As if being a teenager isn’t crazy-making enough, consider the extra stress of being a teenager who’s obese. Listening to overweight teens in the documentary Fed Up talk about how the issues raised in the film affect them day to demoralizing day, I felt every maternal instinct in me rev into overdrive, and I’m not even a parent!
Executive producer and narrator Katie Couric traces her involvement in the film to frustration that during decades of covering news on childhood obesity, she found that no one taking a comprehensive look at the problem. Producer and director Stephanie Soechtig, who’s veg, says, “I could see government policy, marketing, and industry-funded science actually playing out in these kids’ lives.” Here, more from Soechtig.
What did you learn that surprised you most while making the film?
One of the most eye-opening things about the documentary is how the conventional wisdom—that a calorie is just a calorie, that diet and exercise will solve everything—is more of a marketing claim than a scientific one.
How has it happened that simple, basic food like fresh fruits and vegetables and whole grains have gotten the reputation for being elitist?
I’m not sure I’d say they have a reputation for being elitist as much as for being more expensive and less convenient than processed or fast foods. That misconception is the result of some very clever and deliberate marketing that started after World War II with frozen dinners, and has become such a pervasive message that we’ve come to accept it as fact. You can serve homemade black bean chili along with a simple salad and milk and feed a family of four for about $14. A fast food meal for a family of four—two big macs, a cheeseburger, and chicken nuggets with fries and sodas—would cost closer to $27.
Why do you think major food companies declined to be interviewed for the film?
I think they are afraid to have an honest conversation, because the truth about what they are doing—marketing to kids, lobbying against school lunch guidelines, etc.—doesn’t paint a pretty picture. It’s much easier for them to release a statement or try to discredit us after the film is in theaters than it is for them to sit down and talk about these issues.
With recent Supreme Court decisions overturning limits to corporate spending in politics, how can the food industry’s influence on public health policy be seriously challenged?
When there are more votes than dollars, we will see dramatic and swift change. If we unite and demand change, we could be more powerful than any corporation. But it requires all of us to hold our politicians accountable and to realize that we vote every day with our forks and our wallets. If we stop buying the things we object to, the industry will respond and reformulate. Democracy is a participatory sport, and we all need to get involved.