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School nutrition

Interview with Jennifer Mattox, founder of Faerie Films and director of school nutrition documentary "Vending Machine"

Monday, July 18, 2005 by: Jessica Fraser
Tags: School nutrition, vending machines, childrens' health

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Jessica: I'm talking with Jennifer Mattox, founder of Faerie Films and director of the upcoming documentary, "Vending Machine." Can you tell me a little bit about Faerie Films and why you launched the company?

Mattox: Faerie Films was created because I was very interested in social behavior and the transformation of people's lives. My ideas about the future are to make a difference in people's lives and especially the lives of children. I was very inspired when I saw the movie "Supersize Me." There was a portion of the movie that talked about eating at cafeterias found in schools. Prior to seeing the movie, I had thought about how terrible it is that there's so much junk food in kids' schools. Then I saw "Supersize Me" and I thought, "Wow, this is great." It talked about eating at McDonald's for 30 days, then it kind of went into a little bit about schools. But I thought that there was an opportunity to really expose what's going on with children in their school environment. So that's kind of how the impetus for Faerie Films came about.

Jessica: Can you tell me a little bit about "Vending Machine" and what the aim of the film is?

Mattox: "Vending Machine" is the first project of Faerie Films. The film is about school environments and children. It's a full-length documentary that explores the current state of well-being among our children, and it depicts society as being programmed and manipulated by greedy corporations, controlled media and corrupt politicians. It looks at how corporate advertising influences our children's food choices in and outside of school. We also look at the bad eating habits of children, and we take a look at the food industry and how it has become so industrialized, and also the toxins that are obviously apparent in foods today and the commercialization of the food industry. We take a virtual tour, or a "slaughterhouse to the mouth" look at what's going on in the food distribution system.

The movie itself it starts off looking at how we have such fast-paced lives. There are three families that the film follows 24/7. The subjects are in their teens, middle school age children and elementary school children. We follow their lives and we take a look at exactly what they're eating, 24/7, on a daily basis at home, at school, and in a play environment. We take a look at that and kind of talk about what's happening in their systems as they ingest foods and what's happening physiologically and psychologically. We have a panel of experts who are there to provide education and assistance. It's almost like an intervention that we're going to be doing on screen with these kids who have diseases and have overcome them or are trying to overcome them. These are even just regular students who don't have a condition per se, but just go about their day and don't have anything nutritious to eat. They don't realize that it's sucking cells from their brain, and that's why they're not doing very well in school.

There are a lot of interesting things that we look at from a child's perspective, but we're also looking at food-factory farming and the animal cruelty that happens there. We look at the economic burden that's being placed on society as a result of this and the huge agro-business that's going on. We also look at the social aspects of how we use food as a reward for kids.

Jessica: To find the kids for your film, I read that you had opened up a nationwide contest for them to submit in writing their experiences with food. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Mattox: The contest was to encourage kids to submit their stories about what they eat and how it affects them. We asked for stories from kids that currently have a disease and those who don't necessarily have any conditions, because we just wanted to have an idea of what's happening within their daily lives and what they're eating and why they choose to eat it. Basically what we were going to do is to take the stories that were the most inspiring, moving and insightful, and choose those to be part of our film.

Jessica: What do you think are some of the nutritional problems that are facing school kids today?

Mattox: Well, obviously the fact that there are a lot of food service contracts happening within the school system, where school administrators agree to bringing in certain fast foods and then they have to sell a certain amount; in exchange, they get a lot of money for school equipment and extracurricular programs. Obviously, that supports what's happening with the fast food aspect of what's available in schools. So that's a big issue.

Another issue is the fact that there are insufficient government school lunch programs that are subsidized. Because they're subsidized, the food quality is very low; it's mostly irradiated food -- food that's packed in boxes delivered to cafeterias where school lunch chefs don't even cook anymore. They basically open the boxes and start cooking from prepackaged foods; there's no nutritional value to this food whatsoever. It's all government surplus food. So that's another big issue.

Another is the fact that there are so many vending machines that are still accessible within schools. We've done some work to close them down at certain times during the day. For the most part, in high schools especially, kids have access to all kinds of junk foods through vending machines. So that's another issue. The fact that there's so much cutback on physical activity and PE. I remember when we used to have -- I think it was called the President's Club certificate -- that you had to work for.

Jessica: President's Fitness?

Mattox: Yes. Do you remember that?

Jessica: Yes, we used to have it when I was in school.

Mattox: It doesn't even exist today. We used to have PE every day, and we were required to work toward achieving that goal. Now, there just arenít any physical fitness goals set or any time spent -- I think they have one day a week that's required. It's maybe 20 minutes -- that's just not enough. So lack of exercise, combined with low-quality food is an issue. Another issue is that parents allow kids to walk into school with their Starbucks. They think they're going to Starbucks in the morning for themselves, but they sometimes take their kids to get vanilla bean or Starbucks cappuccinos or whatever they're called. But they're starting their day off with 56 grams of sugar in their body. And what that's doing to their mind, let alone what it's doing to their body -- it really is a crime.

Jessica: Yes, definitely.

Mattox: Thirty percent of our children are overweight or obese now. It's gotten way out of control. It's called the Generation "O" -- for Obese!

Jessica: So a lot of kids are overweight in America, but many adults are as well. Why do you focus your film on kids only?

Mattox: Well, kids are the future, and kids are the most important -- we've already lived half our lives. We now need to support our kids and create a better future for their kids. It's not that we don't want the message to go to parents or adults; it's obvious that it's absolutely for both. But the focus of the perspective -- the point of view coming from kids -- is what we're looking at, so that teens would be attracted to the film. Obviously, for teens to be attracted, we had to make it real. It had to be funny, and it had to have all the components of a good film. By incorporating all those pieces, I think we'll bridge the gap and appeal to both audiences.

I don't know if parents will necessarily see this film along with the kids, but if the kids are attracted to it and their friends see it, the parents see it as well. It's a combination of human drama, shock and awe, and all the components that come together to create a successful film. Hopefully, we can influence both audiences. We want parents to think about what they're eating and have a conscious thought about what they put in their bodies and then, in turn, set a good example for their children.

Jessica: You mentioned earlier that kids are being bombarded more or less by advertising for fast food and junk food. What messages do you think they're getting today from such advertising?

Mattox: Well, have you heard of Channel One? It's a channel that they play inside schools. I don't know if all schools have it, but some schools have access to this channel's advertising, and they actually play it for your kids. If your child is not allowed to watch TV at home or watch ads like those shown on Channel One, they're being exposed to it at school. It is really sad, because we place our children in the hands of our government when they go to school. But as far as how they're being affected, all of these commercials with Britney Spears, Michael Jordan and many celebrities support fast food choices that aren't good for you, but they set an example as if they are.

So, many billions of dollars are spent on advertising, and it's just a bombardment of ads everywhere you go. They see it in movies and when they play video games. It's everywhere. Essentially, it goes into their minds subliminally, and it stays there. Then they go and ask their parents if they can have this video game or this food or this toy or this -- whatever. And parents acquiesce, because they pretty much have been allowing their kids to just get what they want -- which is another issue that needs to be covered.

Jessica: Let's switch gears a little bit. Can you tell me a little bit more about yourself and why you ended up moving to California? I read that it was for health reasons.

Mattox: Actually, it wasn't for health reasons. I moved to California after college, and as a result of moving here I guess I just got into a healthier lifestyle. I was sick a lot when I was younger because I had a really low immune system. When I moved out here, I decided that I really needed to take my health into my own hands, so I started reading a lot about nutrition, holistic remedies and things I could do to help myself without going to a doctor and getting another antibiotic. I received enough antibiotics at the beginning of my life to last me a lifetime. So coming out here really put me on the path of health. I basically moved out here 15 years ago.

Jessica: What was your health like before you became a vegetarian?

Mattox: Oh boy -- how far back? Because when I was in college, I definitely think I had an addiction to food. I mean, we're all addicted to food in some way. I was in a sorority. I would go to my sorority house for dinner, and I would eat the whole meal and dessert there. Then I would then go back to my dorm, study, and order pizza. Then I would study some more and go out and get french fries. It must have been due to the nervous habit of studying or being bored. I had to eat all the time. We even had hamburgers that we had gotten from the cafeteria downstairs in our dorm, and we would put them in the refrigerator. I would be the one cooking up hamburgers for everyone on the floor. I was so into eating all kinds of fast food all the time. I ate a lot of meat, all the time. My grandparents were big on taking us out to dinner.

At one point, for ten days straight, I ate prime rib or filet mignon every single night. They called me the "Prime Rib Queen." That was my nickname. So I went through quite a change, giving up meat and all flesh. Basically, I am pretty much a vegan. I eat dairy products sometimes, but it's mostly no flesh. I just feel like I have a lot more energy and think clearer. I feel several benefits healthwise. I don't get sick and I havenít been to a doctor in a long time. I've actually just discontinued my insurance, so I don't have that. I just have the insurance in case something really drastic happens, in which case I'm covered.

Jessica: Back to the film for one last question. You did an interview with The OC Register -- and you said earlier in this interview as well that at the end of your film you have an intervention with the parents and the kids. What do you think you could say to them about their kids' health, and what could they do to make it better?

Mattox: What could I say to the parents in the film? It's not going to be a movie that has a preaching kind of an angle. It's more of a story from the point of view of the teens as a representation of what's going on. In some ways, they know what's going on. But when you present something in a visual manner -- in the way this story is being told -- then people say, "I get it! I see what's going on. Wow! I didn't really get it to that extent." It's showing them what's really going on so that they can say, "Oh, I really need to pay more attention to what I'm feeding my child and also what they're getting at school." This movie allows them to go into the school and look at what their child is being fed. Maybe the message is just to do that: Just go to school with them one day, take a look at what they're eating, and take the opportunity to talk to their teachers or the school administrators about making a change.

It all starts with what the government is supplying to cafeterias and what corporations are doing concerning food contracts. It has to start there so that we can influence the government and the corporations to change somehow. If there were healthy foods available in these vending machines instead of fast foods, kids would take whatever is available. So they're still going to buy the food that's in vending machines, but there's been a replacement. They take out the bad food and put in the good. Parents could just see that it's not such a daunting task. It's simply a matter of talking to your school officials, taking an active role and seeing what they're eating and what's going on. If that happens, then we've done our job as filmmakers. It's a pretty simple message: Just think about it. Here's what's actually going on; think about what you're doing and talk to your kids about it.

Jessica: I see. I want to thank you for taking the time to talk with us.

Mattox: Thank you very much.

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