The opening scene from “Food, Inc.,” one of this year's crop of food movies, leads the viewer through the aisles of a supermarket. The floors are spotless, the products neatly arranged on the shelves. To a retailer, it's a shot to be proud of but for the eerie music and the slow glide of the camera.
“The way we eat has changed more in the last 50 years than in the previous 10,000,” says a voice belonging to one of the more influential figures in the sustainable food movement — Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore's Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food.”
Pollan's statement, which refers to the rise of the industrial food system, is the same one he's made in his books and in speeches and newspaper articles. What's new is the Hollywood treatment. Film, that most American of mediums, has quickly become a forum for the arguments and advocacy surrounding the food system, from scrappy startup projects with little more than a handheld camera and an idea, to full-blown productions like “Food, Inc.,” which grossed more than $4 million in 80 days in limited release, according to the tracking site boxofficemojo.com.
“Pictures are worth a thousand words, and so these films have the ability accelerate action on many of these issues,” said Bob Scowcroft, executive director of the Organic Farming Research Foundation, which held its first-ever film trailer competition in June during the Organic Summit in Boulder, Colo. The winner, a five-minute clip from “Priceless,” a movie that examines food and energy subsidies, beat out 11 competitors to receive $1,000 toward completion and distribution costs.
In many cases, whether directly or indirectly, supermarkets are a target. “King Corn,” released in 2007, followed two friends as they explored the title crop's prominence in the U.S. food supply, shedding a none-too-flattering light on high fructose corn syrup and the many items — from bread to ketchup — it goes into. “Food, Inc.,” meanwhile, opted for a broader focus, examining everything from slaughterhouses to the Farm Bill, in 90 minutes. Gary Hirshberg of Stonyfield Farms gets some camera time, as do buyers from Wal-Mart.
Another movie, “Fresh,” saw limited release but covered many of the same topics as “Food, Inc.”
For supermarket operators, films like these may not be at the top of their must-see list. But the influence on consumers has been undeniable.
“‘King Corn’ was sort of this first step into a larger conversation, and then ‘Food, Inc.’ blows the lid off the whole thing,” said Naomi Starkman, a media consultant who worked on both films.
The message isn't necessarily to forsake our current food production system or to avoid supermarkets, but rather to make smarter, more informed purchases inside of them.
As with the ending of another seminal documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” “Food, Inc.” ends with a list of recommendations for viewers.
“People want to know that there's hope, that there's action they can take,” said Starkman.