by Rebecca Boehm and Rebecca Rottapel
From the filmmakers of Food, Inc. and Fast Food Nation, this new documentary portrays the struggles of U.S. farm workers who experience conditions from slavery and low-wages to sexual harassment and total lack of legal power. The film focuses on the efforts of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida to petition big food suppliers to pay one more penny per pound of tomatoes picked. Food Chains provides a good first look at these important and underreported issues in America.
In the opening scene of Food Chains we are introduced to Immokalee, Florida, a sparsely populated, rural town where people ride their bikes and push strollers in the streets past dilapidated stucco buildings and chain link fences. We meet Lucas Benitez, a farm worker who explains the importance of the farm industry in Immokalee and the plight of the average farm worker there. The scene cuts to a rundown trailer where a group of workers and their families live. Benito Garcia, his wife Carmela and their child are getting ready for work at 4:30 am. Carmela fills a Powerade bottle with milk, packs her son’s lunch into a plastic shopping bag, and hands her son off to Benito. Carmela says to Benito as he walks out the door with their son, “Hurry back so you don’t miss the bus.” Benito pushes his son along the predawn streets of Immokalee to get his son to the babysitter just in time to catch the bus to the tomato fields.
This opening scene is striking because it provides us a glimpse into the daily life of the average Immokalee farm worker. The living conditions that they endure should pull the heartstrings of any person watching the film. The average American consumer may never have considered the living and working conditions of the person that harvests their food, and this scene alone would be a learning experience.
Hereafter, Food Chains’ thesis is clear: poor working conditions and low pay that U.S. farm workers experience result directly from the downward pressure on food costs exerted by the food retail sector. First-time feature film director Sanjay Rawal and executive producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser have crafted a solid documentary that summarizes why this downward pressure occurs and how it can be remedied so that the standard of living of farm workers can be improved without affecting the price consumers pay for their food.
The film strongly places the burden of the problem, and rightly so, on U.S. grocery stores and supermarkets that exert tremendous market power over the prices that farmers receive for their products. Over the last few decades there has been significant consolidation in this sector, which is most obvious with the emergence of Walmart as a major food retailer. Standard economic theory would confirm that the oligopolistic nature of the supermarket industry does lower the prices farmers can receive for their goods. The film demonstrates this economic theory with a specific example in Publix, one of the largest supermarket chains in the U.S., headquartered in Florida. Publix is also the primary target of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ (CIW) most recent campaign to increase the wage of tomato pickers by a penny per pound.
CIW has already waged campaigns against fast food companies using the same penny-per-pound strategy with great success. Publix, however, seems to be unflinching in its unwillingness to agree to the terms of the CIW campaign for completely unknown reasons. In the film, we see CIW organize a seven-day hunger strike at the Publix Headquarters in Lakeland, Florida, which is just a two-hour drive from Immokalee. Publix allows the strike to continue on its property with only the occasional police or private security intervention. Employees of the company come out to eat lunch on picnic benches just feet away from the strike.
The hunger strike quickly becomes the focus of the film, and as it progresses one cannot help but think about the broader debate currently stirring in the U.S. about the effectiveness of public protests. CIW is a seasoned organization that knows how to utilize protests as an effective tool for promoting social change; it may have employed the hunger strike seen in Food Chains to appeal to middle-aged consumers who remember the hunger strike led by United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez in 1968. Food Chains captures a peaceful and organized protest taking place on the front lawn of Publix without much excitement or controversy. For the average American, seeing this type of protest may be refreshing and encouraging.
Food Chains should be commended for addressing such an important social justice issue occurring in the food system, and it is one that many food-focused documentaries have for some reason ignored until now. However, the film could have accomplished its job with a bit more depth on the broader policy issues that got us to this point in the first place. The dearth of economic safety nets provided for poor Americans, our completely outdated and dysfunctional immigration policy (including policies for migrant farm workers from Mexico), lack of oversight and enforcement of pesticide regulation, and racism and oppression are all broader societal issues that contribute to the struggles of U.S. farm workers. Yet these issues, especially immigration, are hardly mentioned in Food Chains.
In particular, immigration policy is a key factor in the plight of U.S. farm workers that is touched upon briefly in the film. It is striking to recognize that CIW focuses its campaigns on private companies because many of the workers they represent are undocumented immigrants, making policy advocacy to federal and state governments virtually impossible. The total powerlessness of people who pick our food should be unimaginable in America, yet the film never makes this argument strongly. Similarly, the film could have addressed the serious problem of how volatile food prices could potentially become given lack of government oversight of migrant labor. Food Chains may have avoided these more controversial topics in order to remain accessible and credible for a broad audience.
If the goal of Food Chains is to educate the completely uninformed U.S. food consumer, then it will have done yeoman’s work. But for those of us who are more informed on these issues, we are left wanting a more detailed and investigative story about how injustices like those faced by the Immokalee workers continue to occur. For us, the story of the modern day farm worker seems unthinkable. And we say to ourselves, “Really? It’s 2015.”
Join the Friedman Justice League for a screening of Food Chains followed by an expert panel discussion. The event will be held on February 5 from 6:30-8:30 pm at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in ASEAN Auditorium (160 Packard Ave, Medford, MA). While admission is free, we are asking for a $5 donation to go toward the Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Food Chain Workers Alliance. Tickets are available at http://foodchains-fjl.brownpapertickets.com.
Rebecca Boehm is a PhD Candidate in the Agriculture Food and Environment (AFE) program and a long-time member of the Friedman Justice League. Rebecca Rottapel is a first-year MS student in the AFE program. She is also a member of the Justice League and is excited to keep learning about mechanisms to improve social justice and equity in our food system!