As its national release nears, “Food Chains” messaging comes into focus…

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In a scene that didn’t make the final cut of the film, Walmart joins the Fair Food Program.

Documentary a chance for broader audience to learn about the extraordinary success story taking shape in Florida’s fields…

“Food Chains” is a film about many things.  Its lens takes a wide angle, 360-degree look at the state of farm labor in this country today, and in the process it focuses on everything from the plight of grape pickers in California’s Napa Valley to our country’s current immigration quagmire, the history of farm labor struggles in the US, the economic dynamics and structure of the food industry that shape farmworker poverty, and the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food.  Indeed, the dramatic backbone of the film’s narrative is the six days of the CIW’s 2012 Fast for Fair Food outside Pubix’s headquarters.  

One thing the film actually spends very little time on, however, is the CIW’s Fair Food Program.  

For the most part, shooting wrapped up on “Food Chains” in 2012, before the Program’s unprecedented gains became truly manifest.  Documentaries are by nature a backward-looking tool for telling stories, and as a result, the remarkable success of the Fair Food Program’s worker-driven social responsibility model (called the “best workplace monitoring program” in the US on the front page of the New York Times earlier this year) and the groundbreaking transformation the Program has wrought in the Florida tomato industry (which today is described as “the best working environment in American agriculture”) were touched upon only briefly in the film.

A worker punches in at Pacific Tomato Growers in Immokalee. Time clocks in the fields are a requirement of the Fair Food Code of Conduct and have helped eliminate the longstanding problem of unpaid waiting time in Florida’s tomato industry.  Photo by Smriti Keshari.

That simple quirk of timing is not without consequence.  Coverage of the film to this point has naturally tended to focus on the negative — the exploitation of workers in Napa Valley today, for example, or the history of abuses in Florida’s fields — rather than the positive, the hopeful story of partnership and progress in Florida’s tomato industry today.  That more positive story is in the film, you just have to dig a little deeper to find it, and digging deeper is not, quite frankly, the calling card of the vast majority of media in this country.  Scandal is always more titillating than reform, and so predictably the coverage thus far of the film has tended to emphasize the usual story of farm labor exploitation over that of the Fair Food Program’s unusual success. 

But “Food Chains” is not just another documentary about farmworker exploitation.  From Edward R. Murrow’s 1960 classic “The Harvest of Shame” to last year’s PBS Frontline special “Rape in the Fields,” that story has been told and re-told many, many times.  What makes “Food Chains” truly unique is that it’s not just about the problem of farm labor abuse, but rather about the solution, a proven solution that has been long overdue and that is changing tens of thousands of lives every day here in Florida.  

audit2And that story is easy to tell:

  • For generations, farmworkers from Florida to California have suffered some of the worst working conditions this country has to offer including sub-poverty wages, systematic wage theft, rampant sexual harassment, and even modern-day slavery.
  • Amazingly, today farmworkers in Florida’s tomato fields — long some of the harshest in this country — no longer suffer the problems of the past, thanks to an extraordinary new human rights initiative called the Fair Food Program and the national consumer campaign that made the program possible. Slavery and sexual violence have been eliminated, wage theft and other labor rights violations are now the rare exception rather than the rule, and when abuses do occur, workers have access to a fast and effective complaint investigation and resolution system to defend their rights.

  • The Fair Food Program is a truly unique partnership among farmworkers, farmers, and retail buyers that leverages the market power of the huge supermarket and fast-food chains to improve farmworker wages and make it impossible for farms where workers are abused to sell their tomatoes to many of the world’s largest companies, companies like McDonald’s, Whole Foods, and Walmart.  

The challenge of focusing the bright light of media attention generated by “Food Chains” on the Fair Food Program, however,
is not an easy one, but as the film readies for next week’s big national release, that challenge is being taken up by the “Food Chains” crew with renewed purpose, and their efforts are already starting to show results.  Director Sanjay Rawal published a great piece on the film and the Fair Food Program in the Huffington Post last week,  entitled, “If You Want to Support Farmworkers – Buy a Florida Fair Food Tomato.”  Here’s an extended excerpt: 

A Fair Food Standards Council auditor (left) speaks with a worker in a Fair Food Program field. Photo by Smriti Keshari.

… Supermarkets now control the food system in the US. Their market power is so vast that one or two of the largest stores can effectively set the terms for the entire industry. Walmart does not have a monopoly, for example. It controls just 25% of the industry, but that stake gives them the power to effectively control farms across the US. Walmart and other large supermarkets can effectively tell farmers what they should grow, how they should grow it, what fruits and veggies need to look and taste like and lastly, how much farmers will earn for their work. If farms want to have a chance to sell to large buyers like Walmart, they need to follow their rules. Thus, the entire farming industry in the US has been conformed to the needs of just a few supermarket chains. This is called a monopsony.

As the supermarket sector has consolidated its power, farmers have seen their profits cut in half. And we’re not just talking about the decline of the family farm. Large corporate farms are suffering too. Even if a farm is earning $100 million a year, they’re no match for companies like Kroger, Publix or Walmart which earn approximately $96 billion, $28 billion, and over $300 billion from grocery sales, respectively.

After screenings of Food Chains, we are always clear to say – farmers are small fish in a big pond.

That’s why the CIW began focusing their Campaign for Fair Food on large buyers of produce like supermarkets and fast food chains – demanding from them a penny extra per pound for tomatoes and to enforce a code of conduct in their supply chain. If supermarkets can set economic terms, why can’t they set terms for how people are treated? 

The result of this campaign is the Fair Food Program, hailed by the New York Times as the “the best workplace-monitoring program” in the United States. The Fair Food Program is a groundbreaking partnership between farmers and farmworkers in Florida’s tomato industry that ensures that workers on participating farms are treated fairly.

This program is a testament not only to the determination of the CIW, but to the vision of some of the biggest farming corporations in the world, a vision given expression in 2010 when Jon Esformes, Chief Operating Partner of Pacific Tomato Growers, signed the first-ever Fair Food agreement with the CIW, followed by other large growers, including Lipman Produce, Gargiulo and Dimare. Consumers might not have heard of those companies, but they are responsible for supplying the vast majority of fresh tomatoes grown in the United States.

This partnership between farmers and farmworkers is entirely unique. The true power of this unique system came to full light last January, when Walmart, the world’s largest retailer, joined the Fair Food Program.

Click here to read the piece in its entirety.  Sanjay’s op/ed is an excellent example of the kind of coverage we hope to see in the weeks ahead as “Food Chains” hits theaters and makes news across the country.  

“Food Chains” is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reach millions of people with the story of Fair Food, and with a lot of hard work (and a bit of luck) we just might be able to keep the focus on that solution and change not just tens of thousands of lives in Florida, but the lives of millions of low-wage workers here in the US and around the world. 

In more “Food Chains” news…

Speaking of reaching millions of people… “Food Chains” made the New York Times Holiday Movie List  last week, joining films like “Interstellar,” “The Theory of Everything,” and “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part I” on the roll.  Here’s the blurb: 


The C.I.W. (Coalition of Immokalee Workers) message: If large grocery chains paid 2 cents more per bushel of tomatoes, it would mean fair wages and decent living conditions for farm workers. Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser (the author of “Fast Food Nation”) appear in this documentary, narrated by Forest Whitaker and directed by Sanjay Rawal.

Stay tuned as “Food Chains” heads into the final stretch before next week’s big release, with the LA premiere this Thursday.  And check back soon for the second annual State of the Program Report, available online this week, with a detailed look at, and analysis of, the results of the Fair Food Program’s 2013-2014 season!