Do you know who picks the tomatoes in your dining hall's salad bar? Do you know how much that person gets paid?
Directed by Sanjay Rawal, Food Chains follows the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) as they pressure large corporations to pay a penny more per pound to the tomato pickers in Florida fields.
"It's especially important to highlight the fair aspect of Real Foods at Northwestern, because sometimes it might gear too much towards just focusing on organic and local," said Miranda Cawley, a Medill junior and co-president of NURF.
"We wanted to emphasize the social justice commitment it takes to being an environmental advocate," she said.
The film chronicles the plight of agricultural laborers, many of whom are migrant workers or undocumented citizens, who are vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse in addition to labor exploitation. In 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice prosecuted several modern-day slavery cases in Florida related to the tomato fields in Immokalee.
The documentary focuses on the CIW's campaign against Publix, a large chain of supermarkets based in Florida. The CIW has been asking the large retailer to sign on to its Fair Foods Program. By doing so, Publix would pledge not to buy tomatoes from growers who violate fair labor standards.
Opening scenes of the documentary show CIW's six-day hunger strike staged in front of Publix's headquarters in an attempt to get the company to talk to the Coalition. The corporation had refused to speak or negotiate with the Coalition, and also declined to be interviewed for the documentary.
"The film was released in November, and Publix hadn't changed its statement to the CIW in over six years," Rawal said.
Since Food Chains' release, Rawal said the company has been forced to respond "because, of all things, people flooding their Facebook page with questions."
Agricultural laborers are often paid far less than the minimum wage because their pay depends on the amount of tomatoes or other crops each worker can pick in a given day.
Many victims of labor exploitation and abuse may not speak out against the injustices they face, for fear of repercussions such as deportation.
"Most of the workers we spoke to were very open with their stories," Rawal said. "They've been put down for so long I think they wanted to have their story be told."
Food Chains made the argument that large corporations, such as Walmart or McDonald's, are largely responsible for the current unfair labor system. To set low prices for consumers, these companies squeeze the profits of both tomato growers and laborers.
"That shows you what corporate culture in this country is like," Rawal said. "[It] is something embedded in the mindset, namely trying to save pennies [from the bottom line]."
According to Rawal, the CIW is now campaigning to get Wendy's to sign on to the Fair Foods Program. Student activism played a large role in pressuring other large chains to agree to the demands of the campaign.
"Taco Bell first signed on to the program because students boycotted Taco Bells on campuses," Rawal said. "Student activism against these chains, particularly when there's a monetary link between your campus and these corporations, can be a really powerful way to get them to sign."
The program has been adopted by fast food and retail giants including Walmart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Subway and Yum! Brands, which owns Taco Bell.
Sodexo, which services Northwestern's dining halls, signed the Fair Foods Program agreement in 2010. Currently, the Fair Food Program directly focuses on tomatoes, rather than other crops or the workers in those fields.
"It's an important step, but I think it's a small step," said School of Communications junior Emma McVicar. "I think that Sodexo has a lot more to do in that respect, and we as students have a lot more power than we think."
After the screening and subsequent Q&A, Northwestern's Students for Ecological and Environmental Development (SEED) announced that their winter speaker will be Bill McKibben, a journalist and environmental activist who has been a vocal critic of the Keystone XL pipeline, and has become a leader of the climate change movement through his work at 350.org.
Q&A: NBN got a chance to sit down with director Sanjay Rawal about the making of his documentary, Food Chains.
What do screenings on college campus such as this one bring to Food Chains’ awareness?
You guys [college students] are the Whole Foods shoppers of tomorrow and those companies really, really care about that, and they know they have to do a lot earn your trust and your loyalty.
What inspired you to make this film?
I grew up in an agricultural family in Northern California. My dad’s actually in the tomato industry, a tomato breeder, so I’ve always grown up around farms and farm workers, but I never realized how terrible conditions were in this country for farm workers.
It’s estimated that in the U.S. there are more than 10,000 just working on farms, out of several million, that are modern-day slaves. So you look at the idea, the notion, that there are laws against slavery, there are laws against sexual harassment, there are laws against not paying people, but why do these things keep happening? It’s because there’s not really enforcement of these laws. It’s kind of shocking as an American to realize that some of the things that seem like basic human rights guaranteed to everyone in this country regardless of where they come from, what they look like, how poor or rich they are not realities for people that are so incredibly important to our food system, namely farm workers.
What obstacles did you encounter when making this film?
When we were filming there a was a bill in front of the Florida legislature that would have made it a felony to film an agricultural compound whether it was a meat packing, dairy or farm from a public road, and that bill was in front of 12 different state legislators in the summer of 2012. And luckily it wasn’t passed, but just the fact that it was introduced was a really scary thing. We sneaked onto almost every farm that’s in the film. You’re also dealing with the population, in this case, the majority undocumented population of farmworkers, who are pretty vulnerable so building trust with the farmworkers was something we had to develop. But all-in-all I think the main obstacle was trying to make a very complex system into something understandable and hopefully entertaining.
How did the supermarket and major corporations respond to this film?
The interesting thing is the big bad company, the one that is the target of most actions in this country, whether it’s labor or food justice, is Walmart. And Walmart, conversely, was probably the most receptive company that we dealt with in regard to farm labor. At the same time Publix, which is a Florida-based retailer and is known for having the best employees in the country, treating it’s workers very well, doesn’t care at all about the atrocities that can happen in their vegetable and fruit supply chain. They could care less, yet they have such a tremendous power.
Wendy’s is the last big fast food restaurant that hasn’t signed the program. McDonald’s has, Burger King, Subway, Chipotle, everybody except Wendy’s.
What was the most moving part for you when directing this film?
The most moving part was to see, after spending a week outside of the headquarters of Publix and being utterly ignored, that the spirit of the workers was not really affected. They saw the end game not just in getting one particular company to sign but transforming the life of thousands, if not ten thousands, of workers in Florida.