Fed Up With Food Producers

David: Teamed with Katie Couric on film.
National Journal
Mike Magner
May 7, 2014, 5:45 p.m.

Junk food is today’s to­bacco and should be vil­i­fied for killing our chil­dren, says film­maker Laurie Dav­id about her new movie open­ing on Fri­day, Fed Up.

Dav­id, pro­du­cer of the 2006 doc­u­ment­ary An In­con­veni­ent Truth that rock­eted Al Gore to glob­al-warm­ing fame and a No­bel Peace Prize, says this pro­ject hits much closer to home — right on your kit­chen table.

“If you eat, you have to see this film,” she said from New York in a phone in­ter­view.

Nar­rated by cop­ro­du­cer Katie Cour­ic, Fed Up takes a hard look at the growth of “low fat” and “diet” choices in su­per­mar­kets and res­taur­ants that turn out to be not so healthy after all, un­less you con­sider an ex­cess of sug­ar in your diet to be a good thing.

In­dustry re­ac­tion to the film has been muted by lim­ited pre­screen­ings, but after it hits theat­ers this week­end, it could well ig­nite a heated de­bate about Amer­ica’s eat­ing habits. Fed Up will be show­ing in Wash­ing­ton at the Land­mark E Street Cinema.

After the U.S. gov­ern­ment is­sued its first-ever di­et­ary guidelines in 1977 and touched off a fit­ness craze, food com­pan­ies re­spon­ded by cut­ting the fat out of everything from soups to soft drinks and then mar­ket­ing the new products as health­i­er al­tern­at­ives. Un­for­tu­nately, re­mov­ing fat of­ten makes food taste aw­ful, so to make it more pal­at­able, the in­dustry poured in the sug­ar — tons and tons of it. The film notes that about 80 per­cent of the 600,000 items in gro­cery stores today have ad­ded sug­ar.

Re­lent­less mar­ket­ing, es­pe­cially aimed at chil­dren, has fueled the fast-food/junk-food boom, al­though the in­dustry vig­or­ously in­sists it is simply giv­ing Amer­ic­ans what they want. “Ron­ald Mc­Don­ald nev­er sells to chil­dren. He in­forms and in­spires through ma­gic and fun,” says a Mc­Don­ald’s ex­ec­ut­ive in one seg­ment of Fed Up.

The res­ult, ac­cord­ing to the film, has been a doub­ling of the na­tion’s sug­ar in­take and a cor­res­pond­ing rise in the obesity rate, with enorm­ous and costly con­sequences. In­cid­ents of type 2 dia­betes in ad­oles­cents were un­heard of in 1980; in 2010, there were 57,638 cases na­tion­wide. Doc­tors in­ter­viewed in Fed Up say that at the rate we’re go­ing, a third of Amer­ic­ans will have dia­betes by 2050.

“Health care costs are go­ing to bury the coun­try,” Dav­id said.

Former Pres­id­ent Clin­ton was in­ter­viewed for the film, and his com­ments are woven to­geth­er with al­leg­a­tions that the food in­dustry is mak­ing it dif­fi­cult for par­ents who want their chil­dren to eat healthy — in­clud­ing, in some cases, by tak­ing over a vast num­ber of con­tracts to provide school lunches.

“Amer­ica is still in­suf­fi­ciently alert to the dam­age we are do­ing with too much sug­ar in­take,” Clin­ton says at one point. “We could cure 80 per­cent of the prob­lem if we went back to schools cook­ing their own food,” he says at an­oth­er.

Michelle Obama has made healthy eat­ing a key part of her “Let’s Move” cam­paign, but the film says that her mes­sage falls short. The very name of the cam­paign sug­gests that the prob­lem is lack of ex­er­cise, not the food sup­ply, and Obama her­self has made it clear that she is “not try­ing to de­mon­ize any in­dustry.”

Dav­id ar­gues that a little de­mon­iz­a­tion is ex­actly what is needed. A video clip in Fed Up shows Fred Flint­stone and Barney Rubble smoking ci­gar­ettes in an ad for Win­ston in the days be­fore to­bacco ad­vert­ising was banned from tele­vi­sion. Dav­id says that if more people un­der­stood that sug­ary foods can harm kids’ health, they would start to de­mand bet­ter from the in­dustry.

“I would ar­gue for reg­u­lat­ing ad­vert­ising to chil­dren,” Dav­id said. “The Coke cup in front of Jen­nifer Lopez sends a mes­sage that it’s OK to drink as much Coke as you want.”

Dav­id hopes that Fed Up will have a great­er im­pact on Amer­ica’s eat­ing habits than An In­con­veni­ent Truth has had on the de­bate over glob­al warm­ing. “With cli­mate change, en­tire coun­tries have to do something,” she said. “With this is­sue, there’s so much you can do your­self.”

“I think when they be­come in­formed, people will de­mand bet­ter food. We can make fresh food again in schools and save money,” she said.

Dav­id, who di­vorced Sein­feld cop­ro­du­cer Larry Dav­id in 2007, said that be­fore she star­ted work on Fed Up three years ago, she had an “Aha mo­ment” in her own kit­chen.

“I cooked a meal for my teen­age daugh­ters — and both of them were talk­ing to me,” she said. “We were all talk­ing to each oth­er! It’s ac­tu­ally fun. It can be joy­ful.”

Dav­id also has a new book, called The Fam­ily Cooks, with 100 “fast and easy” re­cipes for pre­par­ing healthy meals. The ar­gu­ment that people don’t have time to cook any more, she said, is simply not true.

In fact, she calls it “a mar­ket­ing tac­tic.”

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