This past weekend, a new documentary hit theaters that asks hard questions about what Americans eat and why. Fed Up examines the effect of added sugar on the American diet and our high rates of childhood obesity and chronic disease, and asks hard questions about the food industry's role in creating an eating environment that fosters those problems.
The film's executive producer, Laurie David, and its director, Stephanie Soechtig, answered some of my questions about Fed Up, how they hope it will affect America's eating habits, and what they learned as they made the film. Read on to learn more about this important new documentary and the women behind it:
Stephanie Soechtig and Laurie David
Photo Credit: PictureMotion
Genie Gratto: While of course I'm sure you're hoping this film finds a wide audience, is there one specific audience you think would most benefit from seeing it?
Laurie David: If you are a person who eats food, you should see this movie. In fact, one of the taglines for the film is, "Watch it...before you take another bite!"
Stephanie Soechtig: Women (and especially stay-at-home mothers or fathers) and their children might get the most out of Fed Up. Moms (and stay-at-home Dads) should see it because they make so many decisions about what their household eats, and children should see it because they could be the next activists for creating a healthier future.
GG: Were you surprised that Michelle Obama—or, for that matter, anyone from the Let's Move campaign—declined the opportunity to speak to you for this documentary?
LD: I think we were more disappointed than surprised.
SS: I was surprised because this is their platform. Also, we had such an esteemed journalist attached to the project, they were basically guaranteed a very fair interview.
GG: There was a great deal of focus on government's role in reversing the childhood obesity epidemic. While I would agree with you that's crucial to the effort, there are still great numbers of people in this country who continue to believe personal and parental responsibility is paramount to solving this problem and reversing chronic disease rates. How do you think they'll hear the message of this film?
SS: I respectfully disagree—the idea of personal choice is intrinsic in this story. What choice do you really have if you're not getting the information presented in the film? Up until now, marketing disguised as science has been our primary source of information. While I believe the government has a role to play here, ultimately I hope what the film accomplishes is creating a new legion of consumers.
LD: I think the film does a great job of confronting a lot of conventional wisdom we are used to hearing and stands it on its head. Really, if the food is addictive, purposely formulated to hook you, and it's pushed on you 24-7 from the time you are a small child, how is that a personal responsibility issue?
GG: The film discusses the food industry's powerful messaging against public health and anti-obesity policy change, and point to their now-standard outcry about the "nanny state." Do you think there's more public health advocates could be doing to combat that "nanny state" messaging? What do you think would resonate with those who, so far, buy into the food industry's side of the story?
LD: Corporations will spend any amount of money and go to great lengths to protect their bottom line. Fed Up wants to protect people. It's funny—a “nanny” is a person we hire to take care of and protect our kids. Even the term is a misnomer! Also, information is power. Fed Up gives you a lot of information that will change the way you hear these arguments, change the way you shop for food and change the way you eat.
SS: I think people are neglecting the fact that there has been a “nanny” telling us what to eat for many decades, and that nanny has been the food industry. They have been shaping the palates of babies and children for so long. For me, I would prefer to have the body that informs me of what we should be eating have public health as their goal versus corporate wealth. Furthermore, regarding this idea of government as “nanny state”—my nanny is someone that I rely on and trust as much as any member of my family, so I don’t know why we use the phrase “nanny state” as a bad thing. A nanny is someone who looks after our children.
GG: The MPAA originally cited the film's poster as containing "offensive language," but then backed off that decision, allowing the marketing to go forward as planned. Were you surprised by their original objections? Do you see the poster as being a key to drawing people in to see the film?
LD: There is so much noise out there you really have to be clever to break through. I think the FU poster (don't forget that is our initials!) is really powerful and immediately iconic. We have gotten so many requests from people wanting to buy it! I don't think we were surprised the MPAA took issue with it because it was edgy, but we were surprised by the quick reversal.
GG: The end of the film includes action steps for people who are, indeed, fed up and ready to make change. Of those actions, which range from pressuring legislators to cooking at home, which do you think will have the biggest impact on this issue?
LD: TRY TO GET OFF SUGAR FOR TEN DAYS! That is our Fed Up Challenge and it's an important one. If you take it, you will start noticing for the first time how much sugar you are actually eating in a day. Within a week, you will start to feel better, have more energy and, dare I say it, be happier! Of course one of the most powerful ways to do this is to COOK FOOD YOURSELF! If you don't make it yourself, you don't know what’s in it.
GG: If you could get every family in America to make one, simple change to how they eat, what would that be?
LD: Eliminate all purchased drinks, juices and sodas from your life—diet and otherwise. Drink water, and you will be taking a powerful first step toward health for yourself and your family. If you always serve water with every meal, your kids will grow up craving water with food. What a wonderful gift to give them as you send them out into the world!
SS: Buy food with less than five to seven ingredients. It’s simple, it’s easy, and it made a tremendous difference in the things I bought at the grocery store.
GG: Stephanie, what about this topic drew you in as a filmmaker and director? Why did you want to tell this story in particular?
SS: My parents owned a restaurant growing up, so food issues have always been an important part of my life. When I read Diet for a New America in high school, I knew I wanted to become a filmmaker and shed light on the truth behind the food we eat. When my partners and I started Atlas Films, our goal was to make films that inform and inspire, so this was a perfect fit for us.
GG: How did you find and identify the families and kids you profiled in the documentary?
SS: We just cast a really wide net, and we called churches, synagogues, schools and hospitals just looking for families courageous enough to share such personal details of their lives with us.
GG: What did you learn along the way that shocked you the most?
SS: What shocked me the most was just how unhealthy so-called healthy food really was. So many whole-grain cereals had as much sugar as a soda, and breakfast yogurt has the equivalent amount of sugar as a bag of candy.
GG: An Inconvenient Truth had such a huge impact on how this nation talks about the environment—do you see Fed Up as having the same potential impact on the public discussion of the food industry?
LD: One can certainly hope! We desperately need an honest conversation in this country about the food we are eating and we hope Fed Up will be the catalyst for that—the situation could not be more important and dire.
GG: Do you expect the food industry to remain silent as this film is released, or do you expect them to respond?
LD: They have already responded with the typical lame diversion tactics, saying the information isn't accurate. They have put up phony websites using our URL to divert people so they can continue misinforming the public. They don't give a hoot about the health of America.
GG: Laurie, you've been writing about food—through your cookbooks and other outlets—for a while. Though you already had that broad base of knowledge, did your work on this film change your perspective or teach you anything new?
LD: I can’t believe how much I learned making Fed Up. Katie Couric says the same thing. Even if you think you know a lot about food, you will be shocked by some of the information in the film. Needless to say, it has changed how I shop and what I eat!
If you've seen Fed Up already, share your thoughts and questions about the movie in the comments below!
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