There is more interest in food now than at any point in our nation’s history. We have more standards with which to make conscious food choices than ever before. Yet while people want to know where their food is grown, how it’s grown, and when it was harvested, no one is really asking any questions beginning with “who”. Despite this tremendous interest in food, there is almost no interest in the people that pick it.
When I discovered these contradictions in my own life, I realized that I needed to make a film that would discuss these issues.
Farm workers have historically been amongst the most vulnerable people in America. Though the human rights issues are now mired in a debate on immigration status, farm workers have always been subjected to exploitation. From those who were Native Americans, European indentured servants and African slaves to sharecroppers, White migrants, Asians and now Latinos, farm workers have faced abuses ranging from verbal and sexual harassment to wage theft and slavery.
I saw these contradictions first hand last summer on a drive from Naples to Orlando, from one of the richest cities in the country, on roads that passed through some of the poorest. The segregation was striking. Latino towns of farmworkers had facilities equivalent to those African American towns had under Jim Crow. In fact, I learned, many of these farmworker towns were once predominantly African American. I could have very well been in 1911 rather than 2011.
Segregation is hardly an uncommon occurrence in our nation. What was striking was the fact that this segregation still existed in agriculture despite the level of consumer interest and awareness.
My realization was compounded by the fact that I was raised in the industry. My father was an executive at a large vegetable company and a plant breeder, and I spent summers on farms. I knew the where, whens and hows of the food industry. I couldn’t believe, though, that I of all people never asked “Who?”
My film, Food Chain, started in order to answer this question. Over eight months I traveled the U.S. with a crew of filmmakers to profile the people that pick our food. The more we learned of their stories and the regular exploitation they faced, the more we questioned our food system.
We met people who were freed from forced labor in Florida. We met a mother whose child was born without arms and legs because she was acutely exposed to pesticides while pregnant. We met workers whose bosses paid them less than half of the minimum wage for doing backbreaking work in 100 degree heat.
The deeper we explored the oppression, however, the more we became attracted by the possibilities of transformation. We began to meet a number of extremely powerful people in the farmworker community, workers that embraced their duty in the food chain while lashing back at the subjugation they experienced.
Some groups, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, continue to change the structure of the food chain itself, going straight to consumers of the top purchasers like McDonalds and Trader Joe’s to demand an increase in wages and working conditions.
We learned that the policies of the large buyers, in particular the supermarkets, are at the heart of the problems workers face. Supermarkets are no different from other multibillion dollar corporations. They dominate agribusiness and either know of the violations at its base or enjoy a willful ignorance. Food justice begins with a transformation of the grocery industry.
With the help the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the Florida Farmworkers Association, the UFW, Eric Schlosser, Dolores Huerta, Hilda Solis, Barbara Lee, Barry Estabrook, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and others we found the answers we sought.
To change our food system, we don’t just need conscious consumers. We need conscious citizens. We need to organize and support worker-led movements like the CIW and demand structural changes of an industry that has resisted change for centuries.
There are many problems we face in our nation that will be very very difficult to solve. We learned, however, that this is not one of them.
We hope you will join us by supporting our film Food Chain on Kickstarter.