Bringing Food to the Table
When I stop to think how our attitude about food has changed from what it was when I was growing up, I remain amazed. We have truly become a nation that cares about what we eat but there is little or no emphasis as to how that food gets to the grocers and then to the table. Keeping a kosher home, however, has always made that easy for me in that I know how animals were slaughtered and then prepares before it reaches markets. We are also certainty aware that farm labor has always been one of the most difficult and poorly paid jobs that has relied on some of the nation’s most vulnerable people. While the legal restrictions that once kept people tied to farms, like slavery, have been abolished, there is still exploitation such as low wages. The supermarkets, for example, have continued the exploitation of farm by making sure that wages are kept low.
“Food Chains” is a documentary about the situations of migrant food workers and the economics of our food-supply system. We see the extremely poor living conditions, sexual harassment and modern slavery that they have to deal with and in this we get a good starting point to discuss our eating and shopping habits regarding food. We come face to face with the choices we can make about what and where we buy.
No one who toils full-time in the field should live in poverty and it is the big grocery chains with their power need to take an active role in improving the lives of those that fill their shelves and later our tables, refrigerators and pantries. The film doesn’t try to present balanced viewpoint but puts its focus on raising awareness of the situation, particularly on the indignity of living in poverty.
It should come as no surprise just how sad the livelihoods of America’s agricultural laborers have always been and that the vast majority live below the poverty line. Director Sanjay Rawal looks deeply into how the situation has become so sad. We see a large group of laborers and their supporters participating in a weeklong hunger strike at the headquarters of the major Florida-based supermarket Publix. The protestors simply want a small raise in order to elevate the workers out of slave-like conditions. Rawal focuses on the workers’ courageous spirit, and as seen throughout decades of protests that call for labor reform.
Facts are presented in an academic manner in the presentation of facts and we ge a balance between his research and a look into the personal lives of the laborers by giving us a non-intrusive look at them going through their daily schedule. Their poor living conditions give a human face to the situation.
We go to the vineyards of Napa Valley, where the beauty of scenery hides a very sad labor model. While the wines from the area bring in great sums of money, the workers in the fields are still paid only meager wages, even as the economy booms. This exposes the ignorance on the part of the upper class as they attend charity benefits in order to raise money for their poverty-stricken workers. It is not a question of charity and the simple solution lies in just raising one’s income and the cry to raise wages has been consistently ignored.
“The members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are tomato pickers in Florida who work from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., each person picking about 4,000 pounds of tomatoes for $40 a day, making $10,500 to $13,000 a year. About 15 of the workers languish in a trailer together because other housing is unaffordable”. Yet grocery chains make billions in revenue and dictate produce prices nationwide. The Immokalee coalition says that if Publix would pay an additional cent per pound, its members could earn a living wage.
“Food Chains” points its finger directly at supermarkets and price fixing as the source of most problems and we get practical solutions here. The film stresses just how little has changed over the past half century in the agricultural industry. The backbone of the industry is still immigrants and migrant workers, just as it was in 1960. At that point in time, farmers still held most of the power and determined workers’ wages. Because power in setting prices has shifted to the end buyers like fast food chains and supermarkets that exist as some of the largest corporations in the world, these same grievances over injustices in wages are now being directed to the top of the chain.
By and large, the film approaches its topic with plenty of supporting research and a clear historical context. We all need to see this film and remember what it has to say before our next trip to buy groceries and plan our menus.