Director of Academy Award-nominated 'Food, Inc.' to speak at UMD

The fact that 18 co-sponsors signed on to bring the director of the Academy Award-nominated "Food, Inc." to Duluth next week showed UMD organizers the deep interest in his message.

The fact that 18 co-sponsors signed on to bring the director of the Academy Award-nominated "Food, Inc." to Duluth next week showed UMD organizers the deep interest in his message.

Robert Kenner also was co-producer of the 2008 documentary that sheds light on large-scale American food production and how it affects humans, animals and the planet, and food corporations' relationship with the government. He speaks at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Thursday.

The school's Access for All group has been examining how food and its supply chain affects people and the environment, said Emily Norenberg, a disability specialist at UMD and adviser to the group.

"What does exposure to chemicals in food and in our bodies do to us?" she said. "Every time I watch the movie it's equally captivating."

Kenner's talk is part of a larger UMD Food Week held in conjunction with the first national Food Day on Oct. 24. The aim is to promote healthy, affordable, sustainable and fair food systems in the U.S.


The News Tribune spoke with Kenner on the phone. Here are excerpts from that interview.

Q: What effect has your film had on the public in the past three years?

A: There has been a really growing food movement since we made the film. Interest in what we're eating has gotten greater and greater. How much of it was "Food, Inc.," how much of it was the other great folks, Eric Schlosser's "Fast Food Nation" and Michael Pollan's book ("The Omnivore's Dilemma") ... there's been an exploding food movement. "Food, Inc." has been part of that. It has been amazing to see. It was one of the best-selling videos of all films in 2009, as a DVD. That's not supposed to happen to documentaries.

I think that people are really interested and I think ultimately (corporations) have taken note of that and are sort of responding on two levels. Both trying to make changes -- Walmart's doing some amazing things -- and others who are trying to co-opt it and pretend they are making changes.

Q: Have you created change?

A: In the film there's the story about the little boy who eats the hamburger. (He died because it was contaminated with a strain of E. coli.) They are trying to get a bill called Kevin's Law passed, which will enable the federal government to withdraw food that is known to make people sick and potentially kill people. They could have the power to take it off the shelves, which to my amazement did not exist when we made "Food, Inc."

Q: How do you reach fast-food eaters? Do you think most people care where the food comes from and how it was raised or killed?

A: We have to reach everybody. The point of "Food, Inc." is that ultimately, all of our food has become like fast food, and that was my revelation. I was going to do a film on fast food. Then I realized the whole supermarket has become fast food. There are a very few corporations that are controlling our food system. That lack of diversity is dangerous for everybody.


We are subsidizing large corporations that make fast food and are serving food that is making us sick and our planet sick. What happened with tobacco, I think that is the great analogy. Tobacco companies said that their product does not cause any damage. Even when they had records saying it did cause damage, they lied to the American public. People kept smoking because they didn't think it was bad for them. When they found out what their product really did to us, people stopped smoking as much. When we put taxes on it, people stopped buying cigarettes.

When the American public starts realizing how sick this food is making us, they will start to change their behavior. Ultimately, we can start demanding these companies start paying the cost of the damage they are doing that you don't see when you go to the checkout counter.

Q: How can Minnesotans, with our short growing season, practice healthier eating?

A: It's obviously harder in Minnesota than it is where I am, where it's 100 degrees today. I think we have to eat less meat. I don't think we can afford as a planet to keep producing as much meat. It takes 20 times more energy to produce meat than vegetables.

Cooking our food is one of the great things we can do. It's a lot less salt and fat, and you're going to save a lot of money on medical bills if you start cooking. If you look at a can of chicken soup, you get more than a day's salt requirement in one cup. It's astounding what is being sold to us in processed food. Food today is very cheap, and you can eat cheaply if you go to fast-food restaurants. The fact is, medical costs are vastly more expensive today. There is a correlation between the two. Maybe we should be spending a little more on food. It's too bad we are artificially making bad food cheaper.

In terms of (genetically modified food) listings ... people should have the right to know what they are eating. Food companies think it's not in your interest to know what you're eating and will do everything to stop you from getting that information. (Many other countries do list that information on food.) The vegetables can be as bad as the meat. If you buy from local farmers, you know it's fresher.

If you go

UMD's first Food Week begins Monday and runs through Oct. 25. It includes a sustainability fair from noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday in the Kirby Bus Hub, with a corresponding farmer's market in the Kirby Plaza; Robert Kenner's free 8 p.m. talk Thursday in the Romano Gym, and "Canning 101: winter fruit," from noon to 12:45 p.m. Oct. 25 in the Sports and Health Center Room 119.

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