Just returned from a couple days at the ACRES USA Conference and Trade Show in St. Louis, MO. The highlight of the conference was a screening of Food Fight, a brand new documentary about how the US food system got to where it is today, and where it is (hopefully) going. I urge you — SEE THIS MOVIE.
It’s commonly known that the great increase in crop yields that hit agriculture around the 1950s can be attributed to newly widespread use of chemically derived, manufactured fertilizer, mostly, nitrogen. The process and infrastructure that allowed for mass production of nitrogen grew out of the military industrial complex of WWII. Nitrogen was also an ingredient in bombs. When we stopped building bombs, the nitrogen was then marketed to farmers. And it worked. Applied nitrogen and new hybrids accounted for a huge increase in crop yields and massive food surpluses.
What I didn’t know (until I watched Food Fight) is that the history of modern food processing and packaging can also be attributed to WWII. A huge number of the young men drafted for service then were malnourished. An army marches on its stomach, and the US Army developed ways to preserve food in individual meal packs called K-rations. They didn’t spoil, and they required minimal preparation before being eaten. Think of them as the first TV dinners. Once again, when the war ended, the assault on American eaters began — everything processed, packaged and marketed for the convenience of the modern housewife, more and more of whom were working outside the home. The movie contains some hilarious old footage of commercials touting the benefits and marvels of the modern age. They are reminiscent of the war promotion films people were seeing in theaters back then.
Enter the 1960s and a slew of “clean cut” young people protesting, not only the Viet Nam war, but the Wonder Bread and Jello they were being fed. It was obvious to many back then that the food system and the military were linked at the hip in some unholy marriage providing plenty of calories, but not enough nutrition or flavor. That’s where Alice Waters came in. Her restaurant, Chez Panisse (opened in 1971) introduced the edible version of the 60s revolution. Eating became a political act, and the local/organic food system was born. The movie recounts Alice’s history and the role she and her restaurant continue to play in what is now a full-blown movement.
Food Fight is what a documentary should be — fun to watch, and educational. Most of those interviewed in the film are farmers or chefs. They are the heroes of the day. What these people do together is magic. The film left me with a sense of optimistism for a future where people really value the food they are eating and feeding to their children.