Do you like food? Do you like movies? Do you like movies about food? If you answered yes to any of those questions, you might enjoy Eater at the Movies, a new column by Joshua David Stein which examines eating and drinking on screen.
There are a few things I remember from elementary school lunch period: the vast blood red sea of low pile carpet, the moist heat of the chafing dish fogging up the sneeze guard, that my older sister wouldn't acknowledge me. But mostly, I remember that — whenever I could — I would buy Little Debbie Zebra Cakes and when I would, the older woman with the eczema at the register would say, "Have a good day, sugar." It was meant as a benediction then but as the new film Fed Up makes clear, it was a curse.
Fed Up, like An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for 'Superman', and Blackfish, is one of those bracing documentaries that gins up alternating feelings of despair, rage, and impotence. With a title like Fed Up, one can only imagine that that is the aim. Rage unto action, I suppose. The documentary was produced by Katie Couric, the former news anchor, and Laurie David, the former Mrs. Curb Your Enthusiasm and more saliently, a producer of An Inconvenient Truth. The film was directed by Stephanie Soechtig.
The influence of Ms. Couric, who also narrates the piece, is strongly felt. At times the documentary feels like an extended segment of 60 Minutes: long montages of B-roll, crowded streets, media clips, an endless headless parade of fat midsections. Cinematically, it's slim pickings.
Nevertheless, the facts as covered, or exposed, by Fed Up are sufficiently rattling as to overshadow desultory cinematography. There's perhaps no shock that the United States is suffering from an obesity epidemic. Nearly 17% of children in America are obese. Lifespan projections are, for the first time, getting shorter generation over generation. In the last thirty years, the number of cases of Type 2 Diabetes in adolescents went from 0 to 57,638. It's a bad scene. As anyone who has given the slightest thought to this epidemic will surely realize, those responsible for this epidemic are the giant food corporations like Monsanto, Tyson, Kraft, and Smithfield who manufacture and market food that is literally fatal to American hearts.
The first task of Fed Up, it seems, is to protect against the assertion that it is the fault of the fatties. The first ten or so minutes are devoted to proving exercise has no or little correlation to obesity. The producers cite the statistic that between 1980 and 2000, both fitness club memberships and the obesity rate doubled. This vein of argument to counter the self-absolving claim, often trod out by spokespeople for Big Food, "Fat people should just exercise more." However, thinking about it now, I'd be curious to know if the obesity rate has doubled (or even remained constant) for those Americans who have exercised regularly at fitness clubs. Couldn't that statistic indicate more of an increasing bifurcation in society: the thinsies with income (and calories) to burn on gym memberships and the fatsos, who might not have the income or the inclination?
Anyway, KIDDIES! Because kids are all like awww — both more tragic than adults, cuter and with a lower expectation of agency — Ms. Soechtig focuses on four teen and pre-teen children. One girl, a 14-year-old from Oklahoma City named Maggie Valentine, swims every day. The other three — a white 16 year old from South Carolina named Brady and two Texans, a 17 year old Latino boy named Joe Lopez and a 15-year-old African-American named Wesley Randall — exercise either rather lightly (walking, for instance). But, Couric suggests, it doesn't matter anyway. There's no amount of exercise that would make them less fat. It's not what they expend that causes them to expand. It's what they consume.
Once the responsibility is lifted from the sloping shoulders of the obese, Fed Up gets around to determining who is to blame. The answer, obviously, is that the transnational shitty food industrial complex is. They are, after all, the ones making this horrible food at scales that doom our country. However, before they start digging into whose head to call for, the filmmakers draw up a proper list of charges and this turns out to be one of the most surprising parts of the film. It turns out sugar is to blame. Fat doesn't make you fat. Sugar makes you fat. Monosaccharides, disaccharides, polysaccharides, they're all sacks of shit as far as your body is concerned. There are some lovely infographics for this in Fed Up.
Sugar is seriously the worst. It tastes sweet and ruins your life. It's addictive, as addictive as heroin, and it's pernicious, as pernicious as Molly or meth. It's also found in 80% of the 600,000 food products found on American shelves. Take a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down? Don't even worry about the medicine. You're already dead.
Fed Up really goes to town on how crummy the corporations are. How they seek to co-opt the language of healthful living by offering specious crunchy sounding appellations and advocating for a "healthy balance" when, really, that's like a tobacco company advocating for only smoking 5 or 6 cigarettes a day instead of a pack. It cycles through the ways and means corporations have pushed fast unhealthy food on children and parents, how they've battled back legislation restricting advertising on television, how they turned Michelle Obama's Let's Move campaign from one of political action — as in, Let's Move to fundamentally undermine the outsized influence these corporations have on what we eat — into mere exercises in boosterism. This makes them seem like good guys while heading off any possibly systemic change.
As a father of two young boys who will someday attend public school, the most upsetting infiltration of Big Food as shown by Fed Up is into our school cafeterias where, on a district-by-district level, school districts have outsourced their food supply to places like Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and McDonald's. We send our children to school so they can get stronger, mentally and physically. But the cafeteria is a war zone for their young developing bodies. They chew Ore-Ida fries like khat, eat Pizza Hut like demons, as the grease runs down their tiny chins. In a literal way, it's infanticide.
As is SOP in these types of films, an octopus's garden of weedy nerdy types are trotted out to express outrage. Look, it's Michael Pollan and Marion Nestle! Hey guys! Haven't seen you since Food, Inc! Even Bill Clinton, who looks really old but not to say not devilishly handsome, wags his finger at obesity. There are a bunch of headline montages and — I think — even one of those charts of McDonald's stock rising as life expectancy declines. Maybe I made that part up but it should have been in there.
But for all the outrage at corporate America, I think it's misplaced and this is where Fed Up fails. The movie is about fat in our bodies. It should really be about money in our politics. Corporations are corporations. Contrary to Mitt Romney and a slew of recent Supreme Court decisions, corporations aren't people, or if they are, they are extremely selfish people. Can you really blame them for making a profit and wanting to make more of it? Can you blame them for trying to blow open a vulnerable market (children, Latino and African-American children in particular) for their products which taste great, are cheap to make, and only kill you in a couple of years? No, it's in their nature.
What's NOT in their nature is to care about the long (or even short-) term effects of their products unless it impacts their bottom line. Historically, it has fallen to the government to safeguard the public from the amoral drives of corporations. But recently corporate money, conflated as free speech, has made the United States government beholden to the very corporations it is meant to control, corporations like Kraft, PepsiCo, and General Mills all have PACs that have donated liberally (usually to conservatives) in order to gain influence and curry favor. It's paid off. Since 1995, the government has given over eight billion dollars in subsidies to the makers of things like high fructose corn syrup, the crack in Rice Crispies and nearly every other thing we eat.
This inversion has led to all kinds of screwy results that serve only Big Food. The USDA refuses to list recommended percentages of sugar intake on nutrition labels even as its own doctors bemoan the obesity epidemic. Or, in 2003, when the United States threatened to withhold funding from the World Health Organization unless its panel of nutritionists dropped a recommendation to limit sugar intake to 10% of daily caloric intake.
This — the root problem — is all but unmentioned in the film. So is, for that matter, economic inequality and how that plays into obesity. In fact, it is on this point that the film stumbles into blitheness. Michael Pollan at one point states home cooking can be cheaper than fast food as well as being healthy. This he holds, uncontested in the film, as proof that all we need to do is cook ourselves. But he misses the point.
It's not just about money, it's about time. The US Congress just defeated a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $10.10. This means the federally mandated minimum wage remains $7.25. (And guess who lobbied against the increase?) Who is going to crisp that kale, who will visit the neighborhood farmers market — which Pollan suggests is a panacea — that will magically appear in the food deserts of New York and Newark and in the poor precincts of Baltimore not to mention Tuscaloosa and Kokomo, if you're working 70 hours a week to make ends meet?
Not every documentary about injustice can become Das Kapital or a Barbara Ehrenreich book. But Fed Up only takes issue with the poisoned sugary fruit, not the fundamentally sickened tree. At the end, Katie Couric encourages viewers to take the #FedUpChallenge and go sugar free for ten days. But though sugar poisons our body, money poisons our body politic. Instead of peering at labels for a week and a half, I have a better idea: Vote. Take a page from Michelle Obama's campaign — before it got co-opted — and let's move.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars