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Laurie David

Our food system is failing us — and Laurie David is fed up

Laurie David, the producer behind the Academy Award-winning documentary on climate change, “An Inconvenient Truth,” has set her sights on what she sees as another major problem of our time: the American food system. Her new documentary, “Fed Up,” which opens on May 9, explores the conundrum of how obesity rates in the country have doubled over the past 30 years, while interest in fitness reached an all-time high and supermarket shelves are bulging with fat-free products. “We’re in this food fog that we have to come out of,” says David. “I hope the movie is going to be a catalyst to that conversation.” The film, narrated and produced by Katie Couric and directed by Stephanie Soechtig, dives into the world of processed foods, diet, and exercise. It also tells the stories of several teens and adolescents who face serious health problems as a result of their weight.

David, 56, who lives in Los Angeles and owns a farm on Martha’s Vineyard, has had a lifelong interest in food. She is the author of two cookbooks, including the recent “The Family Cooks.” She sees cooking at home as the solution to many problems in her film. “My line is: cook or be cooked,” David says.

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Q. Why have processed foods and takeout dinners become the norm?

A. We’ve been hammered to death by marketing to think that cooking is hard. It’s no fun. It’s drudgery. It’s a chore. All those things aren’t true. Half of what everybody is eating is takeout or eaten outside of the house. We’re outsourcing one of the most important things we can be doing and we’re paying a price for that.

Q. How did the film come about?

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A. I got an e-mail out of the blue from Katie Couric. She basically said, “I’ve been working on the issues of food and diet for 30 years and I’m completely baffled as to why the problem keeps getting worse.” She asked, “Would you consider doing ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ on food with me?” A week later I’m in her apartment in New York City with the director Stephanie Soechtig. We’re sitting on the floor and mapping out the storyboards for “Fed Up.”

Q. What did you discover about diet and fitness that you didn’t know?

‘We’ve been hammered to death by marketing to think that cooking is hard. It’s no fun. It’s drudgery. . . . We’re outsourcing one of the most important things we can be doing and we’re paying a price for that.’

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A. One of the myths that this movie busts big time is that our weight gain is an exercise problem. It’s not true. There are not enough hours in the day to exercise off the amount of sugar and salt and fat that we are consuming. It’s a diversion to keep people from looking at the food. One of the food industry’s favorite lines is: It’s your fault that you’re fat. You’re not exercising enough.

Q. Where is all the sugar and fat coming from?

A. Sugar is hidden. If you’re eating cupcakes and doughnuts you probably have an idea that you’re consuming a lot of sugar. But when you’re buying salad dressing and spaghetti sauce and healthy granola bars, you don’t really have a clue how much sugar is in that. Another way sugar is hidden is that there are so many names for it. If a parent is looking at a nutrition label and they see dextrose, they don’t necessarily know that’s sugar.

Q. The film takes food corporations to task for how they formulate and market products. Could you explain this?

A. When they made all these low-fat items, they poured in the sugar. It’s not true that all calories are the same. If you’re going to drink soda or eat almonds, the example we use in the movie, those calories are not the same. The almonds are going to give you so many sources of nutrition. And it’s not fair that people are given this lie and are struggling so. We need to be more suspicious of all these products. We think that when someone’s making a product and selling it that they have our best interests at heart. But they don’t. And we need to protect kids from that as well.

Q. How is obesity affecting kids like the ones in the film?

A. The statistic is that they’re going to lead a shorter lifespan than their parents. That is unheard of. Every generation is supposed to be better, healthier, and more affluent. Kids are dealing with such serious illnesses so young and here’s the thing — it’s all preventable.

Q. Do you see any signs of hope that things will improve?

A. Working on the issue of global warming is not necessarily a place of optimism. I do feel very optimistic with this movie. We can shift this. Once in a while something can come along like a good documentary that can be a triggering moment. There’s been a lot happening over the past 10 years — the whole awareness of organics, farm to table, sustainable agriculture, a lot of the stuff Michelle Obama is doing. I’m optimistic that the food and beverage industries are going to have to respond to this movie.

Michael Floreak can be reached at michaelfloreak@gmail.com.
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