October 2009 Issue

Food (and Film) for Thought (and Action)
By Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD
Today’s Dietitian
Vol. 11 No. 10 P. 66

Looking for a fresh, sexy, cutting-edge nutrition education tool that can stimulate community dialogue, personal action, and policy change? Think film.

We know entertainment media plays an important role in health education.1 Using engaging visual and auditory effects, film raises consciousness and arouses emotion, sometimes sparking meaningful debate and behavior change. Most recently, several food-focused documentary films have provided nutrition educators with provocative and effective means to reach their audiences.

For example, in 2007, Ellen Cottone, MS, RD, and Carol Byrd-Bredbenner, PhD, RD, discovered that Morgan Spurlock’s film Super Size Me could increase knowledge about the relationship between fast food and obesity and serve as a “behavior change catalyst” among college students at Rutgers University.2

Ashley Colpaart, RD, a food policy graduate student at Tufts University, uses film to “bring people to the table who may not know or understand the policies behind our food system,” explaining that “unfortunately, illiteracy is still prevalent in our population. Therefore, it’s crucial to disseminate information through alternative means.”

While working for Meals On Wheels in Texas, Colpaart showed The Meatrix in work-site wellness classes because it “deliver[ed] an important message in a nonthreatening manner. Film helps plant seeds that make people a little more conscientious about their food.”

Iowa-based dietitian Angie Tagtow, MS, RD, LD, agrees: “Documentary films such as King Corn, Super Size Me, Food Inc, and FRESH have been very effective at starting discussions about food system policies among diverse audiences.”

In January, Tagtow joined documentary filmmaker Deborah Koons Garcia at the Frozen River Film Festival in Minnesota. Garcia’s film In Good Heart: Soil and the Mystery of Fertility enabled Tagtow to better discuss the relationships among soil, food, and health. The event “laced educational messages with action steps,” she says.

Colpaart is a fan of the 2009 film FRESH for similar reasons. “It focuses on solutions and opportunities for communities and citizens to be part of the change,” she says.

Filmmaker Christopher Bedford understands the “direct connection between visualization and action.” Films are effective change agents because they “model change,” he says. When people see others doing something successfully, they learn that “if they can do it, I could do it.” That’s the power of film.

Recipe for a Successful “Film Feastival”
Take one feature or two short films, add a panel of experts, mix in film-related food, and you’ve turned an ordinary classroom into a festive educational event.

The American Dietetic Association’s Hunger and Environmental Nutrition (HEN) Dietetic Practice Group introduced the “Film Feastival” concept at the 2007 Food & Nutrition Conference & Expo (FNCE) in Philadelphia. HEN reserved space at the Reading Terminal Market, where the group married a double-feature film screening with a local, sustainable buffet. A postfilm discussion panel included Jan Weber, producer/director of As We Sow, as well as farmers and dietitians with food and agriculture expertise.

In 2008, HEN featured another smorgasbord of films on local and global water issues at Chicago’s Cultural Center, and this year, they’ll feature FRESH at the Starz Film Center in Denver.

Each year, HEN member Tagtow designs a “Play Bill,” or program summary of featured films, learning objectives, panelists’ credentials, and contacts.

Co-event coordinator Barbara Hartman, MS, RD, enjoys using film in nutrition education because of the “artistic appeal in addition to the intellectual. Films give the viewer a feeling of being entertained while learning,” she says.

Want to create your own successful Film Feastival? Here’s how:

1. Choose a topic and then select and preview related film(s) of choice.

2. Identify your audience. Whom do you want to reach and what is your objective? Think about potential stakeholders: students, university faculty, the general public, policy makers, related organizations, etc. Include media for coverage of your event.

3. Secure a location and arrange for equipment. Consider school auditoriums, theaters, community halls, libraries, churches, or campus meeting rooms. You’ll need adequate seating, a computer or DVD player, speakers, a screen, and microphones.

4. Contact the film’s producer to inquire about a public screening fee. If you are an educator using film in a classroom setting for criticism, scholarship, or research, fair use may apply. For details on the fair use of copyrighted materials, visit http://wiht.link/fair-use-guide.

5. Organize a discussion panel and allow time for audience participation.

6. Match food and beverage options with your film’s theme. For example, if you’re showing a film about fair trade, serve fair trade coffee and chocolate.

7. Find like-minded sponsors or partners to share costs and advocate for action steps.

8. Publicize your event using traditional and social media. Note advance deadlines for newspaper, library, or theater calendars.

9. Create a handout with action steps, resources, and contact information.

10. Consider a pre-post evaluation.

— Melinda Hemmelgarn, MS, RD, is a freelance writer, speaker, and radio host based in Columbia, Mo. A former Food and Society Policy Fellow, she connects the dots between food, health, and agriculture. She conducts media literacy workshops nationwide and cocoordinates HEN’s Film Feastival at ADA’s FNCE.


1. The Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. Issue brief: Entertainment education and health in the United States. Spring 2004. Available at: http://www.kff.org/entmedia/upload/Entertainment-Education-and-Health-in-the-United-States-Issue-Brief.pdf

2. Cottone E, Byrd-Bredbenner C. Knowledge and psychosocial effects of the film Super Size Me on young adults. J Am Diet Assoc. 2007;107(7):1197-1203.


Suggested films for thought and action
As We Sow (2004): Hog farming and family farm crisis in the heartland. www.aswesow.com

Birdsong & Coffee: A Wake Up Call (2007): Benefits of shade grown coffee. http://olddogdocumentaries.com/vid_bsc.html

Black Gold (2005). Farmer benefits of fair trade coffee. www.blackgoldmovie.com

Broken Limbs: Apples, Agriculture, and the New American Farmer (2004): www.brokenlimbs.org

A Community of Gardeners (2010): Explores the roles of seven gardens in Washington, D.C. www.communityofgardeners.com

Farming Was My Life: The Hidden Costs of CAFOs (2008): Four parts on YouTube. http://vids.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=vids.individual&VideoID=41484269

FLOW: For Love of Water (2008): How a handful of corporations stole our water. www.flowthefilm.com

Food, Inc. (2008): Traces the health concerns and policies behind industrial food systems. http://robertkennerfilms.com/home_return.html

FRESH (2009): Celebrates a reinvention of our food system. http://FRESHthemovie.com (KOPN interview with FRESH producer: www.kopn.org)

Fridays at the Farm (2007): Community-supported agriculture reconnects people to their food. www.coyopa.com/fridays-at-the-farm.html

The Future of Food (2004): Genetic modification, seed patents, and sustainable alternatives. www.thefutureoffood.com

Good Food (2008): Family farmers in the Pacific Northwest. www.goodfoodthemovie.org

In Good Heart: Soil and the Mystery of Fertility (2010): www.ingoodheart.com

King Corn (2007): Corn from seed to plate. Big River (2009): follow-up to King Corn that explores the ecological impact of high-intensity farming in the upper Midwest. www.kingcorn.net

• Media That Matters Film Festival: www.mediathatmattersfest.org

Ripe for Change (2006): Crossroads in agriculture. www.californiadreamseries.org/rfc.htm

Tapped (2009): The business of bottled water. www.tappedthemovie.com

THE WATER FRONT (2007): Water privatization and social justice. www.waterfrontmovie.com

What Will We Eat? (2006): Consumers and farmers create a healthy, humane food system. www.chrisbedfordfilms.com/recent.htm

What’s on Your Plate? (2009): Kids and food politics. www.aubinpictures.com/woyp/index.htm