- Food Chains: The Revolution in America’s Fields by Sanjay Rawal, Erin Barnett
Directed by Sanjay RawalWRITTEN BYSanjay Rawal and Erin Barnett. Illumine Group: Two Moons Production, 2014. 83 mins.
In 1960, journalist Edward R. Murrow shocked television audiences when his documentary on the dismal poverty and terrible working conditions endured by the nation’s agricultural laborers, Harvest of Shame, aired on CBS the day after Thanksgiving. While many Americans were still patting their full stomachs, languidly recuperating from their overindulgence, Murrow’s documentary exposed a world that few suspected existed: viewers’ homes were filled with images of farm-workers living in filthy shacks, destitute people who were often unable to feed their children despite working every day from dawn to dusk. Near the beginning of the film, Murrow interviews a minister who sums up the situation succinctly: “Only in name are [the farmworkers] not slaves. But in the way they are treated, they are worse than a slave. And somebody is making thousands of dollars out of [their] sweat. Is that a slave or not?”1
Just over fifty years later, filmmaker Sanjay Rawal brings us Food Chains (2014), a documentary which returns to the same place profiled by Murrow—Immokalee, Florida, a city that generates much of the U.S.’s winter produce—to demonstrate that, while agribusiness may have changed significantly in the last half-century, very little has changed for the farmworkers, who remain among the most vulnerable and exploited laborers in the country. Rawal’s film focuses on a community of tomato pickers and begins by showing the overcrowded, ramshackle trailers where they are forced to live, 15–16 people per unit, including children, because their wages are so low they cannot afford to rent apartments in the city where they work. Although their workdays typically last from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., pickers are only paid about $42 a day, which means that, depending on harvest conditions and the market in any given season, they will probably only make $10,500–$12,000 in a year for the backbreaking labor they perform.2
The central narrative of Rawal’s film follows the tomato pickers (organized as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers) in their 2012 campaign to get Publix, one of the largest supermarket chains in Florida, to pay one cent more for each pound of tomatoes it purchases. This minimal increase, the farmworkers argue, would double their current wages and allow them to live above the poverty line. In order to pressure Publix into meeting with them at the negotiating table, the tomato pickers undertake a six-day hunger fast and mount a demonstration in front of Publix’s main corporate building. Unfortunately, we learn at the end of the film that these efforts yielded no result: Publix’s representatives ultimately refused to meet with the workers, declaring that the dispute is a labor issue that should be taken up with growers, not with Publix.
A strength of Rawal’s film is that, when Publix issues its refusal, we have already been provided with a complex understanding of the “food supply chain” alluded to in the film’s title, and can see for ourselves the moral weakness of Publix’s argument. Drawing on interviews with noted experts such as Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation, and an executive producer of the film), Barry Estabrook (author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed our Most Alluring Fruit), and Shane Hamilton (author of Trucking Country: The Road to America’s Walmart Economy), Food Chains argues that, in contrast to the 1960s, when farmers held all the power, in today’s world, agribusiness has essentially become a “monopsony,” an economic situation in which a small number of powerful buyers sets the rules for a market containing a large number of sellers. Because only a few large corporations (supermarket chains, fast food, and the food service industry) comprise the agricultural buyer’s market, they are able to dictate prices to farmers. While these entities have collectively kept...