of balance and that we really need to wake up and see what’s going on around us, and change things. I’m actually very optimistic.

Wright – Our current US Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, has had strong ties in the past to the biotechnology industry, favoritism towards large industrial farms and protections for growers using genetically modified crops. Do you believe that independent organic farmers such as Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms, who is featured in your film, have a future?

Kenner – They have a great future. People are becoming more aware. Mothers want to feed their children healthy food and organic is one of the fastest-growing segments of the food world. Farmers markets are all over the country now. This food has far more nutritional value to it. There are constant crises in the conventional food world and those things are driving people off.

Wright – After its initial run do you have plans for worldwide distribution of Food, Inc. using it as a teaching tool for informing farmers, students and grass roots activists to help change the industry from how it currently functions?

Kenner – After the nationwide release this summer we do have a large social outreach program in schools to help spread the message of this film. We’re going to state legislators. Secretary of Agriculture, Vilsack, has screened this film and members of Congress are expecting to see it. It seems as though once people see it they get upset and want to do something. It’s like the birth of a movement. But we’re up against very powerful multi-national corporations.

Wright – The film touches briefly on the horrid conditions endured by immigrant farm laborers and their families, both in the fields as pickers and in the slaughterhouses of America. How do you envision changes to this modern-day corporate serfdom and the exploitation of workers on American soil?

Kenner – It will encourage people to create real healthy farms. Right now a lot of this work in slaughterhouses is extremely dangerous and it’s very low-paying work that only those without rights will take. Legal American citizens will no longer work in these food factories because the work is no longer appreciated.

It was heartbreaking being in Tar Heel, North Carolina and seeing these workers being arrested. They were hard workers, just doing their jobs, who were being rounded up and thrown into jail. There was one older woman who didn’t have her heart medicine for a year while she sat in prison.

Wright – Recently I met a woman who directs one of the country’s largest nurse recruitment agencies. She told me she sends nurses to camps around the US where thousands of illegal immigrants, with their entire families, are being held in detention centers in a sort of gulag. There are thousands of workers in some of these facilities. They are sometimes there for a year or more awaiting trial or deportation while living in prison-like facilities.

Kenner – Many are workers who were producing the food in our supermarkets and the food that goes on our tables. We actually shot almost a whole other movie about this very thing. People are more concerned with what they put in their stomachs than the quality of life for those that are making our food.

When Upton Sinclair wrote “The Jungle” [in 1906] there were horrible conditions in the meat packing industry that eventually led to changes to the system [the Pure Food and Drug Act and the Meat Inspection Act].

Teddy Roosevelt put new laws in place and a lot of these workers became like autoworkers making good wages. But since then they have been marginalized and now only illegal immigrants are doing these jobs while the corporations are not held responsible.

In the film you see Barbara Kowalcyk, whose otherwise healthy son, died from eating a tainted hamburger and you find out that meat stayed on the shelf for a few weeks after he died and that’s how they knew where it came from. The government does not have the power to recall that meat. It’s a system that really has to change. I hope that Food, Inc. will show people that they can be empowered to be part of that change.

Wright – What do you see as the most important change this country can make in its school cafeterias to lower the risks of obesity, heart disease and diabetes among school children?

Kenner – During the making of this film I saw food that just looked terrible, and every time I asked where it was going, it was going to a national school lunch program.

Alice Waters says, “Wouldn’t it be great if we paid a little more to encourage farmers to create good food for our school system to get our kids to learn how to eat well?” It would cost a little more now, but think of the money we would save down the road on health care.

It’s these invisible costs that you don’t recognize at the checkout counter that are going to bankrupt us. Feeding our kids healthy lunches now will save us a lot of money in the long run and it’s going to give us kids that aren’t hyperactive, or diabetic from the sugars and the fats, and kids that can learn better.

Wright – Lately chefs across the country have been informing diners on the organic growers and local farm products they use in their dishes. How influential can chefs be in increasing awareness?

Kenner – Chefs can encourage local farmers by buying local products. Good, simple food is going to be the best food. Hopefully the farmers will become bigger celebrities than the chefs.

By the way…you have really good food in your area.

Wright – Thanks, we’re proud of our local farmers!

This interview was conducted, condensed and edited by Jordan Wright.

For comments or queries on this story contact [email protected].

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