Interview: Robert Kenner

The critically acclaimed and Academy Award-nominated film Food Inc. – filmmaker Robert Kenner’s exposé of corporate farming in America – also is one of the top-grossing theatrical documentaries of all time. In the three years since its release, Food Inc. remains part of the conversation as America wrestles with obesity, diabetes and other health conditions that are linked to the poor quality of food consumed by Americans and produced by only a handful of multi-national corporations.

Director Robert Kenner will appear in Duluth to speak about the making of Food Inc.

Until seeing the film, many Americans did not know that food production has changed more in the past 50 years than it had in the last 10,000 years. They didn’t know the extent that food corporations force growers to stay in debt, that animals are not the only species being mistreated by the food industry. And they didn’t know how often corporations put profit ahead of consumer health, the livelihood of the American farmer, the safety of workers and our environment.

Kenner will speak on Food Inc. at 8 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 20, in Romano Gym at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, brought to campus by Access For All. A question-and-answer session will follow the lecture. It is free to the public and will be interpreted in ASL.

The event is co-sponsored by: Duluth Whole Foods Co-op; Wellness Renaissance; Essentia Health; Duluth Grill; Slow Food Lake Superior; The Edge Magazine; UMD Office of Sustainability; UMD College of Liberal Arts; UMD College of Education and Human Service Professions; UMD Swenson College of Science and Engineering; Medical School Duluth; UMD School of Fine Arts; College of Pharmacy Duluth; UMD Labovitz School of Business and Economics; UMD Office of Civic Engagement; UMD Food and Vending Services; UMD Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation; and Minnesota Public Interest Research Group.

“I will be talking about making of Food, Inc. and the surprises I had along the way and where I’m going from there,” Kenner said in a phone interview with The Edge.

The filmmaker remains devoted to public education. He’s currently creating a campaign of short videos called “Fixed Food” to help drive a consumer-led change toward more natural and organic food that is sustainable and in balance with the environment.

Kenner’s video campaign is expected to launch in November, but in the meantime he said the food industry — through the Alliance to Feed the Future, and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association — is preparing to launch multi-million-dollar campaigns of its own to convince Americans that the food it creates is healthy.

“On one hand the consumers are ready to make these great changes,” Kenner said, “and on the other hand, some of industry wants to change and some of it wants to go on the offensive and talk about why they are serving the healthiest food, why this processed food is the healthiest and best food we can get.”

What was your intention in making Food Inc. and did that intention change by the time the film was completed?
Robert Kenner: My original intention was to have a conversation about how to feed the world and is our food sustainable, our food system, and by the end I realized that so much of the industrial food world was not ready to talk to me. It was very hard to have that kind of a conversation. So much of our present day food system is off limits to the consumer. They don’t want us peeking behind the curtain to see how this food is made – “they” being the industrial system. It really does not want to engage in a conversation about how this food is made.

You’ve said in an interview that you weren’t wanting to preach to the converted, but to enlighten people who were not aware of what is going on.
RK: I am hoping really to expand the circle to let people know. I guess I started to make this film because I was curious to know where our food came from, how it’s grown, what’s on our plate and what it does to us. I had no idea how difficult it would be to make that film. I wanted to make a film for people who had not thought about their food, people who are just eating this stuff and just presuming it is not a problem and that nothing’s changed, when in reality, our food system has changed dramatically in the last 40 to 50 years.

What challenge did you face in tackling the role of the multi-national corporation in our food system? Did any of them speak to you for the film?
RK: Well, they spoke to me off the record, constantly. I tend to think if I had made the film a few years earlier they would have spoken on camera, because no one thought that the food system presented any danger. I had a friend who made a film on Frito-Lay and they were able to talk about getting to the heavy users. By the time I was making Food Inc., they realized they can’t be seen talking about such things.

Makers of the small documentary King Corn had a hard time talking about high fructose corn syrup.
RK: Industrial food makers don’t want you thinking about where your food comes from and what’s in it.

Do you think the public’s desire to know that is growing?
RK: Absolutely. People are becoming more and more concerned and people are becoming more and more aware that this system presents dangers. I also think the industrial food makers are about to engage in a campaign — spending close to $100 million, different groups are spending $30-40 million dollars — to tell the public that this processed food is good for you, that we should be eating more meat, all the things that we might have questioned. But ultimately, people are becoming more aware and more conscious that we have to put better things in our stomach and this system is making us sick.

I listened to a recent interview about nutrition, specifically the amount of education doctors get in nutrition. It was said doctors only get 30 hours of study in nutrition during medical school, and if there was a greater emphasis on nutrition, it would make the country a lot healthier overall.
RK: What is the saying, “Let your food be your medicine and your medicine be your food.” That used to be how we lived, and today, we have companies that are plying us with massive amounts of sugars and salts. Now we have to come out with new diabetes drugs. So they are on the one hand making us sick and on the other hand providing us our cure.

How did the making of Food Inc. make you feel personally? Did it change your life?
RK: Well, it makes me much more conscious, both about what I’m putting in my stomach, as well as to the role of corporations in our society. Some are trying to change things, but there are many others that are willing to sell you food that is making you sick — and they are ready to put pressure on the government not to be regulated in any form or fashion, even though they are getting massive amounts of subsidies from the government.

While watching your film I was struck by how it epitomizes the whole discussion of corporations’ role in our everyday lives.
RK: I think on some levels that Food Inc. became about more than just food. I had no idea that was going to happen when I started to make it.

What has been the result of the film overall? Has it made a difference?
RK: I think it’s made a huge difference. I have been very pleasantly surprised what kind of reception it has had. We were one of the most successful selling DVDs of the year. And more people saw it on the internet than they did on DVD and/or in theaters.

It became part of a conversation, which was very exciting. I think it fed into what is a growing movement out there. People are concerned. Organic is the fastest growing segment of the food business. Ultimately this movement is being led by moms, who might not have thought about where their food comes from, or dads, or parents buying food for their children, and parents want their children to eat healthy food. It’s not democrats or republicans, it’s parents.

People felt their lives were changed on some levels. This is a growing movement, and Food Inc. was one of the many things that played into this movement, along with Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation, Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, films like King Corn and all that’s out there. It’s really helping to change. People are being affected by it.

I even take encouragement by people like Jamie Oliver and his “Food Revolution.”
RK: Oh, of course! Listen, when I travel around, the food that you saw going to the school system was frightening. You would not want to feed it to dogs.

For those who have not seen Food Inc., what positives can people take from the film?
RK: First of all, I know a lot of people were scared to watch the film thinking it would be filled with upsetting images. We really tried to go out of our way to make a film that you didn’t have to keep your eyes shut to watch, but could open your mind instead. We tried to add as much humor as possible.

I think the ultimate positive, if you look at this in a historical context, is that things change. Tobacco is a great example. People lied about what the effect of cigarettes on our health was. They stood up and said things that were absolute lies — lies that they were fully aware of — and testified in front of Congress. But as people started to understand what those lies were and people understood how unhealthy those cigarettes were for us and how much they were costing us as a society, we eventually put taxes on those cigarettes and were able to change patterns in this country and save lots of money and lives.

Industry will fight any form of regulation and they don’t want to pay for the externalities that they are creating. But at the same time when we start to understand what those externalities are, I think we will, as consumers, want to start to become healthier and change our own habits.

I think I am much more optimistic about consumer-driven change than I am governmental change. Anything can happen in government, but I do think we consumers can drive true change. Look at how people complained to Wal-Mart about the growth hormone in the milk. Wal-Mart changed its policy. That was a surprise for me, too, by the way. I had no idea that Wal-Mart would end up being a good guy in our film.


For more information on Food Inc., visit www.foodincmovie.com

Leave a Reply