"What should we eat?"
It may sound like a simple question, but it's actually intricate enough to inspire In Defense of Food — Michael Pollan's latest documentary that spans thousands of miles and multiple generations in search of an answer.
Based on the author and activist's bestselling book of the same name, In Defense of Food features accounts from everyday people who have somehow been cheated by America's broken food system. It weaves their stories in with interviews from scientists, policy makers and industry executives. It also gives a glimpse into the unique ways that people from other cultures and religions — from the indigenous Hadza tribe in Tanzania to the French — have historically approached nutrition.
The two-hour film contrasts images of wide open pastures with ones of supermarket aisles and food expos cramped with processed "foodlike substances" — the ultra-sugary, carbo-loaded, how-did-they-even-make-that products that have come to define our diets. Humans are biologically evolved to crave sugar and fat, but Pollan's portrayal shows how the current food problem is one of convenience as much as it is taste.
As long as advertisers work to make processed foods appealing and the government works to make them cheap and easily accessible, people — especially those who live in low-income communities — will continue to buy them.
One of my favorite scenes from the film shows school children tending to an indoor vegetable farm in the South Bronx. The space was dreamed up by Stephen Ritz, a teacher who grew tired of watching his students become overweight and diabetic. By teaching kids how to grow their own food, Ritz showed them how to take ownership over their diets and look past the processed, unhealthy fare in their neighborhood.
"People make decisions based on what they can afford, and sadly what they can afford often is cheap foods," Ritz explains in the film. "What we've found is that when you give people in low-income areas the opportunity to grow food, they respond resiliently."
It's ideas like these, the ones that bring fresh food to a new audience, that encourage Pollan and make him optimistic for a healthier future.