Fresh: the Movie (Review)

Will Allen teaches about vermiculture, as featured in the Fresh documentary

I recently found an opportunity to watch Fresh, the real-food whole-food farm-revolution documentary. It follows Food, Inc.’s footsteps to clamor poignantly for a better food system. Fresh is a good introduction to some of the core food revolution issues, especially for newcomers to the movement. It’s also an extremely omnivore-friendly film; indeed, in my veganist opinion, animal-farming enthusiasts are overrepresented. However, if you’re new to the real food movement — perhaps just starting to explore idea of ditching the standard American (factory farmed) diet — Fresh is well worth watching.

Cast of Characters (Spoiler Alert: Will Allen Rocks!)

Michael Pollan and Joel Salatin play large roles in the film. Michael Pollan does what he does best, plainly but eloquently summarizing the problems caused by a corporate food system disconnected from nature and from our communities. Joel Salatin does what he does best, waxing poetic about the joys of traditional versus industrial animal farming. Fresh also features the voices and perspectives of Russ Kremer (industrial-turned-traditional hog farmer); David Ball (coordinator of a farm-centered grocery project); Andrew Kimbrell (founder of the Center for Food Safety); and others advocating change within our modern industrialized food system.

But for me the highlight of watching Fresh was learning more about Will Allen and his urban agriculture project, Growing Power. Pollan and Salatin may be more familiar to mainstream viewers, but Allen is a powerful food-revolutionary voice and role model. If you’re unfamiliar with Allen’s work, here’s how the Fresh website describes him:

The son of southern sharecroppers, Will Allen always believed that everyone should have access to fresh, healthy food. Today, he lives his dream growing amazing products on a 3-acre lot in the middle of urban Milwaukee. By converting a million pounds of waste into energy via composting, Will also leads the way in visualizing zero-waste cities.

6 ft 7″ former professional basketball player Will Allen is now one of the most influential leaders of the food security & urban farming movement.  His farm and not-for-profit, Growing Power, have trained and inspired people in every corner of the US to start growing food sustainably. This man and his organization go beyond growing food.  They provide a platform for people to share knowledge and form relationships in order to develop alternatives to the industrial food system.

The documentary takes viewers on a tour of the Growing Power greenhouse, an urban organic aquaponic farm that strives to optimize vertical space, uses no herbicides or pesticides, and loves worms.


Allen’s passion for real food and sustainable farming — and for sharing that vision with his community — is truly inspiring.

Graphics and Selective Omissions

Fresh contains a few images that could be mildly uncomfortable viewing, for people unfamiliar with industrial animal agriculture: boxes full of baby chicks being dumped roughly into crowded pens; feedlots with wall-to-wall poop-standing cows; desperately miserable battery hens; and video of carcass-processing at a pooultry plant. But it’s pretty mild stuff, relative to the full range of violence and cruelty that goes on continually behind closed doors at the animal factories under discussion. There’s nothing that aims for a ‘gross out’ effect, or (in my opinion) that’s unpleasant enough to prompt an average viewer to stop watching.

Other images may be disturbing to advocates of non-animal-eating, based on what Fresh producers chose to omit. Fully committed to the cognitive-dissonance-riddled concept of ‘happy meat,’ producers were careful not to use any small-farm animal images portraying anything other than frolicking bliss. Unlike Food, Inc., in which slaughter scenes were included to paint a complete picture of the reality of animal agriculture even on small-scale sustainable farms, Fresh preferred to gloss over that part of the process.

Blissful newborn suckling pigs; playful hogs, romping in the grass; then pork chops. The unpleasant bits of animal farming — except in footage of factory farms — were conveniently omitted from the documentary, in order to keep things nice and pretty.

Glamorization of the process by which living things become ‘cutlets’ or ‘chops’ or ‘tenders’ deserves no place in a food revolution.

Farmed animals generally experience a higher quality of life on traditional versus industrial farms. Traditional farms build better soil for growing nutritious crops, compared to industrial monocropping with its heavy use of harsh chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Traditional small-scale farming is better for farmers and farm workers, and creates far less pollution. All these are good and valid reasons to support small local farms, whatever kind of food you eat.

But if we’re talking about animal agriculture in the context of conscious eating, why pretend that violence and killing do not occur? If viewers are uncomfortable with that reality, isn’t that a good opportunity to expand the conversation about food ethics and farming? If we’re talking about the best use of our arable land, why not at least explore the idea of supporting local organic small-scale growers of plant food for humans, rather than focusing almost exclusively on nonindustrial animal farms?

To thoroughly address the issues at hand, should we not, in short, go there?

I don’t expect every food revolutionary to arrive at my same conclusions; we don’t have to agree on every detail, to be generally on the same side (i.e. in favor moving away from what we’ve been doing, towards something better). But if the goal is healthy, sustainable, ethical eating, why gloss things over? If the point of the movie is to encourage people to take a good hard look at their food choices, I say let’s go there full throttle.

However: Fresh Shines Light on Industrial Farming Problems, Advocates Positive Change

Despite what I find to be unrealistic glamorization of ‘happy meat’ farming, Fresh introduces viewers to many of the problems intrinsic to industrial agriculture — like food deserts, pollution, animal cruelty, food insecurity, antibiotic resistance, unsustainability, subsidies supporting unhealthy food, and farmer exploitation — and offers some possible solutions.

Positive change only comes through knowledge. So I do recommend this documentary to budding ecovores, or anyone interested in learning more about all the reasons why food choices matter. Just don’t stop there! Follow it up with other food revolution media, and don’t settle for only one vision of possible change.

In the tradition of Food Inc. or King Corn, Fresh drives home the reality that our corporate industrial cheap-corn processed-food based system has become a monster, and that we have the power to tame it — just by changing what we put on our plates. Fresh is currently available in DVD format or instant streaming, through both Netflix and Amazon.

Image credit: Creative Commons photo by mjmonty.

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