It’s always a cause for celebration when, in between commercials for fast food and GE crops, television’s talking heads produce socially responsible commentary on our food systems. In recent years, a handful of TV journalists have used their reach and influence to speak to the public about responsible eating. Here, Ecocentric takes a look back at some of those ordinary TV personalities turned champions of the food movement.
In 2004, the late, great Peter Jennings pulled no punches with his insightful and hard-hitting five-part series How the Food Industry is Deceiving You. In it, Jennings took a critical look at how the rapid rise of obesity in America is directly connected to the unholy alliance between the food industry and our government. As just one of the many examples of underhanded dealings, Jennings points to agricultural subsidy programs and shows how the lion’s share of subsidy dollars go to produce sugars and fats. The exposé also highlights how, despite the insanely large amounts of money spent on marketing unhealthy foods (in 2002, the food industry spent $34 billion on marketing-- $12 billion of which was aimed at children), the food industry still insists that the choice is yours, and that obesity is most likely tied to people’s unwillingness to exercise (Michael F. Jacobson stops in to disprove that myth).
The series ends with a very somber Jennings looking right into the camera, comparing the food industry today with the tobacco industry 30 years ago. He claimed that by publicizing the dangers of smoking, the government successfully reduced national smoking rates. The message hits hard—at the time of filming, Jennings was dying of smoking-induced lung cancer (he passed away in 2005). He then called for the government to step up and educate the public about healthy eating.
Today, nearly seven years after Jennings' plea, there is still much to be done to divorce the partnership between Big Ag and Big Gov. The good news is that other journalists have followed in Jennings' footsteps. In 2010, Katie Couric sat down with industrial food critics former FDA Commissioner Dr. David Kessler and Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser in her report Americans and Food, which took a compelling look at antibiotic abuse in industrial meat production, genetically modified organisms, high fructose corn syrup, growth hormones in dairy cows and more.
Most recently, Oprah Winfrey brought an interesting twist to the vegan vs. omnivore conversation with an episode entitled Oprah and 378 Staffers Go Vegan: The One-Week Challenge. Along with her team of experts and staff, Oprah highlighted how important it is to be aware when it comes to food choices. The show brought to light the frightening reality that 75% of healthcare spending in the United States is still spent on chronic disease linked to diet (as Michael Pollan shared). The episode aimed to show viewers that what you're eating and where it comes from is part of maintaining a sustainable diet—but also that doing so in no way means abandoning exciting, delicious food. Investigative reporter Lisa Ling was featured and showed viewers the frightening realities of factory farms by taking her cameras on a tour of an industrial slaughterhouse. Oprah also brought on celebrity chef and New York Times best-selling author Kathy Freston to prove to viewers that a vegan diet, in addition to being healthy and good for the environment, can also be delectable. During the episode, Oprah also instituted Meatless Mondays movement at Harpo Studios. Her enthusiasm was echoed by Michael Pollan and Kathy Freston, who agree that Meatless Mondays are a fantastic way to raise awareness and make healthier choices.
It has been nearly seven years since Jennings' landmark exposé and there is still a lot of work to be done towards combating obesity and the national health crisis, but the movement to change how we eat is growing stronger by the day and we will always be thrilled to see those with influence join the fight and become committed to sparking the conversation. The voices of advocates and policy makers are growing louder, and with the success of shows like Jennings', Couric’s and Oprah’s, there is hope that millions of people have learned more about the importance of eating responsibly and sustainably, the growing influence of the local/sustainable movement and how empowering it is to know where your food comes from.