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Food fight continues with ‘Food, Inc. 2’

More than a decade and a half later, filmmakers see a brittle and ultra-processed system

The American food system gets another look in “Food, Inc. 2.”
The American food system gets another look in “Food, Inc. 2.” (Courtesy River Road, Participant and Magnolia Pictures)

Between the first “Food, Inc.” and the sequel, a few things have changed. A pandemic tested the American food supply, formula shortages rocked the nation, and Pringles came out with a limited-edition “Baconator” flavor which was supposed to taste like a juicy Wendy’s cheeseburger.

That wasn’t the way director Robert Kenner thought it would go after seeing subscriber-focused “community-supported agriculture” and farmers markets explode after the first film’s release in 2008.

“All the healthy food options at the supermarket grew,” he said. “And we felt, perhaps naively, that we’d done our job.”

Now Kenner is back with “Food, Inc. 2,” which he directed alongside Melissa Robledo. Farmers and fast-food workers share their views from inside the system, while disrupters tout the promise of lab-grown meat. But corn, wheat, soy and rice still rule the grocery store shelves, and some familiar voices return to take stock. 

“We need to change the incentives so the government is subsidizing healthy calories, not unhealthy calories,” Michael Pollan says in the film.

Both Pollan (“The Omnivore’s Dilemma”) and Eric Schlosser (“Fast Food Nation”) are listed as producers. Their optimism comes with a caveat. “It’s all doable. It’s all fixable — if we tackle the big problem of antitrust and agricultural policy,” Pollan says before the credits roll.

Directors Kenner and Robledo joined “Political Theater” to talk about why they came “back for seconds” and how they found support from two Democratic senators, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Jon Tester of Montana.

The transcript below has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, listen to the podcast here. “Food, Inc. 2” is now streaming on demand.

Q: Take us back to 2008. Your documentary became iconic.

RK: We basically were taking a look behind the veil to see how our food was made. It was a relatively new look into the food industry. And I think between our film and Michael Pollan’s book and Eric Schlosser’s book and others, people became very interested and started to buy with their conscience and their values. 

As documentarians, it’s always great to enter a new world and learn about it and move on to a new subject. So it never occurred to us that we’d be looking to do a sequel.

Q: How did the sequel come about?

RK: When the pandemic hit, it crystallized so many things that had gotten that much worse in the food world since we had made the first film. 

We saw what was happening in the meatpacking plants in the United States, where workers were being called essential and being denied unemployment, so they had to go into these very dangerous working conditions. Farmworkers were being told they couldn’t be tested for COVID because they didn’t want to slow up the tomato harvest. And that’s what brought us back into this world. 

Q: Did you stay in touch with Schlosser and Pollan over the years?

RK: We did a project with Eric, “Command and Control,” about an accident at a nuclear missile silo. And we talked to Michael about doing projects, so we’ve been totally in touch. We’ve become very close, and it’s been a wonderful relationship, though I think all four of us equally thought we would never enter this realm again.

Q: Two senators appear in the film. Booker and Tester talk about being an unlikely pair.

RK: What’s so exciting about the two of them together is they are capable of expressing what’s wrong with this food system. So much of the way we look at the farm bill has always come out of rural America and has had nothing to do with urban America.

Tester speaks to the corporatization of farming in rural America and the fact that so many of his neighbors and towns have just been hollowed out. And Booker [speaks to how] the corporate food that gets into the cities is nutritionally bankrupt food that’s making people sick. 

That didn’t exist in 2008. Really there was no one in the Senate at that point advocating for good food when we made the first film. There were people in the House doing a wonderful job, but that was not true in the Senate.

Q:  What else has changed since 2008?

MR: We do talk about ultra-processed food, which is a new concept to the public, and there’s been a lot of research that began after the original film. I think this is an area consumers will be more and more focused on.

Q: I went to the screening in D.C., and I wasn’t prepared for some of the star wattage. You had the requisite people from the Environmental Working Group and other nonprofits, but you also had Chris Tucker and Morgan Freeman.

MR: It was a thrilling screening, honestly. A lot of participants from the film were there, and seeing people from so many different arenas come together around this issue just tells you how much people care about food and what it means to us.

RK: We spent the day going around Washington. We went to the FDA and met with them because they are talking about [front-of-package] labeling. We’re just saying let people know what’s in their food and let them be aware of the consequences of this food. And in talking to the FDA, you realize they need support. They need all the support they can get. Maybe food has become more of a culture war.

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