“There’s no hiding the fact that there are two populations, the haves and the have-nots,” said Sanjay Rawal, talking about his provocative documentary “Food Chains.”
Rawal’s film sheds light on those who eat food and those who produce it, and the disparity between what laborers contribute and their often meager living conditions. The documentary has earned rave reviews for its illuminating take on the food industry. Matt Pais of the Chicago news site RedEye called it “an educational and upsetting 81 minutes.” Film Journal International recommended it for “every American who unquestioningly lifts fork to mouth for their three squares a day.”
Rawal is unique in the insight he brings to his subject. For a decade, he ran a tomato genetics company with his father and sold seeds to Florida growers. It’s from this background — his family’s tomatoes are sold at Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market — that Rawal draws his story of food, migration and inequality.
Spotlight on farm laborers
“Food Chains” begins in southern Florida, where local tomato pickers formed a human rights organization in 1993. They named their group the Coalition of Immokalee Workers after the town where they live. Like many farm laborers, the workers were paid by the number of pounds they picked, and Rawal gives a front-row seat to their plea for better working conditions and livable wages. According to a 2008 report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, workers who were paid by the piece were twice as likely to live below the poverty line as their salaried counterparts.
Although “Food Chains” is grounded in the CIW’s fight against mega-grocer Publix, Rawal packs in stunning footage of farm fields across the country, juxtaposing it with the hardship many laborers endure. In one guilt-checking scene, Rawal takes his cameras to America’s wine capital, Northern California’s posh Napa Valley. Away from images of quaint vineyards and luxurious resorts, he presents farmworkers struggling to put a roof over their heads. The shortage of affordable housing, Rawal said, forces some to cram up to 20 people in a small house.
DeVon Nolen, manager of the West Broadway Farmers Market in Minneapolis, took her children to a “Food Chains” screening at the Film Society of Minneapolis/St. Paul, which has a history of promoting cross-cultural filmmaking. Nolen works on an urban agriculture initiative called the Homegrown Minneapolis Food Council. “It struck me how disconnected we are from our food source,” she said post-screening. “The only way you can really solve this is to have a local sustainable food system.”
Although today’s consumers appear more concerned than ever with locally produced, pesticide-free and humanely raised foods, Rawal said there’s one question that doesn’t get asked enough: “Who produces my food?”
The group Bread for the World Institute has one answer. It reports that seven out of 10 U.S. farmworkers are foreign born, and roughly half don’t have documents.
Migrant workers around the world
It’s not uncommon for a country’s food production to be supplied by migrant workers. Southern European countries draw millions of farm laborers from North Africa and Eastern Europe. What’s different in the United States is that whereas Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece have carried out a combined 15 or more legalization programs since 1985, the U.S. has yet to grant legal protection for many of its most valuable yet underappreciated workers. A recent poll by the Southern Poverty Law Center found that 90 percent of female farmworkers in California cited sexual harassment as a major problem. Rawal noted that few challenge their unfair conditions for fear of getting deported.
Such is the food workers’ paradox. The food system depends on them, but they’re beleaguered by being foreign born. “Our immigration policy is to keep our labor costs low,” said lawyer Michele Garnett McKenzie, advocacy director at the Advocates for Human Rights in Minneapolis.
In 2011, the CIW launched its Fair Food Program, a plan to double worker wages by instituting penny-per-pound increases on produce. This would cost the average family of four an additional 44 cents a year. Taco Bell, Burger King, McDonald’s, Trader Joe’s and Walmart all signed the contract (Publix has yet to join).
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The little guys are chiming in too. Lisa Kivirist boasts that her bed and breakfast, Inn Serendipity in Browntown, Wisconsin, is “carbon negative,” meaning more carbon dioxide is sequestered than emitted. She is a big fan of the Fair Food Program described in “Food Chains.” “It brings authentic transparency and needed justice to our food system.”
Kivirist and her husband, John Ivanko, grow most of the food they serve to guests in their garden. Anything not produced on their property is bought from small-scale local producers or fair trade sources, which designate funds to social, economic and environmental development projects with an emphasis on fair worker wages. In order to be considered fair trade, a company must register with a certifying organization like Fair Trade USA or Fairtrade International.
The challenge for those like McKenzie, Nolen and Kivirist is to bring others into the movement. For his part, Rawal urged support of companies that signed on to the Fair Food Program. He also tries to buy local and fair trade foods, and avoids grocery stores whenever possible.
Despite being a farm kid, Rawal never realized until doing his film how much sacrifice goes into his food. “I’m more grateful for my food,” he said. “That’s the first step, as wishy-washy as it seems.”
The documentary “Food Chains,” which premiered in November 2014, is now available on iTunes and Netflix.
Main photo: Farmworkers weed spinach by hand in San Luis Obispo, California. Credit: iStock/NNehring
Ben Bartenstein reported this story for Round Earth Media out of St. Paul, Minnesota. He is active in the Asian American Journalists Association and is now reporting out of Rabat, Morocco.