Inside D.C. entertainment

'Lunch Line' documentary: School-food exposé, or Applegate Farms advertisement?

September 22, 2010 - 03:10 PM
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lunch line documentary
People love free yogurt. (Photo: Ryan Kearney)

In the downstairs lobby of the E Street Cinema yesterday evening, shortly before a special screening of Lunch Line, a documentary about the National School Lunch Program, several dozen attendees raided a row of tables stocked with what would, for most people there, suffice for dinner. A bucket of ice cradled bottles of Whole Foods water and Honest Tea. Sweetgreen had provided parfait cups containing organic quinoa, raw kale, and feta cheese from a farm in Loudon, Va. And at the end of the row, under a freestanding umbrella, stood a man in a bowtie and clear latex gloves, serving ... hot dogs. It struck me as odd even before I'd seen the film, which, it's worth noting, opens with near-pornographic images of repulsive public school food — including hot dogs. I wasn't alone in my wonderment.

"Are those veggie dogs?" someone asked the vendor, whose apron and visor read "Applegate."

"No," he replied. "It's all grass-fed beef, so there's no mystery meat."

Applegate Farms, I noticed, was also named on the front of the recycled-cotton Lunch Line bag I'd received upon entry. Inside the bag were two cards. One challenged me to list my local officials, farmers, community leaders, and the like — I couldn't — and the other was an advertisement for Applegate featuring their slogan, "Changing the meat we eat," and which read, "Thank you for all that you do to help students across the country enjoy healthy and delicious meals at school every day!" The card went to on to list a link to Lunch Line and another to Eat to a New Beat, a website "presented by Applegate" and whose goal is to change the quality of food in the nation's public schools — to change those mystery-meat hot dogs to Applegate hot dogs, perhaps?

My suspicions about the relationship between the film and New Jersey–based Applegate were only heightened by the introductory remarks of Applegate's founder and CEO, Stephen McDonnell, who said he and the two filmmakers, Ernie Park and Michael Graziano of Uji Films, "converged on this idea of Lunch Line" — thus implying that Applegate wasn't just an advertiser, but an investor, too. Said Graziano, "We just want to thank Applegate Farms for their support on this." As you might expect, then, while watching the film I counted the minutes before McDonnell appeared as an interviewee.

To the directors' credit, I waited the full hour in vain. The film, at least on the surface — and compared with other food documentaries of recent memory — was almost too fair in its inquiry into the National School Lunch Program. Despite the grotesque images that open the film, it makes clear that solving the problem of unhealthy food in the nation's schools is no simple task. It doesn't, like a certain forthcoming documentary about public education, suggest that some people care more about children than others, but rather presents the varied perspectives of many of the people who, if the problem is to be solved, need to sit down at the same table together.

And what is the "problem," exactly? The National School Lunch Act was created in 1946 not to feed kids, but rather to absorb farm surpluses, thereby sustaining food prices. The program is not controlled by the Department of Education but rather the USDA, an agency with a vested interest in justifying its exorbitant farm subsidies — namely, for corn. Which becomes high-fructose corn syrup. Which is added to myriad foods and drinks. Which are served in our nation's schools, partly as a cost-effective way of meeting government-mandated, per-meal calorie minimums. That's one problem. Another problem: Because of those subsidies, each school meal — the food itself, not its preparation — costs the government about $1. Good luck finding organic parfait for less than four times that amount.

Or, as the case may be, organic hot dogs. Although Applegate Farms isn't mentioned in Lunch Line, there's no doubt they stand to benefit from the film's message. Mark Bishop, the deputy director of Healthy Schools Campaign, said Applegate underwrote his organization's "Cooking Up Change" competition, which was featured prominently in the film (it provided the obligatory human angle). About Applegate, he said, "They want to get their products into schools. They're a business."

McDonnell, Applegate's CEO, said he met Park and Graziano, the filmmakers, after they'd been filming in a Chicago school for a year. "They were kind of at a loss as to where to take that," he said, so he put them in touch with the head of marketing at Applegate and the executive director of Healthy Schools. The company then underwrote the film, he said. Asked whether he wants to get his food into the nation's public schools, he replied, "Our stuff is typically too expensive for the national food program."

Outside the cinema, movie-goers partook of the free yogurt provided Sweetgreen (choice of toppings: baked apples, maple granola, baked peaches, or fresh mint) while I asked Graziano about Applegate's influence on his film. "Applegate came in after the film was made," he said, adding that the company had underwritten several of Lunch Line's major-market screenings, including this one. When I mentioned what McDonnell had said otherwise, Graziano clarified that McDonnell's independent foundation, the Organic Schoolhouse Foundation (which, according to this site, was created by Gina Asoudegan, the public relations manager at Applegate), had underwritten some of the production.

"Perhaps it's a fine distinction," said Graziano. "We didn't take any money from a food corporation."

It is a fine distinction, though I'm not entirely sure there's anything nefarious about what I've uncovered. Should we hold documentaries to the same standards as the New York Times? Not if we hope to see entertaining documentaries. Perhaps a better correlation would be to alt-weeklies like the City Paper, which take strong positions, journalistically speaking, but also adhere to the ethics of the profession.

Graziano likened his film's relationship with Applegate to that between Stonyfield Farm and Food Inc. In fact, the latter is much more controversial, as Stonyfield is featured in Food Inc. — and portrayed in a universally positive light. Furthermore, the company advertised the film on its yogurt cups and website. So Lunch Line, which is advertised on Applegate's website but not its hot-dog packages, raises fewer questions, but questions nonetheless. "We have to be very careful about that," said Graziano, referring to his relationship with Applegate. But once he looked into the company, he said, "We felt really good about them. We had no problems once we got to know them."

Maybe this is what it takes to get certain documentaries made: partnering with a company whose interests intersect with the film's message. Documentaries aren't cheap, and yet their goal, oftentimes, is to foment change. And change, as everyone working to improve the National School Lunch Program knows, takes a lot of money. Switching from mystery-meat to organic hot dogs would cost millions of taxpayer dollars, but it might be worth it. Last night I ate one of those dogs, all slathered in spicy mustard, and for the first time, ever, I didn't get a stomach ache.

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