In Defense of Food: Michael Pollan’s Manifesto Onscreen
By Caitlin Zera January 5, 2016
You may have read the book, but have you seen the movie? Last week, Michael Pollan’s “eaters’ manifesto” In Defense of Food came to the small screen and premiered as a television documentary film on PBS stations across the country.
In Defense of Food
Directed by Michael Schwarz
Runtime: 1 hr 55 minutes
In Defense of Food is a documentary film based upon Michael Pollan’s 2008 book of the same name. If you’ve followed Michael Pollan’s work much of the film will be familiar to you, but the pleasing visuals, animated infographics, and profiles of successful farm-to-table projects in urban underserved areas will make the film worthwhile. If you’re new to Pollan’s work or interested in learning more, In Defense of Food is good introductory material. It’s just about two hours long, covers the history of our current food system, and lays out the major problems and trends with how we eat. In Defense of Food also includes aspects of social justice like food access and aspects of public health like childhood obesity and diabetes. It connects these two in a simple and straightforward way. The film itself is also accessible – it aired on PBS this December and is available to stream for free online.
Pollan takes the film as an opportunity to expand upon his Food Rules concepts and uses the documentary as a platform to answer the question he gets asked the most: “What should I eat?” The film focuses on understanding how and why we eat the way we do – why our bodies crave sugars and fats, how our lifestyles have evolved to impact our eating, what health and community risks our eating habits introduce. There’s a fair amount of science in the film but it’s well explained and necessary to resisting the “dumbing down” the issues. There are certainly unpleasant reality checks throughout the film, but these are also necessary. The filmmakers are careful to strike a reasonable balance between stark of hopeful projects and success stories to make one feel less “doom and gloom.”
The film also showcases solutions based on interesting studies like high school lunch lines putting fruits at the start of the counter instead of the back, portion control tests that reveal changing plate size is a matter of habit not necessarily appetite, and retirement communities that make healthy eating and exercise core values.
The film appears to cover all its bases but it doesn’t dig as aggressively into food policy as one might like given how important this piece of the puzzle is to revolutionizing an industrial food system. It emphasizes the individual and community relationship to food which can be empowering in its own way if viewers become invested enough to make actual changes and pursue learning more about food policy. Pollan also takes a short detour into the social construction of the appetite (suggesting appetite is not necessarily biologically determined) which is eminently interesting though not much time screen time is given to it.
In Defense of Food seems like a neatly wrapped-up package – a two hour special that solves our food system problem by encouraging us to cook with fresh foods and grow our own vegetables in the backyard. But it’s actually the opposite. It introduces us to the big problems of our current food system and reminds us that solving these issues must be a community effort. The problems it lays out are daunting, and it doesn’t shy away from the complexities of buying good healthy food or the frustrations we have as daily consumers when we encounter relentless food marketing and health claims. The film is ultimately hopeful; it raises a lot of questions about how we eat and tries to answer as many of them as possible. In Defense of Food affirms the need to eat locally, fresh, and healthy, and it gives us some of the tools to start changing on individual and local community levels.
Most importantly, the film celebrates food in a way that makes viewers eager to rethink the relationship we have with food. It reminds us that eating is an event to be shared, and that snacking is not the equivalent of sharing a meal. The word “food” is beautiful, Pollan says in the film. Why would we want to dignify something made from artificial flavorings and colors with such a beautiful word? Food is many things – sustenance, nourishment, hard work, community – but on a basic level it seems we’ve forgotten that it is also beautiful. In Defense of Food reminds us of the power that beauty can hold.