Everything I Eat Is Wrong: Food Shockumentary Fall-Out

This post originally ran on Food Riot, which has closed its doors. I’m rerunning some of my favorite posts I did for the magazine before it goes dark forever.

This article wrote itself in reverse. I set out to document a phenomenon I saw happen repeatedly on Facebook. Someone would watch a food documentary – the kind of documentary film meant to shock you into a changed course of action. A shockumentary, if you will. And after watching said film, the person would find themselves lost at sea. Suddenly, everything they ate was wrong, so they sought help and advice on Facebook, where they found such a conflicting collection of opinions, facts, and approaches that they were left throwing their hands up in frustration.

Each time I saw this happen, I tried to help:  I tried to let them know that no action was required right that second; that there was a lot of information out there and that they ultimately had to do what was best for them and their family and lifestyle and budget and moral compass. I recommended taking a moment to breathe. I tried to be their Fairy Godmother, the Fairy Godmother of Food. I wanted to wave my wand and make their decisions easier, to clear up the muddy waters of food education.

But I was living in a food closet, because here’s the thing:  up until last week, I had never watched a shockumentary. I had read Michael Pollan books. Friends had told me horror stories of things they had read or seen. I had even driven past a few factory farms on my way cross-country. I had resources, and I knew a few things, but only academically. Only enough to give me some opinions. Just enough to leave me wanting to wave a wand and make everything all right.

When I set out to write this post, I asked a few friends questions about their experiences with food shockumentaries:  what had they watched, how had they felt, what did they change as a result? The answers were largely consistent. They had watched one or two of the most notable food documentaries – Food, Inc., Forks Over Knives, Super Size Me, etc. – and had been horrified at the state of our food system. They had felt a range of emotions – shock, shame, guilt, anger. They resolved to do things differently, and they made adjustments to their diets and food shopping. Not all of the changes stuck, but they were changed people. While the images eventually receded to the backs of their minds, and the initial horror softened into faded memory, they remained passionate about what they knew. They took the reasonable steps they felt they could take. Did they give up all meat/soy/corn/soft drinks/etc. entirely? No. But they did what they could.

I talked to a friend, Rachel, who used to run her local chapter of Buy Fresh Buy Local in Virginia. When I first announced my article idea on Facebook, she reached out, recognizing a similar moment when she used to deliver information and education about farming, and where our food comes from, and the benefits of buying fresh and local. People would feel doomsday descending; the feeling that everything they had been doing was wrong became palpable, and she learned to recognize it and counteract it by handing down sensible advice. She urged people to start small. As she said, “when people realized what a big impact a small effort could make, they seemed to relax a little.”

I was ready to write, really. But I felt nagged by my conscience. Could I really hand down advice to people who have watched food shockumentaries without having first watched one myself? Doesn’t that seem a bit presumptuous? A bit condescending? A bit hypocritical?

So last week, my wife and I scanned through movies to stream on Netflix. And I mentioned one I had seen listed called Vegucated, about three New Yorkers who switch to a vegan diet for six weeks. We decided to watch it, and I felt my conscience would settle. And all was well until the three New Yorkers went to a seminar on the food industry, where they watched behind-the-scenes footage of factory farming and meat processing.

And the bottom fell out. I dropped my wand. And then I picked it up and broke it over my knee. Who was I to give advice? I couldn’t be a Fairy Godmother. I need a Fairy Godmother. Suddenly, all my advice sounded empty and hollow. I had seen things I couldn’t un-see.

It was at that point that I was happy this article got written in reverse. I went back to my notes, to the responses I gathered from friends. I let their reactions and experiences bolster me up; I wasn’t alone. I re-read Rachel’s notes. I let her practical advice empower me.

And I talked to my wife. A lot. I rode the wave from emotional reaction – horror, shame, guilt, shock – into academic discussion. Who are we as eaters? What do we want? What can we do?

The thing is, whenever you subject yourself to new information, whether it’s about the food system or the government or the environment, you make yourself vulnerable to the impulse to change. We are humans, and we are dynamic. We learn new things, and we process and synthesize and make decisions about how to proceed.

I can’t be a Fairy Godmother because I can’t wave a wand and make everything rosy and fair and ethical. I can’t make information easier to process. We are citizens of the world, and we are eaters, and we must decide how to proceed, trusting our moral compass and our brain and our circumstances to guide us.

But I suppose that really, my initial advice still holds true. The advice I had planned to give to others is the advice I’ve had to give to myself. Your feelings are valid. Your reaction is honest. As a person, you are dynamic, an ever-changing being; as an eater, you are dynamic, an ever-changing being. And whatever you decide, whether it’s a big or small change, be gentle. Walk softly.

4 thoughts on “Everything I Eat Is Wrong: Food Shockumentary Fall-Out

  1. still love this article: also it’s pretty relevant to my life right now, since i’m reading Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” right now, and as a result, i’m wallowing yet again in food guilt.

    1. Thanks, Shannon! And oh, the food guilt. It’s so difficult, isn’t it? Eating is something we need to do for fuel and life, and yet, it becomes so much harder than just eating for nourishment.

  2. wow: just wanted to note my obvious mastery of the english language in the comment above. How many times do i want to use the phrase “right now?” LOTS.

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