health food

A documentary won’t make me vegan

What ‘What the Health’ misses in its promotion of plant-based diets: race and poverty.

health food

A documentary won’t make me vegan

What ‘What the Health’ misses in its promotion of plant-based diets: race and poverty.
health food

A documentary won’t make me vegan

What ‘What the Health’ misses in its promotion of plant-based diets: race and poverty.

What the Health, the latest documentary aiming to open meat-eaters’ eyes to the evils of the animal agriculture industry, ends, as many of them do, with the hopeful message that plant-based diets can save humans and our planet. But, somewhat uniquely for films in this genre, the message comes from a person of color. René Miller, a black woman living in Duplin County, North Carolina, where a nearby hog farm and the large amounts of waste it produces has threatened her health and that of her family and neighbors.

“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” Miller says with a smile, holding her young child in her arms. Her words are the period at the end of the film. Miller doesn’t identify herself as a vegan, only remarking that she stopped eating pork after seeing the destruction the industry wrought on her community. Despite that change to her diet, she still suffers from ill health effects brought on by the nearby farm.

Writer/director/producer Kip Andersen guides viewers through what is supposed to be a revelation and conversion to veganism.

Writer/director/producer Kip Andersen guides viewers through what is supposed to be a revelation and conversion to veganism.

Andersen interviews Duplin County resident René Miller about the damage a nearby a hog farm has caused in her community.

Andersen interviews Duplin County resident René Miller about the damage a nearby a hog farm has caused in her community.

Writer/director/producer Kip Andersen guides viewers through what is supposed to be a revelation and conversion to veganism.

Andersen interviews Duplin County resident René Miller about the damage a nearby a hog farm has caused in her community.

Rare Gratitude

The latest in a long line of shock-you-into-giving-up-meat-films like Cowspiracy, Food Inc., and Fat, Sick, and Nearly Dead, What the Health uses scare tactics and a bit of fat shaming to get its point across: that meat and dairy are bad for your health and the environment. In the process, however, the film’s producers end up leaving the people who most suffer from the animal agricultural industry — black, brown, and low-income communities — high and dry. Instead, it presents vegan and vegetarianism as an easily accessible, come-to-God-type choice instead of a way of eating that has been around for centuries and, through institutional racism and white supremacy, denied to low-income communities in the U.S.

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The writer, director, and main guide of the film Kip Andersen beats the comparison between animal products and cigarettes to death and relies on the slow reveal of government and food industry conspiracies to be the eye-opener a meat-eating viewer finally needs to put down the turkey leg and pick up the head of broccoli. But what he forgets is that for black/brown/low-income communities, government conspiracy against your best interests is a given, raising the question of whom films like What the Health are really for.

Issues of access, culture, and history are vastly downplayed in the film, to its detriment.

To be clear, the film does have its brief strengths — namely its acknowledgement of healthy eating as a civil rights/institutionalized racism issue and its inclusion of people of color as experts on and advocates of healthy eating, rather than just victims of the meat and dairy industries. But it also has major weaknesses: its cherry-picking of scientific studies, exaggeration of the benefits of veganism, and featuring Steve-O, inexplicably, for his take on an American Diabetes Association event that served meat.

But taken as a whole, it falls into the same trap that so many films like it do. It relies on scare tactics to present veganism as an enlightened state one comes to after proper education, as if most people don’t know the destruction that the modern animal agriculture industry causes already. The equally relevant issues of access, culture, and history are vastly downplayed in the film, to its detriment. Especially considering highlighting traditional Asian, African, and South American diets, the originators of the kind of plant-based eating that is championed today, could be more helpful to viewers, primarily viewers of color, than “revealing” that the government might not have their best interests at heart.

Color and class blindness hurt pro-vegan and vegetarian causes.

Color and class blindness hurt pro-vegan and vegetarian causes.

Truly, black/brown/low-income communities know best that the government works systematically to ensure their continued economic and social oppression. However, they are still treated as the groups most needing educating by largely rich and white animal rights activists and healthy eating advocates. Lack of access is an afterthought, and personal strength and motivation, the qualities that are implicitly used to blame marginalized people for their oppression, are touted as the key to adopting a plant-based lifestyle and, as the producers of What the Health claim, possibly curing or reversing the effects of diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer.

Better nutritional education in the U.S. across socioeconomic lines is certainly a factor in curbing unhealthy eating, something a series of revelatory documentaries can’t be expected to solve on its own. But, outside the film’s coverage is the issue of food deserts, grocery store access, and the high costs of produce at health food stores like Whole Foods. Even further outside their purview is how labor — namely the prison and migrant labor that relies on the exploitation of black and brown people — factors into supposedly cruelty-free diets and lifestyles.

On the practical side, the cost of veganism is briefly addressed in the film long enough to dismiss it as a myth. Cutting meat and dairy out of your diet will only save you money, claims Toni Okamoto of PlantBasedonaBudget.com. Other costs, she claims, can be eliminated by buying only what’s in season and opting for purchasing in bulk. Nevermind the fact that government subsidies make meat, dairy, and junk foods the cheapest sources of calories available in the U.S., that people living on low-incomes have less time to prepare healthy meals, or that poverty itself can cause major health problems.

Community farmer's markets are just one way municipalities are working to make healthy foods more accessible.

Community farmer's markets are just one way municipalities are working to make healthy foods more accessible.

What the Health makes an attempt to show people of color leading the conversation on healthy eating and adopting a plant-based diet by speaking to black and Asian doctors, professionals, and athletes. However, in presenting veganism as an enlightened, personal choice it still downplays the fact that many traditional Asian and African diets are largely plant-based anyway, and vegan and vegetarianism isn’t as much foreign to the poor in America as it is prevented by social factors like lack of access to reliable sources of healthy foods or the funds to consistently purchase them.

It’s not that films like What the Health don’t have their place in discussions about food justice. Aside from its many problems, it does have the potential to get people more interested in and curious about what they are eating and where there food comes from. But if the organizations behind “eye-opening” works like these want people to stay vegetarian and vegan long after the initial shock wears off, they may be more successful in supporting people who have already seen one of the many “don’t eat meat” shockumetaries.

For me, What the Health had the same effect that Food, Inc., PETA videos, and even Okja had before it. I felt guilty for my unsustainable dietary choices and imagined what my animal product-free life could look like before thinking, I’m not sure I can do this. Like so many other people, scaring me doesn’t make it easier to change my diet in a sustainable way. That’ll take some planning, education about options and resources, and some serious dedication and self-control — none of which I can get from a doc like What the Health.

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