Guest Post: Are Documentaries Affecting How We Eat?

Super Size Me

The following is a guest post by Andrea Swift, Chair of the Documentary Department at the New York Film Academy

Is it possible that the past decade’s cluster of documentaries exploring American food culture and factory-farm-based food systems may actually be changing how people eat – and what the food industry is selling us? To be sure the obesity crisis isn’t over, and food companies like ConAgra, McDonald’s, ADM and Monsanto continue to rake in billions. But there is measurable change afoot – evident both in the grocery aisles and in the growth of innovative, healthier fast food retailers.

The book “Fast Food Nation” by journalist Eric Schlosser (2002) preceded and likely both informed and inspired the series of successful “food” documentaries that followed: Supersize Me (Morgan Spurlock, 2004), King Corn (Ian Cheney, Curtis Ellis, Aaron Woolf, 2007), Food Inc. (Robert Kenner, 2008), Food Matters (Enzo Tedeschi, Laurentine ten Bosch, James Colquhoun, 2008), and Forks Over Knives (Lee Fulkerson, 2011), to name a few. (Note that the book “Food Matters” by journalist Mark Bittman of The New York Times covered very similar issues but is not affiliated with the film.)

Essentially, these films make various versions of the case that while modern food systems have become very efficient, much has been lost in the process. They contend that while a combination of economics and government policy has led to grocery stores and restaurants full of processed foods that are cheap to grow, cheap to manufacture and cheap to eat, they also aren’t healthy. So, we consume lots of calories devoid of natural micronutrients and are suffering simultaneously from an obesity crisis and nutrient-deprivation. Meanwhile, the increasingly mechanized farms of today are environmental and health disasters waiting to happen, wholly dependent on mega suppliers (such as Monsanto) selling to a small number of manufacturers (ConAgra, ADM, Purdue, et al.) and subject to disease outbreaks such as e coli that were rarely present in traditional (pre-1970s) food systems.

“Fast Food Nation” was an extensive and meticulous overview of the problem, hailed as the modern equivalent to Upton Sinclair’s seminal “The Jungle.” But I would argue that the documentaries it helped spawn were what actually began to turn the tide. Supersize Me took the message from the best-seller list and, using a simple meme – “it’s the movie about the guy that ate McDonalds for 30 days and nearly died” – spread it to a younger, more activist generation. King Corn honed in on the Nixon administration-born corn subsidy program, which made growing corn a no-lose proposition for farmers, essentially leading to the mega-farm monocultures that we see today.

Then, Food, Inc., which was co-produced by “Fast Food Nation’s” Schlosser, brought the whole picture back together focusing on the corporate economics driving the food factories. It also made a high-profile splash – in documentary terms – immediately impacting water cooler conversation in influential circles.

Food Matters, which was in many ways eclipsed by Food, Inc., has quietly had at least as significant an impact. By taking the story “transmedia” and parlaying the movie’s website into a hub for cultivating and supporting viewers in changing their actual eating habits, the filmmakers have not simply shared a powerful idea but have given it somewhere to gestate. Providing ongoing web programming, information sharing and a community forum, they helped not simply to persuade but also to significantly change eating habits at their roots.

Though it has stayed largely off the radar, the core community that grew from, and on, the Food Matters website recently raised its mighty head. In response to the filmmakers’ recent, radically unconventional free online premier of their next movie, Hungry for Change, the Food Matters community not only watched the premiere en masse, they promptly spent a million dollars within 14 days on copies of the DVD and the related cookbook. That’s not just revenue, that’s an idea spreading and taking root.

As chair of a documentary school, I’m particularly interested in the different the means each film has deployed to generate change – from Supersize Me’s impact on essentially the same East Village young culture that Malcolm Gladwell touted in The Tipping Point, to Food, Inc.’s “affluencers” and Food Matters’ enormously effective “transmedia” effort. (Transmedia story-telling, the hottest frontier in the film world, poses particularly promising possibilities for the documentary world, but that’s a different blog…)

And how might all this intended documentary change-making be reflected in what people are actually eating now – as well as in how the food industry is feeding them?

The Nielsen Company, best known for television ratings but which also tracks consumer buying trends, provides research and analysis on this topic. In 2011, writer Shannon Jimenez, director of consumer and shopper analytics for the company, said “For most American shoppers, the weekly grocery list is filled with fresh foods: meats, deli, produce, baked goods and the like. For those who have been closely following consumer trends, this comes as little surprise, as Americans have reduced out-of-home dining and cook food at home more regularly. One part stretching household budgets and another part finding a genuine joy in cooking and breaking bread with family and friends, at home dining seems to be back in vogue. Obviously, then, fresh foods are important for grocers; in fact, they represent one-third of grocery channel sales.”

Note that this reverses decades-long trends that had consumers buying “convenience,” where more than half of all dollars spent on food were on meals prepared outside the home, most of that highly processed. Jimenez goes on to describe how supermarkets, mass merchandisers and club stores (e.g., Sam’s Club and Costco) are selling more fresh foods than in the past.

A more visible trend in the fast-service food industry can be seen in the success and ethos of Chipotle Grill. The firm touts its responsible sourcing on its website, where they explain their reduced use of antibiotics in farm animals, the problems with agricultural monocultures and waste lagoons, and its efforts to work with family farmers and smaller, local businesses in its supply chain (in Food, Inc., similar efforts by Stoneyfield Farms organic yogurt won it shelf space in Sam’s Club stores and awakened that behemoth to rising consumer interest in organics). Chipotle’s tactics seem to be working, as it now has $2 billion in annual revenues, is on a 23.5 percent annual growth trajectory with more than 1200 restaurants in 43 states, Canada, France and the U.K.

Another researcher for Nielsen, Jessica Hogue, hints at the value of such things as the Food Matters website – and how they monitor and report on what they see. “More consumers in the U.S. are online talking about fresh and unprocessed foods when it comes to healthy eating,” she says. “To better understand these emerging trends in nutrition, Nielsen has been analyzing online consumer conversations about food and health and wellness since 2003. Our analysis highlights discussion trends among mainstream consumers and also quantifies buzz among health enthusiasts, a passionate and informed consumer segment that Nielsen monitors across 400+ social networks, key blogs and forums. Listening to what health enthusiast’s care about helps us to see what’s next.”

In other words, the messages consumers might take away from one – or several – documentaries actually can affect an industry and what it sells. As a documentary filmmaker, I find that to be a pretty powerful motivator.

Andrea Swift is Chair of the Documentary Department at the New York Film Academy. She earned her Masters in Fine Arts degree from Columbia University and served as the executive producer of the PBS documentary series, “In the Life”, among many other credits. Her feature documentary, “DEAFSMITH, nuclear folktale” was featured at the United Nations Earth Summit, aired around the world, and honored at several festivals, winning Silver at both the Chicago International Film Festival and American Film and Video Festival.