If you’re craving good films on the food system, Food Tank has put together a list of documentaries and films to inspire, educate, and give viewers some food for thought. Each film explores a different topic in food and agriculture, some with a dash of social equality or a splash of health awareness. Whether you’re a social activist, small farmer, or sustainability advocate, or you just enjoy food, we’re sure you’ll find a food film to further inform and interest you in all things food.
Here are 19 films to satisfy your food films appetite:American Meat: “American Meat” walks viewers through the evolution of animal agriculture and highlights alternative animal husbandry systems that protect the environment and animal welfare. The film features farmer and advocate Joel Salatin, who uses sustainable land management methods, such as rotational grazing, and emphasizes the importance of supporting one’s local foodshed. The film also highlights stories from other farmers nationwide who are raising cows, pigs, and chickens in environmentally sustainable and humane ways.
Dive! The Film: In “Dive! The Film,” Director Jeremy Seifert and his friends highlight food waste in America by dumpster diving in various grocery stores around Los Angeles. Every American wastes around 20 pounds of food every month, costing U.S. consumers an estimated US$165 billion each year, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. The narrators evidence these facts by finding massive amounts of edible food in the dumpsters and confront store managers on their food donation policies. This multi-award winning documentary not only reveals the wasteful practices of grocery stores but also urges individual consumers to change their habits by offering advice and practical home solutions to reduce household waste.
The Empire of Scents: The inventive documentary “Empire of Scents” highlights the power of our sense of smell—how it affects, directs, and triggers our emotional lives. Director Kim Nguyen, nominated at the 2013 Oscars for “War Witch,” takes viewers on a visually impressive journey across five countries that inspires viewers to question how much they really know about one of the most basic human senses.
Farmageddon: “Farmageddon” takes an alarming look into excessive government oversight of American food producers. Director Kristin Canty reveals stories of government harassment and outsized force against small, independent farms that were coerced into stopping production. Canty, a mother of four, tells the story of her struggle to find the foods of her choice, such as raw milk, from the producers she wanted. In an interview about her film, Canty says, “I hope that we can come to realize that America’s farms, farmers, and homesteaders deserve a place here, and should not be under attack by our own government.”
Food Chains: “Food Chains,” produced by actress Eva Longoria and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, reveals the plight of farmworkers, the foundation of our food industry. Filmmakers follow a group of Florida tomato pickers in their quest for a more dignified work life through the Fair Food Program. The program brings growers and retailers together to improve farmworker working conditions. “The goal is to address human rights and labor rights that exist in the fields. The creation of the program comes directly from the participation of the workers in the program and the ideas of our community. That’s what we call worker-led social responsibility,” says farmworker and organizer Gerardo Chavez.
Food, Inc.: In “Food, Inc.,” filmmaker Robert Kenner details how the growth of industrial farming and the political power of major food companies have put human health, the independent farmer, farmworkers, and our environment at risk. The film is widely recognized as one of the most influential documentaries ever made and was nominated for Best Documentary in the 2009 Academy Awards. Despite its dire overview of the current food system, “Food, Inc.” inspires viewers to do their part in changing the food system. “You have to understand that we farmers…we’re gonna deliver to the marketplace what the marketplace demands…People have got to start demanding good, wholesome food of us, and we’ll deliver; I promise you,” says Troy Roush, an Indianan farmer featured in the film.
FRESH: “FRESH,” released in 2009, celebrates farmers, researchers, and activists who are reinventing the food system by developing innovative methods to grow food sustainably. By using unconventional farming practices, these agricultural pioneers hope to address food contamination, environmental pollution, natural resource depletion, and the growing obesity problem. Profiled characters include Will Allen, who converted acres of industrial wasteland into productive farmland in Milwaukee, and David Ball, who started a cooperative of local farmers in Kansas City to provide an alternative to the traditional supermarket.
The Future of Food: “The Future of Food” was written and directed by Deborah Koons Garcia and focuses on the social, economic, and environmental impacts of the proliferation of genetically engineered foods. Viewers see the issue from the perspective of small farmers, who are held legally responsible when genetically engineered, patented seeds spread into their fields. The documentary also criticizes the imbalance of power between international food companies and local farmers and the ecological harm of industrial agriculture practices, such as monoculture farming. The New York Times calls the firm a “sober, far-reaching polemic against genetically modified foods.” Since the release of the film in 2004, the GMO-labeling debate has intensified, making this film even more relevant for viewers today.
The Garden: This 2009 Oscar-nominated documentary tells the story of South Central Farm—a 14-acre community garden in South Central Los Angeles that had been gardened for more than a decade by primarily immigrant, Latino families. The land was entrusted to the community as part of a healing effort after the 1992 Rodney King Riots. However, when the land was sold back to its original owner in 2003 by the city, the farmers were forced off the land. The Garden highlights how the farmers, along with their civil rights attorney and other activists, fought hard against the complex Los Angeles politics to keep their garden—critical to their way of life—and protect their community.
The Gleaners & I: French documentary director Agnès Varda’s 2000 film gives viewers a glimpse into the lives of gleaners. Varda interviews people who scavenge for food in the fields and orchards of the French countryside as well as those who search for leftover items from urban markets and dumpsters. “The Gleaners & I” encourages viewers to re-evaluate the culture of consumption, especially towards food, all while marveling at the resourcefulness of the gleaners.
Good Things Await: Director Phie Ambo’s “Good Things Await” follows Danish farmer Niels Stokholm through his battle against government bureaucrats to keep his farm, Thorshøjgaard, and preserve the Danish Red dairy cattle. Stokholm practices biodynamic farming, which is an ecological, ethical, and sustainable approach to farming and supplies some of the country’s most well-known restaurants. Unfortunately, agricultural authorities unversed in biodynamic principles threaten the very survival of Thorshøjgaard and its unique way of farming.
How to Feed the World?: This 10-minute film was created for a Bon Appétit exhibition in Paris. It describes how developed countries can address food insecurity by investing in international development and consuming more foods with lower environmental impact. Created for children ages 9 to 14, “How to Feed the World?” explores food justice, dietary insufficiencies, the economic consequences of food aid, and the idea of a new type of agriculture for feeding more people with less environmental harm.
In Defense of Food: Based on Michael Pollan’s best-selling book, “In Defense of Food” delves into Pollan’s advice to “eat food. not too much. mostly plants.” Pollan coins the term nutritionism to describe Americans’ adherence to dietary fads and critiques the American food industry’s emphasis on specific nutrients rather than whole foods. According to Pollan, “as eaters we feel whipsawed by the changes in the nutritional advice we’re getting.”
Just Eat It: In the 2014 documentary “Just Eat it,” couple Jenny Rustemeyer and Grant Baldwin pledge to eat only food that would otherwise be thrown away for a period of six months—an effort to better understand the depth of the food waste problem. The amount of food the couple finds is shocking and encourages viewers to rethink their food behavior, especially around issues such as expiration dates and the aesthetics of produce. In an interview with National Public Radio, Rustemeyer says, “There’s a lot that we as individuals can do. It’s not like other environmental and social issues, where it’s a systemic problem that we don’t play a part in.”
A Place at the Table: “A Place at the Table” is a moving documentary chronicling the challenges of the food insecure in America. The stories highlight the economic and social implications of hunger in a country where nearly 50 million people suffer from food insecurity. The film, produced by Magnolia Pictures, takes us into the lives of a single mother trying to provide for her kids, a fifth grader who depends on her neighbors to feed her, and a second grader whose health issues are exacerbated by her poor diet.
The Singhampton Project: This 60-minute documentary follows German-Canadian farm-to-table chefs Michael and Nobuyo Stadtländer and a French landscape artist as they create seven gardens in which they grow, cook, and serve seven-course meals for hundreds of people every night for 20 nights. The chefs use traditional growing methods and irrigate only by hand. Director Jonathon Staav says of Stadtländer, “He’s just this connection to our past where the things he does aren’t that different from what our grandmothers did when they emigrated here. They had a vegetable garden, and in the summer, that’s where produce came from,” in a Hollywood Reporter article.
Somm: This 2013 documentary, directed by Jason Wise, gives viewers a fascinating look into the secretive world of the Court of Master Sommeliers. Four candidates prepare to take the Master Sommelier Exam, a test so difficult that fewer than 200 candidates have attained Master level since its inception nearly 40 years ago. A follow-up documentary, “Somm: Into the Bottle,” was released at the Napa Valley Film Festival in 2015.
Unbroken Ground: According to the 2016 film “Unbroken Ground,” climate change and food systems are inextricably linked. This 25-minute documentary, produced by Patagonia Provisions, tells the story of leaders across the country using sustainable farming techniques that restore our natural environment, including regenerative agriculture, regenerative grazing, diversified crop development, and restorative fishing. “Unbroken Ground” is now touring the country, with showings and panel discussions from New York to Hawaii.
We Feed the World: In the 2005 documentary “We Feed the World,” Austrian filmmaker Erwin Wagenhofer travels to find out where exactly his food comes from. Wagenhofer takes viewers to France, Spain, Romania, Switzerland, and Brazil while presenting the ironies of the world’s food systems. For example, Latin America produces much of Austria’s livestock feed, while a quarter of their own population starves. The film features interviews with Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, and Peter Brabeck, Chairman and CEO of Nestle International. “We Feed the World” illustrates the effects of globalization and industrial food production on the world’s food systems and highlights the global repercussions of hunger.
Food Tank would like to give a big shout out to the Toronto International Film Festival, which has featured some of the films mentioned above.
(Danielle Nierenberg is the President, Food Tank, foodtank.com)