Nosh Pit

Documentary a grim primer on realities of ‘farm to fork’

Farmworkers who pick tomatoes in Florida get paid by the bucket, on average earning one cent per pound. The documentary “Food Chains” highlight the struggles and successes of these Florida workers and others around the country.
Farmworkers who pick tomatoes in Florida get paid by the bucket, on average earning one cent per pound. The documentary “Food Chains” highlight the struggles and successes of these Florida workers and others around the country.

Just in time for Thanksgiving comes a powerful film about the abundance of our agriculture and the gratitude we owe to farmworkers.

The documentary “Food Chains” opened nationwide in theaters and via iTunes on Friday, and will be released Thursday through video on demand. Its scenes are likely to make you pause and reflect the next time you shop the supermarket produce aisle. Among them:

▪  A Florida tomato picker showing his check for $42.27, a daily wage for handling about 4,000 pounds of tomatoes.

▪  A father strolling his sleepy child in the predawn streets to a baby sitter before a day’s work in the fields.

▪  Napa vineyard workers living in homeless camps, though many of the region’s wines sell for more than $100 a bottle.

All this so we can eat.

For all the talk of farm to fork, what we mostly celebrate are the fine-dining chefs and the small farmers who supply our local restaurants and markets. But food justice has to go beyond selling $27 pork chops in the name of supporting local eating. There wouldn’t be a farm-to-fork movement without the workers in the fields, who are mostly ignored by the general public and who often live below the poverty line and are subject to abuses.

“The farmworkers in this country aren’t poor,” says one worker in the film. “We are screwed.”

“Food Chains” brings to the table ever-relevant issues of social justice for farmworkers. Its executive producers are Eric Schlosser of “Fast Food Nation” fame, and the actress Eva Longoria, who earned a Cesar Chavez Legacy Award for her advocacy of Latino issues.

“Food Chains” is directed by Sanjay Rawal, who founded a Davis-based agricultural genetics company, California Hybrids, with his father in 1998. Rawal’s mother was a math and computer science lecturer at UC Davis.

Rawal was moved by the plight of farmworkers after reading Barry Estabrook’s “Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit.” The book focuses on southern Florida’s tomato industry and exposes the human and environmental costs of producing this everyday fruit. Rawal was familiar with this tomato-growing region from his work in plant genetics.

“To see what was going on in Florida was shocking,” said Rawal.

Rawal learned that Florida tomato pickers earned about one cent for every pound picked. They weren’t paid an hourly wage, but by the bucket, so earning a measly $40 check meant picking about 4,000 pounds of tomatoes in a day. The workers tended to live in cramped, squalid conditions and often went hungry while working to feed the country.

It’s easy to blame penny-pinching farmers and land owners for the plight of these workers. But the truth is, farmers are stuck in the middle.

“Food Chains” explains how consolidation in the supermarket industry starting in the late 1990s led to profound control over agribusiness by large-scale buyers like Safeway, which earn more than $44 billion annually. These shot-callers set the prices in the supply chain, dictating what farmers grow and determining what’s left over to pay farmworkers.

“Safeway has more gross revenue than Google, and produce is their money-maker,” said Rawal. “The farms are producing what the supermarkets want. We as consumers need to realize the system depends on our dollars, and the system can react very quickly to consumer demands.”

That’s to say “Food Chains” isn’t just one endless Debbie Downer scenario. The film focuses on South Florida’s Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which has achieved significant successes in the fight for fair wages and humane treatment for farmworkers. The CIW developed a Fair Food Program that incorporates a wage increase to two cents per pound – essentially doubling farmworker wages – and a code of conduct with zero tolerance for forced labor and sexual assault, among other provisions.

Some of the country’s largest food companies have adopted the Fair Food Program, including McDonald’s and Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut and others.

“You don’t have to pick up guns to effect change,” said Rawal. “The most powerful weapon is the marketplace. Think if a supermarket chain said to a strawberry supplier that if there was a single complaint about worker fairness, you’ll be banned. That market incentive is critical to the future of farm labor.”

But the fight goes on. Apart from Walmart, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods Market, no major grocer has adopted the Fair Food Program. And the farmworkers are still lucky to earn two pennies per pound.

“Ask a restaurant or grocer where the mushroom was grown, who raised the chicken and if the workers were treated fairly,” said Rawal. “The people on the other side won’t have all the answers yet. But the more they’re asked, the more the system will have to provide the answers. There won’t be change unless you ask for it.”

Editor’s note: This story was changed Nov. 26 to correct the name of the company Rawal started with his father.

Call The Bee’s Chris Macias, (916) 321-1253. Follow him on Twitter @chris_macias.