Review: Food Chains (video)

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By Sailor Holladay

Food Chains centers on the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an organized group of farm workers who pick tomatoes in Immokalee, Florida, famous for their struggle to get most fast food chains (except for Wendy’s) to pay workers a penny more per pound for tomatoes. Florida grows 90 percent of the country’s winter tomatoes. The film follows the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) on a six day hunger strike to try to get the Publix supermarkets chain to sign on to the Fair Food Program which increases the wages of farmworkers, but also protects workers against slavery and sexual assault as well as providing a support line where workers can call to report abuse, like an incident in 2008, when people who were chained inside U-Haul trailers and forced to work for free. “The hardest thing is coming to the realization of how little you mean to the people you are working for,” one worker describes.

Though Publix never speaks to CIW or the filmmakers, the filmmakers make up for that with video of the CIW hunger strike and catchy animations that spell out the power supermarket have and the repercussions of Publix not signing on to the Fair Food Program.

In the past, there were many smaller supermarkets throughout the country, but now consolodation has allowed a few huge supermarkets to drive down the price that tomato farmers get for their crops. Supermarkets and fast food chains are the largest purchasers of produce, which is why it’s so powerful that fast food chains, Trader Joes, Whole Foods, and this year even Wal-Mart have signed on with CIW’s Fair Food Program. Supermarket profits exceed a half trillion dollars a year, which is why the CIW is baffled that Publix, the largest tomato purchaser in Florida, has refused to speak with them. Meanwhile it costs three times as much to grow a tomato as it did a decade ago. “Agriculture’s doing great as long as you’re not a farmer,” one of the farmers in the film tells the camera.

The strongest part of the film is in the beginning where we see how some of the farm workers in Immokalee live, many of them living in trailers with 15 or 16 people. “We live like animals in cramped houses,” one of the workers tells us. A young mother and father wake up at 5am to take their son to the babysitter and don’t come home until 8pm at night. Long white school busses drive the workers to the fields and before the CIW’s Fair Food Program, bus loads of people had to wait until the dew dried off of the plants before they could go pick anything often waiting unpaid for hours. Now they clock in when they arrive to the farm.

The film briefly travels to show life in the economic apartheid of Napa, introducing us to farm workers who pick grapes for the wineries that travel over 60 miles to get to work or live in homeless encampments, because the popularity of Napa has driven up the housing prices. One of the people living there, Pedro Alvarez, says something many of us can relate to, “I lived by the river for awhile. Rent can almost be $1,800. Where are you going to get $1,800 if you are making $350 a week?” Meanwhile, bottles of wine are sold for enormous profits, and wine production is recongnized as among the most value added industries in the world.

Since the inception of the CIW’s Fair Food Program in 2011, over 11 million additional dollars have been paid to Florida farmworkers for the work that that do, which includes lifting 40,000 pounds of produce per day, not to mention better reporting of abuse has made the women working the fields safer from sexual harassment and assault than before. 25 percent of women report harassment in the workplace, but that number jumps up to 80 percent for female farm workers, often at the hands of their supervisors, requiring sexual favors in trade for work.

When the Fair Labor Standards Act was written into law in 1938, establishing a 40-hour workweek, a minimum wage, and no more child labor, farmworkers were excluded from the law. If the cost of paying tomato workers a penny more per year was passed down to the consumer, it would cost the average US tomato eating family 44 more cents a year to insure that tomato farm workers’ rights were protected. Many of the farm workers in the US are undocumented immigrants from Mexico who fear deportation if they speak out against abuses, or ask for rights that other workers in this country are given by law. Why are there three million farm workers working here instead of Mexico? For one, many Mexican agricultural crops including coffee and corn went broke after NAFTA was instituted in 1994.

Food Chains alludes to a larger farmworkers rights movement through very short video clips of Cesar Chavez and the appearance of Robert F. Kennedy’s surviving family members at a CIW rally, however a deeper historical understanding of the farmworkers’ rights movement can be found in the documentary, Cesar’s Last Fast, which played at the San Francisco International Film Festival this last year.

One of the Food Chain’s producers, Eric Schlosser, of Fast Food Nation, closes Food Chains out by saying, “When I think of the great problems that this country is facing and how difficult some of them will be to solve, this isn’t one of them.” According to Food Chains he answer is simple: 44 cents a year – bringing justice to the fields of Immokalee.

Food Chains is playing at the Roxie Theater starting on November 28th at 7pm with a panel afterward. On November 29th at 1pm there will be a showing in Spanish with a panel afterward. Find more information here: http://www.roxie.com/ai1ec_event/food-chains/?instance_id=5636

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