They’re Trying to Kill Us is a new follow-up documentary to the 2017 film What the Health and focuses on food-justice issues through the lens of hip-hop and urban culture.
The film begins by pointing out the shocking racial disparities of chronic disease before embarking on a journey with John Lewis (Badass Vegan, VeganSmart) as he travels the country to explore why African Americans and other people of color suffer from diet-related illness at disproportionately higher rates than white Americans.
Produced by Keegan Kuhn (Cowspiracy, What the Health) and John Lewis, They’re Trying to Kill Us provokes critical discussion and thought about food justice as Lewis interviews hip-hop artists, medical experts, activists, scientists, and even animal farmers and former slaughterhouse workers about injustice in all its forms. Mercy For Animals supporters Tabitha Brown, Mýa, Kimberly Elise, Chef Babette Davis, and Dr. Milton Mills are among the many advocates who gave personal or expert accounts for the film, while NBA all-star Chris Paul and seven-time Grammy winner Billie Eilish served as executive producers.
Most notably, the film delves into topics rarely discussed by politicians or reported on by mainstream media, including nutritional racism, diet-related diseases, government corruption, environmental racism, and the exploitation of both consumers and workers in the animal agriculture industry.
Low-food-access-communities, referred to in the film as “food deserts,” are areas where residents have few to no convenient options for securing affordable fresh, healthy foods. Often lacking even one grocery store, these communities are saturated with cheap processed food, primarily available at fast-food restaurants and convenience stores. This results in poor health outcomes. But food inequality is not just a problem that stems from location. Rather, as They’re Trying to Kill Us points out, it’s deeply rooted in racism.
The link between poverty and food access has long been documented, but even when comparing communities with similar poverty rates, we see that Black and brown neighborhoods have fewer large grocery stores than white ones.
High blood pressure, stroke, and heart disease disproportionately affect Black Americans, and according to the Office of Minority Health, diabetes is 60 percent more common among Black Americans than white Americans. While the film leaves out healthcare disparities, it highlights how a poor diet and limited access to healthy food lead to higher instances of disease and death. The film provides not only scientific evidence from medical experts but personal accounts from Black Americans, including co-director Lewis, who have seen their own health improve dramatically after adopting a plant-based lifestyle.
Industrial farms are often built near low-income communities and communities of color. North Carolina is one of the clearest examples of this. In 2016, the Environmental Working Group released a collection of maps and data revealing that the environmental cost of North Carolina’s 6,500 industrial farms disproportionately affects communities of color. On nearly all pig farms in the state, pig feces and urine are stored in open-air pits and then sprayed into the air as a cheap disposal method. Often, the waste lands on nearby residents’ homes and land.
In the film, residents describe the negative effects the pervasive odors have on their living conditions. People living near factory farms often suffer groundwater and air pollution, including contamination by pathogens, and the psychological effects of prolonged exposure to the stench of waste.
In They’re Trying to Kill Us, pig farmer Tom Butler invites filmmakers onto his property to help expose the devastating environmental effects that factory farming has on communities and the lack of government oversight to protect residents. After decades of trying to reduce the environmental impact of his pig farm, Butler has reached out to Mercy For Animals and is participating in our Transfarmation program. He and his son plan to get out of the pig farming business altogether and switch to growing mushrooms and other crops with help from the program.
Countless farmers like Butler wish to get out of the business of raising animals for food but have limited resources to do so and are taken advantage of by the meat industry. The same goes for slaughterhouse and processing-plant workers—many of whom are people of color or from lower-income families. According to the Center for Economic and Policy Research, more than half of all workers in the animal slaughtering and processing industry are people of color (34.9 percent are Hispanic, and 22.5 percent are Black).
The meat, egg, and dairy industries’ exploitation of workers drew public attention at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. And a new report reveals that COVID-19 cases and deaths at U.S. meatpacking plants are up to three times higher than previously estimated. Fifty percent of workers at Tyson’s beef plant in Amarillo, Texas, and JBS’s beef plant in Hyrum, Utah, contracted the virus in large part because major meat companies have failed to protect their workers.
What You Can Do
As They’re Trying to Kill Us warns, industries may profit from keeping us all sick, but nutritional and environmental racism especially target communities of color. We can all take a stand against injustice and build a healthier future for all by choosing not to support the industries that exploit people of color and by choosing more plant-based foods.