If I were given the opportunity to do one big thing for America today it would be to bring Food, Inc. to every school, church, and social organization in the nation.  Every single person living, breathing, and eating in this country needs to see this film.  Robert Kenner, Eric Schlosser, and Michael Pollan (among scores of other individuals) have created a tour de force with Food, Inc. that I hope does sweep the nation and does create change.

I’m not a film critic and, yes, Food Inc. was preaching to the choir with me, but I did take my mother to see the film on Friday when it opened here in Atlanta.  I joked that the movie would turn her into a vegan–which it won’t–but I think it did open her eyes to the terror that is the American food industry.  The movie highlights not only the food industry as it changes from small, independent farms to three or four giant corporations, but also the inhumane treatment of industry workers (both farmers and immigrants, illegal or not), the squalid conditions animals live in before meeting the killing floor, the reason behind the rise of e coli in both meat and vegetables (run-off from mega farms), and the health impacts of our food sources on low-income families (among others).

Thankfully, there is hope too.  I was an environmental studies major in college focusing on policy and ecology and one of the things I learned during my four years in the department was that I am not an environmentalist and I do not like environmentalists.  Now, before you jump all over me, let me clarify.  I am pro-environment, and that means both the non-human landscape, animals, and human beings.  But I do not believe in extremes, and I feel that often times environmentalists (like any group lobbying for political or social change/power/etc–i.e. organized religion, the food industry, politicians) skew facts and don’t always act in the best interest of humans or the non-human environment.  That said, I am in awe of the way Food, Inc. stayed far away from extremes and chose to emphasize the impact that Gary Hirschberg of Stonyfield Farms and Joel Salatin of Polyface Farms are having on the industry.

Stonyfield started out as a tiny, organic dairy farm in the 1980s.  In 2001 it was bought by Groupe Danone and given the opportunity to expand its production and technology, making it the #3 yogurt in the U.S. today.  Luckily, Dannon has allowed Stonyfield to maintain its sustainable, ethical practices, and I hope that continues, but the impact of the company “selling out” has actually saved the planet billions of tons of chemical waste and run-off.  It’s environmentalism + business and, as the filmmakers point out, it’s the only marriage that will actually affect the market and turn it towards sustainable agriculture.

Joel Salatin started Polyface Farm near Staunton,Virginia in 1961.  Eschewing all industrial farming techniques, Joel and his family created a farm that grazes its cattle in real fields with real grasses, allows pigs to roam and rut for food, and chickens to actually range freely outside.  The slaughtering techniques are also all by hand and are ridiculously more humane than the killing floors featured in Peta’s hairy videos.  While I personally don’t eat meat, if I did, I would only eat it from a farm like Polyface, one that considers the life and the death of its animals and seeks to honor them by providing a high quality of life and a decent death.  Joel also refuses to change his farm in the face of a push by the market for his products.  He’s really interested in ensuring the highest quality of ethics in food.

Yes, the movie shows the killing floor.  Yes, it took me places where I cringed and squirmed and actually cried at the absolute squalor of our food system.  But yes, it ended on hope.  We really can change our food industry by demanding more diverse crops, organic and locally grown food.  We can lobby our government officials to enforce FDA standards.  We can eat ethically if we buy it.  And yes, that costs more, but I think we, as people with computers and access to movie theaters, can afford that.  We can demand that food stamps be accepted at local farmers markets (3 in Atlanta already do! rock on!), we can volunteer in community gardens.  There’s a lot we can do and if it takes a movie to make people see that, then Food, Inc. has done that.

The movie lacks political partisanship–while it mentions the Bush administration, it also mentions the Clinton administration.  And that political expose only happened once during the entire film–once!  The even-tone of the film makes it absolutely approachable to both liberals and conservatives alike and I have to praise Robert Kenner and Eric Schlosser for that.

If I haven’t convinced you, read this way better review over at Atlantic Monthly or check out Food, Inc.’s website.  To see if Food, Inc. is playing near you, go here.  Seriously, if you can, watch the film.  And take one or two friends with you.  Get the word out.  Then cook a great family style dinner highlighting everything you’ve learned!