“I thought this class was going to be about the environment, but we keep talking about illegal immigrant workers.” is a statement one of my students years ago made in my environmental sociology class. The social inequality we see in a society is reflected in and reproduced by the the maltreatment of the environment. This is the foundational idea I want my students in environmental sociology to learn. However, drawing the connection between the two can at times seem counter intuitive to students.

I love the film Food, Inc. because it addresses how intertwined our social realities are to our environmental realities. The video pairs the exploitation of low level workers in the food industry with the tragic conditions animals are raised and slaughtered in. At one point in the film someone says that corporate food producers treat workers exactly like the treat their animals. Both will be gone soon, so it just easier to design the system to acquire them quickly, use them up, and discard them.

We see in the film how large food corporations use their power to shape the government regulations that are supposed to oversee their industry and protect consumers. Students learn that in some states legislation has been proposed that would make it a felony to snap a photo of a industrial food operation and how in all states its a crime to speak out against food producers under the “veggie-libel laws”. This film is perfect for any class that discusses Mills’s The Power Elite or anything from Marx.

While the film paints a grave picture of our current food situation in America, it’s not doom & gloom. Throughout the film I found myself thinking, “why are we producing food like this? This makes no sense.” I’ve yet to have a class where students were perplexed by the rampant irrationality of rationality on display in the entire industrial food production system. The film closes with actions that people can take and tells the viewer, “You have a vote on this system three times each day”. More than any issue I present in my environmental sociology class my students really seem motivated and confident they can affect a change. In particular students agreed with the CEO of Stonyfield Farm Organics who says in the film, consumers have far more sway on what grocers sell than they may perceive.

I created a viewing guide for my students to fill out as they watch the film (download it here) and a short writing assignment that focuses on the connection between the social and natural worlds (grab it here). Food, Inc is available on Netflix streaming for free and should mandatory viewing for all sociologists.