The announcements of the recent Academy Award nominations remind me to talk again about Food, Inc., a 2010 Academy-award nominee for Best Documentary, and winner of many other awards and nominations besides. Billed as a “civilized horror movie for the socially conscious, the nutritionally curious and the hungry” as well as “an unflattering look inside America’s corporate controlled food industry,” it minces no words. Just 94 minutes long, I urge you to make time to watch it.
I am reminded of the comment from a YHIOYP reader who once wrote to me about the high cost of meat from pastured and grass-fed chickens relative to feedlot meats. She expressed the concerns of many when she said that it’s a difficult choice to make when you are purchasing and cooking for a large family. But is it true that mass-produced meat is cheaper? It is not, and Food, Inc. explains why.
The cash in our wallets turns out to be just one small part of the total cost of mass-produced, manufactured food products. The actual costs are a great deal higher, but they become invisible with their transfer to other sectors, primarily health, environment, and society as a whole. Health effects are reflected in the absurd and skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes, along with the medical costs of caring for those with these diseases. Environmental effects are made visible in the rivers of animal waste spewing from feedlots. And parallels between inhumane treatment of animals that become food and the workers — without whom artificially suppressed prices become impossible — who process it are not coincidental.
Food, Inc. profiles one family as they choose dollar-menu sandwiches, fries, and shakes over fresh produce, even while paying a monthly $70 for the dad’s diabetes medication. Feed lots are filmed showing thousands of animals knee deep in their own excrement. It turns out that the past several decades have seen a drop in the number of slaughter houses in the U.S. from several thousand to just 13, effectively concentrating and destabilizing the meat processing industry. The viewer is introduced to a woman who has been campaigning for safer feeding and butchering practices ever since her 2-year-old son contracted hemorrhagic colitis, caused by the bacterium E. coli 0157:H7 in the burger that he ate 10 days before his death. The diet of feedlot cattle increases the risk of illness to both the animals and people who consume them.
My great-grandfather was a butcher. He did not have a sign in his front window advertising “Grass-Fed Beef.” Do you know why? Because that’s what cows eat.
Eating well doesn’t have to be expensive. While eating meat every day is expensive, eating lentils, chickpeas, greens and whole grains (especially when purchased in bulk) is not. A few years ago, when one of my patients, a janitor in a local high school, dropped 50 pounds and half his medications over the course of a year or so, I asked how he did it. “Beans and greens,” he said with a grin as he pounded once on his chest for emphasis and then threw both arms open wide. “[It’s] the secret to my success!” I have quoted him a thousand times since that day.
Alice Waters, perhaps the first guru of simple food, knows that good food is a good investment. “You either pay up front, or you pay out back…in your health and your way of life and the health of the planet…”
In the current environment, a burger is apparently a better buy than a bunch of broccoli. Chips are cheaper than carrots. It’s an easy down-payment, but a lifetime to pay. Frankly, it reminds me of subprime, variable-rate mortgages; the actual price is untenable, unthinkable and, as we all know by now, unaffordable.
But here’s my favorite part: We remain complicit only as long as we continue to purchase cheaply manufactured calories. The fact is, your purchasing power is substantial. If you stop buying it, they’ll probably have to stop making it.