Behind the Meatrix

Have you stepped inside the Meatrix? Over 23 million people worldwide have gone to to view the award-winning short film The Meatrix and its sequel, The Meatrix II: Revolting. The animated films educate viewers about the hazards and health risks associated with factory farming and industrial dairy farms by combining pop culture parody with a behind-the-scenes look at how conventional meat and dairy products are produced in the US. The nonprofit Sustainable Table produced the films; senior program director Diane Hatz takes us inside the Meatrix.

What is Sustainable Table?

Sustainable Table raises awareness and educates people about factory farming. In 2001, I headed up the Factory Farming project, in which a group of consultants go into rural communities around the country and help people who are having problems with factory farms or who don’t want a factory farm to move into their community. I did that for a year and then in 2002 came up with Sustainable Table. The first project was the Eatwell Guide, an online directory of places that use sustainable meat. You put in your zip code and get listings in your area.

Sustainable Table came about because I was looking for a definition of genetic engineering. I went online and realized that every web site that worked on genetic engineering assumed that the reader already knew what genetic engineering was. I found that frustrating and thought, “I don’t want that to happen with industrial agriculture and factory farming. I really want people to understand the issues, but I don’t want people to be overwhelmed and depressed and think the world’s coming to an end.” I believe you have to offer solutions if you’re going to state a problem. So that’s how Sustainable Table got started. I wanted to make it as engaging and as entertaining as possible, which the Meatrix does perfectly. If you look at—that’s our consultant site—it can be overwhelming and depressing. A lot of people turn off or can’t take it in, and I’m one of them. That’s why Sustainable Table is trying to be positive. Look at what’s happening—the buy local movement, the sustainable farming movement—there’s so much happening on the positive side that wasn’t getting the focus it should.

How was Sustainable Table awarded the grant for the Meatrix?

In January 2003 we got an invite from Free Range Graphics. The company held a contest. All different types of nonprofits submitted ideas for an educational flash animation film. Over 50 organizations applied, and Free Range chose us. One of the reasons they chose us is because we offered a solution to the problem. When we won the award, we sent Free Range a lot of info about factory farming, and they sat down and had a meeting and said, “Oh my God, it’s just like the Matrix.” The release was slated for November 2003. We found out a couple months into it that the third Matrix film was releasing three days after us, so that worked because we got mentions in E! online and papers that wouldn’t cover us otherwise. We were told by Free Range that if 10,000 people watched it, it would be considered a success. We had 10,000 people in two days.

How many people have seen the Meatrix?

I can’t give an accurate count because so many people have seen it off-line—we heavily promote it off-line now—but I know it’s over 10 million online. Because of Meatrix II releasing, the first Meatrix stats have gone up. Last month over a half million people watched the film. For a movie that’s over two and half years old, that is phenomenal. It took off like wildfire, and we were not prepared. We didn’t know about DVDs, off-line copies&. I thought it would be a three-month campaign and it would promote the Eatwell guide, and then we’d go back to work.

Have people linked the Eatwell guide and Sustainable Table with the Meatrix?

The Meatrix has taken the spotlight. We need to rebrand. People on Sustainable Table didn’t realize we had the Eatwell guide. We have links, but we weren’t being obvious enough, so we’re redesigning.

Where is it all going?

The only place it can go is buy local, eat as seasonal as possible, and it’s all about redeveloping community, people coming back together. The bottom line is, people in their own areas should be making food and selling it. I’m not saying stop drinking coffee, but if you’re getting a tomato and it’s August, don’t get it from Chile, get it from someone’s garden in your community. I don’t want to preach to the converted, so we are trying to get to people who may have heard about mad cow disease or factory farming, but they don’t know a lot. We did a very informal survey on our web site, and it seems that most people who come to the site know a little about the issue, but they are coming to learn more, which is a really positive sign.

How do people hear about Sustainable Table?

Going through our web stats of the top five keyword searches, Sustainable Table was one. If people Google “sustainable food,” our site comes up. Once that happens, it starts to snowball. The whole point of what we’re trying to do is make it accessible, easy to understand, and non-threatening.

Tell me about the sequel.

About a year ago we decided to do a sequel because we wanted a trilogy. Dairy is a really big issue that people do not realize is a problem. Meatrix II came out on March 30, and it deals with issues surrounding dairy farms. With computer technology, things have changed so much in the last two and a half years. We’re starting off-line immediately. We’re not even looking at web hits like we did with The Meatrix. We’re gearing up to get to educators and community leaders, stores, house parties, to show it. We’re trying to do a real grassroots off-line effort to get the film out. People have been asking about Meatrix III, and we don’t think we’re going to do a film, but we want something a bit more interactive, something that will involve and create community. We want to be what we say in the world, so we’re trying to be sustainable. To me, community is an intricately involved part of the sustainability movement.

Where are you based?

We’re in New York. We work with and have consultants that work on our projects. They’re farmers. But we don’t have chapters, and we’re not a membership-based organization. A lot of what we do is provide easily downloadable stuff online. We’re trying to give people tools so they can take this info out into their communities to educate and motivate people.

What are the biggest challenges you face?

Not enough time or staff. The Meatrix became so successful overnight. We expanded very quickly. When I started here in 1998, it was me and the president, and she ran everything and I literally did everything else. We’ve now expanded to over 20 people. I have six people who report to me and then part-timers, consultants, and a VIP dept. It’s huge. So our biggest challenge is focusing. It’s very easy to go off in several directions, but you sort of lose yourself, so we’re trying to come back and strengthen our focus and look at where we’re going long-term. If we’re going to do the whole buy local movement that will take us one way, and if we want to educate people on factory farming, that will take us another direction. We’re still figuring that out. I want people’s input on what they think we should do and what they want because we’re here to serve them.

You can’t take for granted that people know what you’re talking about.

I’ve worked on these issues for five years now. And I think everyone knows about factory farming, and then it’s like “No& Only two percent of the population knows what factory farming is.” Because we see it every day, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re isolated.

What are your plans for future projects?

We’re in the process of developing downloadable kits on sustainable food and factory farming. If you were going to your community center to give a talk about factory farming, we’d send you a Meatrix DVD and a written presentation with bullet points so people can make it easy and user-friendly. When I first got involved in the issue, I cared but didn’t know how to talk about it with people.

We’re hoping to have two types of kits by October 3, which is the date we’ll relaunch Sustainable Table and the Eatwell guide site after rebranding. We also have a fantastic interactive feature on the Meatrix web site. My biggest concern is that we have more general information. In the short-term our focus is to raise awareness. How can we be most effective with what we can do—this is a big question. The one thing we have in this organization is ideas. We keep an idea list, but carrying them out is the challenge and not burning out. I was working really long hours. Part of sustainability is having a balanced life, and that’s my personal challenge right now—you lose productivity after a while.

What is your background?

I came from the music industry and really wanted to get out of that business, so I answered a blind ad in the New York Times and took this position. Once I got here, I realized that I really care about my food and I became passionate. Sometimes I use myself as a gauge: most people don’t know there’s a problem yet, but once they do know, they care.

I live in the East Village and there was an organic food store that I was once afraid to go into. I finally went in and bought a mango. I took it home and bit into it, and my life changed. It was the most amazing thing I had ever tasted in my life. It started with that one piece of fruit. I discovered the top 10 foods to avoid, and conventionally grown spinach was one. I started buying organic spinach. I could only do what I could afford. That’s what we tell people: Don’t think you can turn sustainable overnight. Just pick one thing and do it step by step. I want to live a better life. It’s becoming so much more mainstream, and I’m really glad I’m part of it.

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