‘At the Fork’ Documentary Will Change The Way You Eat, But Not In The Way You Think

In the world of mass marketing and rapid-paced consumerism, there has been food doc after food doc showing us what we’re really eating these days. To me these films can come off preachy. As an food-obsessed Italian and self-admitted meat-lover, I never watched, nor had the desire to. I knew what’s been happening to get food on America’s plates is harmful to the animals—and our bodies. And while I like animals, I love a good Shake Shack burger so much more.

It wasn’t until a refreshing new documentary At the Fork came along, which doesn’t police eating habits or praise one belief over the other, that I was really paying attention. It comes from filmmaker John Papola, whose curiosity takes him on a journey to learn about these processes from an honest point of view, one I know I could relate to. Through his lenses — which don’t judge people based on whether or not they eat meat — viewers, in my opinion, will get an unexpected education and realize that we affect food that’s being sold just as much as it affects us.

Papola’s journey mostly started with his wife, Lisa, who can’t bear the thought of how animals on farms are treated. She’s also a vegetarian. But this story doesn’t only show the perks of being vegetarian.

Papola says his goal in observing what really happens on America’s farms was not to play up stigmas, but to diminish them. “Get people’s consciousness raised without trying to push the same old, white hat, black hat, good guy, bad guy tropes that I think are a lot easier for people to get their head around,” he says. Even though the story comes from his point of view, he admits, “It’s not really about me. There’s a lot of gradiation that’s not even discussed, it’s binary in that way. That, to me, is where our movie is trying to raise awareness,” he explains.

Yes, similar to other docs, this one shows the brutalities that animals, from chickens to pigs and cows, endure: horrendous living environments, little chances to actually live life, artificial insemination — all of those terrible elements consumers shouldn't deny. Papola witnessed the process of a cow being slaughtered, and found it, “very upsetting.” Watching what pigs go through is up there, too. “I have not eaten any pork products since. Pigs are just so smart and sophisticated and I can’t bring myself to do it,” he says.

That said, Papola won’t deny that he’s consumed animal products a few times since the filming process ended. “I eat cheese, I’ve had a hamburger,” he says. “Change is hard.” What I appreciate about Papola is that he doesn’t sugarcoat the daily pressures and tensions of trying to eliminate meat products from his diet entirely. When I ask if he feels this from family and friends, he responds, “Oh, very much.” He says people accuse him for attempting to change his habits because of his wife. And by people, he mostly means his Italian family, who thinks this is all “just weirdo stuff.” But in addition to getting pressure from his family members, he also felt it from an unexpected source.

“Coming from an Italian family… There’s a lot of self-imposed pressure. It’s like you’re with the whole family, they’re all enjoying this thing, you’ve always enjoyed it. Even if you’ve come to sort of think of it in a certain way, you still want to be part of the family tradition,” he says. “You wanna participate. It’s not that they’re imposing that on you, it’s just something you feel, you want to be part of your family, you love your family.” He also jokes (semi-seriously) that when he visits his wife’s parents, they’ll sneak him bacon under the dinner table.

But now comes the big question: How the hell do we even know what we should be buying? Between all the labels — cage-free, all-natural, etc. — I know I’m confused as hell. There is good news and bad news. The good news is, there are third parties, like USDA Organic, which help monitor what’s happening on farms in terms of cleanliness and animal welfare to give us some guidance. The bad news is, they are flawed. According to Papola, “It’s not about the companies being big or small.” The notion that big companies are bad and small farms are good is a complex we have that is not entirely true.

“That is a narrative. It omits a lot of the reality, in my opinion,” says Papola. In fact, some of the smaller farms can actually be worse for animals. “There’s so many practices all along the way and the smallest farms don’t have the money to have trained staffer equipment that can be regular maintained. [There are] horrendous small organic farms. And really well-maintained large-scale farms,” he says.

I’m starting to feel like I can’t win. Although big farms are bad in ways and small farms are bad in others, my biggest takeaway was that we affect what they’re doing. “I’m very reluctant to judge any of those people,” Papola explains. “I think they all try to react to the marketplace and what consumers are asking them to do, what consumers are willing to pay for. And that’s just a tough environment, it’s just what it is.”

So, if I go to the grocery store and by cage-free eggs, it’s a step up. It may be two or three dollars more than the grocery store or gas station brand, but I’m getting certainty that those eggs came from healthier chickens and am also helping support the systems which those eggs come from. “It takes that change, that internal feeling, ‘I feel good about this, I’m willing to pay a little more’ so that a farmer has the resources to let those [animals] have room to move, because allowing them to move will allow fewer [animals] on a given area of land,” Papola says.

Because trust me when I say, you get what you pay for, and things could get nasty out there. “There are about a thousand opportunities for things to get ugly looking. Every hour. It’s a very messy business,” says Papola. “They’re gonna get sick, and when they get sick, they really look awful. You may be the best farmer in the world and you still may have an animal with a horrible infection.”

Ew.

At the end of the day, the lesson here is not that eating meat is bad, or that big companies are bad. It’s to be a little bit more conscience to understand that what you purchase affects what’s coming out on grocery store shelves. After everything he’s seen, Papola still doesn’t think it’s fair to shame people who continue to want to consume animal products, meat especially:

I don’t think that’s a fair way to approach such a complicated thing. Your choices still matter, they still have an impact. Depending on what your choice is. If you’re buying the cheapest, two dollar eggs, you are choosing to support a system where 6-8 hens live their entire lives in a cage that is basically the size of a large mailbox. You can spend an extra buck or two and now those animals get to move around and live a better life. That matters. Some people say it doesn’t because we kill them in the end, but we all die in the end. How we live while we’re alive matters.

In closing, Papola admits he’s on a “slippery slope” to banishing meat from his diet altogether; thinking about pigs who live freely verses how pigs in gustation stalls live still makes him “emotional.” Still, he won’t ignore that eating meat is a natural part of our existence. “We are a unique creature. Because of these giant brains of ours, we create all these moral concepts,” he says. “I understand why it happens and I understand that it wasn’t some conspiracy. People just want to eat meat.”

His outlook now? To each their own. As long as people are educated and know that what they’re buying is supporting one system or another. “Look, I’m not going out there judging the choices people make, because this is really difficult,” he says. “We’ve all been eating meat, that’s a reality. Systems do pose interesting, moral challenges. And all of this is in a world of tradeoffs.”

I'm pretty mind-blown by this whole thing, I know I’ll still eat eggs, chicken, and meat. But I may read the labels — as confusing as they are — a little bit closer. And that’s all Papola hopes for with this whole initiative. “I can respect the people who are vegans who say there’s a clear line that’s life. It’s a very pro-life framework. I think if you make a choice that reduces harm, that’s a good thing,” he explains. “You just have to do that one small step at a time. I think that’s a pretty good way to go. That’s as judgmental as I’m prepared to get.”

If I pay an extra few bucks here and there to know that animals will live a better life, and (selfishly) I’m eating a healthier product, I’m more than fine with that. Even on a 20something’s budget.

Images: Emergent Order (9)