Sanjay Rawal’s documentary film Food Chains, sheds light on the inhumane labour practices that occur in the agricultural industry in North America.
Story by Nimritta Parmar / Image via Zimbio: Author Eric Schlosser, actress/executive producer Eva Longoria, producer Hamilton Fish, Smriti Keshari and director Sanjay Rawal at Tribeca Film Festival.
Add this to your list of must-watch documentaries. Food Chains follows the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), an organization of tomato pickers from Florida, as they struggle to get major food retailers to sign the Fair Food Agreement, which would allow farm workers to be paid a livable wage. Produced by actress Eva Longoria and other Hollywood notables, the documentary (now available on DVD and Netflix USA) shares some devastating truths, but maintains an uplifting spirit throughout the film that keeps you holding on to hope.
We sat down with director Sanjay Rawal when he was at the Vancouver International Film Festival, and he talked to us about his history with the agricultural industry, the inspiration for the film, and what people can do to help.
What initially sparked your interest in learning about the labour practices in agriculture?
My dad, Dr. Kanti Rawal, was always in the agricultural industry. He was a breeder for Del Monte, before that he worked for universities, and before that he worked for the Rockafeller Foundation in Africa where he met my mom who was there on her first assignment from India. My dad and mom are from Gujarat, and I was born there. So my entire life I grew up in the agricultural industry. But right after I graduated college in California I moved to New York City to study with an Indian spiritual teacher, a man named Sri Chinmoy. And it was kind of like a continuation of my education. My parents really wanted me to go to graduate school, but I didn’t feel that graduate school could give me the types of lessons about life and justice, and compassion, and peace that studying with Sri Chinmoy would. So my 20s and 30s I spent with him, traveling around the world, big ending a lot of work with some of his friends, like the Desmond Tutu’s of the world, in human rights, and kind of branched out into doing peace work, peace lobbying around the world, and doing human rights work around the world. And I’ve seen a lot, in a lot of countries, by virtue of traveling with Sri Chinmoy in 35-40 countries, and I had a specialization in agriculture, because my degree is in genetics, and I had a background of doing stuff with my dad, and it wasn’t until a trip I made in 2011 to Southern Florida til I realized how bad the conditions for farm workers in America are. I knew they were bad for farm workers all around the world.
Farm workers are the base of every single food supply chain. The ones who are in the field, in most cases picking, in some cases growing the food, that’s sent from Africa to Germany, from Morocco to England, from Florida to Quebec. And I was shocked at the conditions under which they were working. And it didn’t seem right in a modern day society where we are all so conscious of our food, that this was still happening. Everybody tries to eat well, everybody tries to shop well, everybody watches people cooking food on TV, it’s kind of ridiculous, we love food and we love good food. But the population that brings us our food, our fresh fruit, our produce, actually our meat too, our milk, those people are the worst treated in North America, the poorest in North America, and when I saw this, I realized there was an opportunity to make a movie. But in a sense it kind of struck me personally, because being from India, studying with an Indian spiritual teacher, gratitude is important to me. Even if it’s just for a second, I always try to say some prayer before I eat. I try to offer my thanks to the supreme. But I realized that my concept of the Supreme, of God, of divinity, and my thanks to that entity, that being, that energy, didn’t extend into the hands that picked our food. And I felt hypocritical, I felt like, I say that I’m a spiritual seeker, I’ve been studying with a master for 20 years, and Im not even thinking about the people that pick our food, so it was a combination of, a genuine sense of hypocrisy, not just from the spiritual side but from my experience being around my dad in the fields, that I’d never actually thought about the people who picked our food. So this movie is kind of full circle, it’s a part of my spiritual quest, it’s also a part of my family’s history, it’s part of the work I’d done and its kind of a very exciting thing for me to see all come together.
Did you have any idea, when you first began looking into it, how bad the labour conditions would be, or was it a complete shock to you?
Well you know the film although it was really inspired by Barry’s book, Tomatoland, and by Fast Food Nation, we committed to investigating things ourselves. We basically drove through the United States, mainly through California, Arizona, Florida, and then Northeast, over a period of 9 or 10 months, and what we saw was shocking. Everything from simple things, not good things, but simple things like wage theft, like verbal abuse, to physical abuse, sexual harassment, rape, modern day slavery. That all existed within the spectrum of farm labour. Any of those things could be possible to any worker at any time. It didn’t matter if they were working on organic farms, whether they were working on small farms, or whether they were working on really large farms. But the more we drove, the more we were desperate to find a solution, and we found that solution where the film started, in Central Florida.
Following the release of films like Food Inc., people have become much more aware of what goes into their food. Why do you think the wrong-doings in the labour side of the industry have been ignored for so long?
In modern Western civilization, the process of eating and gathering our own food is disconnected from our spirituality. In a sense eating, in modern society, has become a very selfish activity, where we are only making choices based on the impact that those choices will have on us. For example, does the food taste good? Yes. Is it fast? Yes. Is it cheap? Maybe. Is it healthy, for me? Yes. And those are the four categories we tend to look at. But when we think of cheap, we don’t think of the cost that it might be costing our society. When we look of fast, we don’t look at the fact that the people behind the counter are really killing themselves. When we look at healthy, well, we’re not thinking about the farm workers who picked that food who might be living and leading very very unhealthy lifestyles because of their poverty, to provide us fresh, perhaps even organic food. And I think Food Inc. was very successful. It’s a fantastic, fantastic movie based on a couple of really great books, one of them being Omnivores Dilemma, by Michael Pollan, that really exposed the fallacy of modern industrialized eating. It attacked peoples selfish habits and said, “You can continue to think of food as a selfish thing, but you have to think of the impact it’s having on you.” And it was looking at an impact from a first person stand-point. When we’re talking about labour issues, we’re asking people to go into their heart, so to speak, which is not an easy thing – we’re not necessarily a heartfelt society. We’re asking people to be empathetic, to be compassionate, to be conscious. But what we’ve discovered in the process of making Food Chains, is that the cost, the most selfish thing that people will look at, which is very valid, the cost of food, when we’re looking at conventional versus organic, the differential can be great. But when we’re looking at food grown and picked under conditions of fair labour, the cost to the consumer, the cost to the system, might just be one extra penny per pound. So in that sense, it won’t be hard for people to be empathetic, it wont be hard for people to be compassionate, because it costs very little, if anything to them. So thats the battle. It’s asking people to think about their food, not in terms of their own little microcosm, but to look down the food chain, and to take a good hard look at the lives of the people that make our own modern lifestyle possible. It’s a hard thing to do, it’s a hard thing for people to comprehend, to really take a look at the exploitation that fuels our modern lifestyle, but again, change is so simple, that we don’t think that people will be afraid of that kind of introspection.
Did you face any resistance, or backlash from any particular groups while filming?
The agriculture industry is so siloed, and in a sense modern day agriculture in the U.S. is a by-product of the way agriculture started in the U.S., except for that very first Thanksgiving in 1620 when the settlers relied upon the Native Americans for their bounty, the labour thats been required to bring food to our table has predominately been from the most vulnerable people in America. After that first Winter, those settlers in Plymouth tried to enslave the Native Americans. When we realized that the South was abundantly bountiful for cash crops, and that there was a steady supply of slave labour from Africa, we began importing African slaves to fuel our agricultural economy. Food supplies in those days weren’t necessarily grown on large farms, but as our country grew larger and larger, we kind of migrated towards urban centers from rural areas, we looked at this large farm architecture to supply modern society with food. And that large farm paradigm was based on slave labour or from the late 1800’s on, very low wage labour. In that sense, everyone’s always known, life at the bottom of the chain has always been terrible, terrible, but unlike the days of the past, very few people from within that supply chain, in that food chain, from farmers to distributers can actually do anything about it. The food chain is dominated by supermarkets, dominated, and the resistance that we got were from farmers and distributers who were very afraid of the backlash that their participation might have in terms of their sales to supermarkets. Supermarkets control the entire system, as you know from seeing the film, and as farms have lost their power, and supermarkets have gotten larger, farmers are more and more beholden to the terms of those supermarkets. They deal with far fewer supermarkets than they ever have, they have to kind of reduce larger and larger orders than they ever have, so if they lose one order, they’re sunk. So there was very legitimate fear amongst farmers and distributers, and in many cases, on that level there were people who were conscious of labour but don’t care, and hadn’t cared for a long time. Now that’s beginning to change, in Florida its been a total paradigm shift, But in other parts of the country, you know, you still see this lack of consciousness at the distributer level, sometimes the farm level, sometimes at the level of management, people that are looking over the shoulders of the farm workers.
It’s shown in the film that the representatives of Publix super market did not want to correspond with you, or with the CIW. Did they try to contact you at all during the post-production of the film?
No. No. We had tried a number of different ways to get official statements from Publix. We had asked for interviews, we had corresponded with members of the board, and in each and every case, they shut us down. In fact, when we were filming the protest, the hunger strike of the CIW against Publix, Publix officials threatened to have us arrested. Totally uncalled for. You know, they had surveillance equipment against these farm workers, in the words of local law enforcement, that local law enforcement had never seen before. And this is a group of low wage farm workers not posing any type of physical threat to Publix, Publix was so afraid that their response was outsized. Why? Because they posed a very real, ideological threat to Publix. Publix is in an area of central Florida, that had the most number of Klan members. Florida had the most number of Klan members, that were consummated there, than any other state in the South. The state of Florida had more lynchings than all the other states combined. So you’re looking at a company that came out of a culture of racism. Now of course, you know, Publix and their directors, and their board will claim not to be racist at all, and in fact, they have a pretty diverse group of mangers, the gender equality is there, but it’s the same exact attitude towards labour that’s always existed in Central Florida. Now you ask, why? It makes no sense! When Walmart signed the Fair Food Program, Trader Joes, McDonalds, Taco Bell, these other multi billion dollar companies, some that are 5, 10, 15 times larger than Publix, you ask why hasn’t Publix signed? But when you look at the history of Publix, the geographic history of that location, some things become evident. They are not living in the 21st century. I’m not saying they’re racist, but they are not living in the 21st century, and that has to change.
I imagine the process of making this film could have been somewhat depressing at times. Seeing what the tomato pickers have to deal with, and endure, having to watch them carry out there hunger strike without any insurance that something would come of it. Did you ever have moments of fear, or doubt?
The amazing thing about filming Food Chains was that there were many times when we should have been afraid, we should have been sad, we should have been depressed, especially at the end of the hunger strike between the CIW and Publix, after which Publix didn’t sign. The CIW spent 6 days fasting. Everyone from the likes of RFK’s widow Ethel, to his children Bobby Jr and Kerry came out, and not once did anyone from Publix come out and actually sit down with the CIW and talk to them, not once did someone come out and see what they wanted, not once did they even come and express some sympathy, or some actual concern that you’d expect from any and every human being. But the CIW were not just cheerful, they were enthusiastic, they were eager, they were dynamic. They weren’t going to let Publix’s lack of engagement make them sad. They understood that if Publix didn’t come out during that week, the battle wasn’t over. You know, wars aren’t won and lost based on single battles. And the CIW isnt going to give up, and they cant give up on Publix, because the lives of tens of thousands of farm workers depend on companies like Publix signing onto the Fair Food Program. So at the very end, the last day, there was such a spirit of hope, and there was such a spirit of energy, and dynamism, and the CIW, on that day, began planning their next action against Publix. So we saw that spirit the whole time, and we couldn’t not but feel as excited, and as enthusiastic as the CIW did.
Were there any hopeful, or inspirational moments that you experienced during filming that stand out to you?
During the whole process that we were making this movie, the CIW was in secret talks with Walmart. Even while the CIW was fasting outside Publix, Walmart had expressed interest in the Fair Food Program, and the CIW’s program that eradicates poverty, and exploitation in the fields of Florida. And while we saw Publix’s ignorance, their refusal to engage the CIW, we saw a much, much larger, much more powerful company, Walmart, and one, ironically, not known for its engagement on labour issues, sincerely engaging the CIW. Walmart understood, economically, that the future of its supply chain in Florida depended on the conditions of farm workers, it depended on their happiness, and they chose to be proactive, in coming out to Florida, and meeting the CIW, and we were a witness to the whole thing. So when Walmart signed the Fair Food program, we saw that, number one, as an ultimate validation of the work of the CIW and the fact that its just a matter of time before everybody signs on too. When Walmart entered the supermarket industry in 1986 I believe, they changed the philosophy of supermarkets, for better or for worse. They made farms increase their orders substantially, they reduced margins, and the entire system, the entire grocery system followed suit. So it kind of, logically implies that if Walmart can pay this one penny premium, that any and every other company should be able to do that too. So it was exciting.
People have a lot of different requirements when it comes to buying their produce – one of the most common one being, making sure what they are buying is organic. Is there any way to buy organic produce, and still avoid buying food that may have come from exploited farm workers?
Right now, there are very few ways for people to really understand the conditions of the people that picked their food, but there’s a movement to change that. The CIW just launched a label, a Fair Food label, which is at Whole Foods in the U.S. and will be at a couple of other retailers, like Walmart for example. But that just applies to tomatoes from Florida, most of which aren’t grown organically as well. There’s a couple of other labelling initiatives. There’s the Agricultural Justice Project, the AJP, which deals specifically with organic labeling, and labour conditions on organic farms.
What advice do you have for people who watch the film, who want to help and make a difference?
The main things that customers can do now, is go to the supermarkets and ask if they’re a part of a fair food program, or the Agricultural Justice Project, and in that light, things will begin to change. We are at the beginning of the movement. And the movement has gotten this far because of consumers, a small number, and because of a small number of very dedicated farm workers, and it will only continue to grow, if those constituencies engage on a greater and greater number on both sides, the consumer level and the worker level. If people want to know what they can do, they should go to their supermarket and ask their grocer number one, does the grocer know the conditions of the people on the farms. 99% chance or greater, that answer is going to be no, and if they say yes, it’s not true. So then the consumer can further ask if the grocer can communicate to the supermarket, if the supermarket can buy tomatoes from the Fair Food Program, or investigate other crops in the Agricultural Justice Project, or support any local initiatives to support farm workers.