In Defense of Food: A Look Behind the Scenes of the New Michael Pollan Film

michael pollan and michal schwarz in defense of food

Michael Pollan (right) with director Michael Schwarz and cameraman John Chater in the green room.

Roy Eisenhardt

It’s been a few years since Food, Inc. came out and author Michael Pollan last graced the big screen. On Wednesday December 30, Americans will again be privy to Pollan’s wisdom—this time about eating, more than farming—when PBS airs In Defense of Food, a documentary film based on Pollan’s book of the same name.

This week Modern Farmer got a sneak preview of the film and spoke with the director, Michael Schwarz, about his process of adapting the book into a visual journey—and about some of the scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

Modern Farmer: The tagline of Pollan’s book In Defense of Food is “An Eater’s Manifesto.” For those that haven’t read it, what’s the basic premise?

Michael Schwarz: People are very confused about what to eat to be healthy. A lot of that has to do with being bombarded by different messages constantly about what’s healthy and what’s not. Every day there’s a new headline, a new finding, and many of them are contradictory. People feel kind of lost. In Defense of Food offers a very simple antidote to that confusion, which is this idea that you don’t need to worry so much, that you can cut through all these conflicting messages. What Michael did in writing the book was to find a simple approach. He found a very simple answer to the question of, What should I eat to be healthy? It boils down to these seven words: Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

MF: You’ve known Pollan for many years—tell us how you first met and started working together.

MS: Michael and I have known each other since we were fresh out of college. We spent some of our early years working together on various magazines in New York City and have been friends ever since. I’ve collaborated with him in some way for longer and more often than probably anybody else I know.

MF: One of your past projects together was a film based on Pollan’s book, The Botany of Desire. What germinated the idea of doing this film together?

MS: Food, Inc. had already come out which covered big chunks of Omnivore’s Dilemma—everything about corn was straight out of [that book], as was the Joel Salatin material. So it seemed like Omnivore had sort of been done, although not by name. It was clear that he had written In Defense of Food because people, after reading Omnivore, said: “I see how it gets to the table but what I want to know is what should I eat?” So we began talking about the possibilities of doing a documentary that explored the relationship between food and health.

There is this paradox that the more obsessed we seem to be about health, [the less] healthy we are becoming as a country.

MF: You have produced films on all sorts of subjects, many of which have nothing to do with food or farming. What drew you to this? Is there a through line with your larger body of work?

MS: We like to make films that make a difference. It just seemed like this one had clear potential to do that. There is this paradox that the more obsessed we seem to be about health, [the less] healthy we are becoming as a country. 

MF: And there is more to it than just a film, right? Tell us about the broader mission of this collaboration.

MS: The film is the centerpiece of an ambitious education effort [that] will include a curriculum designed by the Teachers College at Columbia University. It consists of 10 lesson plans for middle school students, and each lesson plan is tied to a five- or six-minute clip from the film. These are kids that are just beginning to make eating decisions on their own and so to the extent that they can begin to understand the difference between real food and what Michael calls “edible food-like substances”—or what the lesson plans referred to as p-h-u-ds—that could really be significant.

MF: The film begins and ends with a sequence involving a family and their pre-adolescent child, Anthony, who is overweight. How did you find these people? Seems like it must have been very vulnerable for a boy that age to go on camera and talk about his weight.

MS: We went to David Ludwig [a pediatrician at the Optimal Weight for Life Program at Boston Children’s Hospital] to find people who would be willing to be filmed—which is tough when you’re talking about children with weight issues and potential health issues. It took months of research and meeting with families to figure out who would be the best one and who would be the most willing. I think Anthony and his mom were two of the most delightful people in the film.

MF: On the other end of the age spectrum you interview a group of elderly vegetarians who seem to have incredible vitality. They happen to be Seventh Day Adventists—what was the connection there?

MS: There are some really powerful studies looking at the impact on longevity of eating a plant-based diet. Not all Seventh Day Adventists are vegetarians, but more than half are. They also don’t smoke or drink, so they eliminate a lot of risk factors there, but when you compare the vegetarians with the non-vegetarians, you see dramatic differences.

MF: You filmed that segment at a Seventh Day Adventist nursing home, or an assisted living facility of some sort, where we see a centenarian lifting weights and an elderly women who is practically running up and down the halls. Was everyone there that robust, or did you seek out the hardiest among them?

MS: There were people with walkers and wheelchairs, but the majority of people who we met were in extremely good health and had a lot of energy. The average age is about 93. I only hope I’m in half as good shape as they are mentally and physically if and when I get to that age. That was a memorable sequence. I think that made an impression on everybody was there.

MF: Not to give anything away, but one of the most compelling parts of the film takes place with a nomadic tribe in Tanzania, called the Hadza. How did you connect with these people?

MS: We wanted to shoot a sequence of hunter-gatherers, and the Hadza are one of the few people who are truly living a hunter-gatherer life. We also learned that [anthropologist] Jeff Leach, who you see in the film, would be going there to study their microbiome, to see what the human microbiome actually looked like before agriculture, and to see if it could provide some kind of baseline comparison with people who are eating a diet like what we eat in this country. Through Jeff we met someone who has known the Hadza since he was six years old, who grew up there, and now works with them to protect their land, who could be a facilitator for us.

MF: What is Hadza food culture like compared to ours?

MS:  There you have to hunt and gather every day; you don’t know where your food is coming from. You would assume that’s a very insecure way to live, but we asked [them] about this and they said, “no, no, we know that we can always get something; we don’t worry about it and we’ve never gone a day where we don’t have some kind of food.” If they can’t kill an animal, there is baobab [an African fruit], which tends to be a year-round food. Or the tubers are always there. Generally there’s a strong chance that they can find some honey, or some berries.

We try to balance our diet on a daily basis. They don’t think about that at all; they just eat what they can get on that day.

MF: What was the most striking thing you learned in your time with them?

MS: They eat a very different kind of diet. It’s not a balanced diet in the sense that we think of, where you have a certain amount of protein and carbohydrates and different kinds of foods on your plate every day. We try to balance our diet on a daily basis. They don’t think about that at all; they just eat what they can get on that day. They have no way of storing the food, no refrigeration. They share all of it. So it’s kind of on demand—sharing on demand, and eating when you get it.

MF: Did you and your crew eat with them?

MS: Generally we did not eat their food. They didn’t really have enough food to share with us, so we needed to be self-sufficient. Although when they killed the kudu, which people will see in the film, they did share some of that. It was really delicious.

MF: Did you feel the Hadza were making a conscious choice to avoid modern foods and lifestyle, or are they really so remote that they just don’t have much contact with the outside world?

MS: They are very remote. There are hardly any roads so the last hour or two was driving just over savanna. We couldn’t see any obvious road or even tracks. There are several thousand Hadza, but only about 200 of them are still hunting and gathering and are not eating any other foods. You can see in the film that they are wearing some [modern] clothes that they’ve traded for. They have little hammers and knives and other stuff that they’ve traded, so they probably don’t have to hunt and gather if they didn’t want to. I think part of it is choice, part of it is culture. It’s how they identify themselves. It’s something they want to preserve and protect.

MF: You really went to great lengths to tell the story of food and health in all its dimensions! The Hadza segment almost feels like a separate film within the film.

MS: It was really an extraordinary experience for all of us who were there. We had to resist the impulse to go off into a long digression about the Hadza themselves because they are so interesting. The segment was about 18 minutes long, and when we put it into the film, it suddenly felt like, gosh, this is like a Nat Geo anthropology film, which was not the film that we were making! We really had to whittle it down.

MF: What parts did you have to cut?

MS: Most of the hunting and gathering they do is from five or six in the morning until eight or nine. By 9 o’clock it’s so hot that you don’t want to do anything but get in the shade under a tree somewhere. So they spend a lot of the rest of the day making arrows and bows, all of which they do from available wood. It’s an amazing thing to watch. They can take a gnarly branch that’s all twisted and bent and an hour or two later it’s this perfectly straight beautiful arrow. They do some of it with knives and some with their teeth—it’s miraculous to see what they do with the resources available to them.

With that said, they are dependent on their land and their land is being encroached on more and more by other tribes’ grazing cattle. So there are real threats to their survival, because with more encroachment on their land, the harder it will get for them to find the food that they live on. That’s not something we particularly go into in the film.

MF: We have to ask you about Michael Pollan, since he’s such a hero to so many people. Many segments of the film take place in and around his home in Berkeley—baking bread in his kitchen, harvesting from his garden, going to the farmers market. How does Michael the man stand up to the image we see on film and in his books?

MS: Michael definitely practices what he preaches. At the same time, he’s not the food police. People have the sense that he is this really finicky eater, or they’re worried what they might eat around him. But he has a normal diet. He eats meat. He has junk food snacks sometimes like the rest of us [laughs].

MF: Sounds like he has a healthy lifestyle, but he’s not neurotic about it, which is actually one of the points in In Defense of Food—everything in moderation, including moderation.

[Pollan’s] next book is going to be about [the therapeutic value of psychedelic substances]; not about food.

MS: Sometimes he has people following him around in the supermarket and they see him pull a box of cereal off the shelf and think, Oh my God! But he’s really not any different than the rest of us. I think he chooses to eat a lot of fruits and vegetables. He’ll have fish, he’ll have chicken, he’ll have steak. But I think when he eats meat, he tries to eat grass-fed meat. I hesitate to speak for Michael, but I know he prefers grass-fed beef to other kinds of beef because it’s better for the planet and often it’s coming from a local farmer. He likes to support local growers. His diet is the kind of diet that he describes in the book. The bottom line of In Defense of Food is basically to eat a wide variety of foods, don’t eat too much of anything, have a lot of fruits and vegetables, and don’t worry too much.

MF: Pollan recently wrote an article in The New Yorker about the therapeutic value of psychedelic substances. Is he moving away from the emphasis on food and farming at this point?

MS: His next book is going to be about that; not about food. He’s still very, very involved in food issues, and cares about them deeply. Michael didn’t start out as a food writer. He started out writing about a lot of other things. He’s been deeply involved in food issues since he wrote on the Omnivore’s Dilemma for obvious reasons. It was certainly a landmark book, in any sense of that word. It seemed to capture the moment. At a time when a lot of people were getting more and more concerned about the food supply, Omnivore framed and precipitated what is an ongoing discussion. He has the unique ability to make all this material very accessible. But at the moment he’s writing about something else. After that, you have to ask him—I can’t tell you [laughs]. But whatever he does, it’s going to be interesting.

Watch the In Defense of Food trailer below: 

In Defense of Food airs at 9pm on December 30 in most areas, but check local listings to confirm the time (in Albuquerque it will air on January 4 at 9pm; in Washington, DC it will air on January 25th at 9pm). After the initial showing, the film will be available for streaming for free at pbs.org, where a DVD can also be purchased. Teachers and community groups are encouraged to host screenings on the night of the broadcast—contact [email protected] to obtain accompanying educational materials.

In Defense of Food: A Look Behind the Scenes of the New Michael Pollan Film