'Food Chains' Documentary Sheds Light on Farmworkers' Reality | Civil Eats

‘Food Chains’ Documentary Sheds Light on Farmworkers’ Reality

Farmworkers in Florida picking tomatoes are paid by the bucket photo courtesy FOOD CHAINSA few years ago, Sanjay Rawal was driving past a farm in Immokalee, Florida and he saw a group of migrant farmworkers toiling away in the fields. Later that evening, he drove by the same field to find the same group still hard at work. Meanwhile, the farm managers were eating at a separate facility nearby. “The segregation of these two communities shocked me. Almost next door to one another were these two eating facilities–one for whites one for ‘coloreds’. The ‘coloreds’ in this case weren’t African Americans, but farmworkers. It could’ve been 1911, not 2011.”

Rawal has been a strong supporter of the local food movement, but he realized he knew very little about food production. He became curious about, “who exactly was producing these organic tomatoes. What were their conditions like? What were they paid?”

Now Rawal is releasing his third film, Food Chains, about just this topic. Produced by actors Eva Longoria and Forest Whitaker and directed by Rawal, Food Chains debuted at major film festivals this year, including the Berlinale Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival and opens for a limited theatrical run on Friday, November 21.FoodChainsTheatricalSmaller

The documentary takes a deep look at the lives and working conditions of American farmworkers, paying particular attention to the case of workers in Immokalee, Florida, one of the largest tomato-producing regions in the U.S. Here, workers, mainly from Latin America, have endured deplorable working conditions, wage theft, and–in some cases—modern day slavery. It’s also the home to one of the most respected, important fights for food worker’s rights in the nation.

Food Chains presents viewers with an intimate portrayal of Immokalee’s farmworkers’ lives, and connects their plight to social justice, showing the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the group that has spent the last two decades campaigning for the workers rights and better wages. The film centers around a week-long fast for fair food CIW took part in in 20022, and the event serves as a lens on their wider work to create the Fair Food Program.

The latter is a farmworker- and consumer-driven initiative to increase farmworkers’ wages by a penny more a pound, and improve conditions in Florida. (Barry Estabrook wrote extensively about CIW’s work in his seminal book Tomatoland.) The film also looks at how the American supermarket industry operates and the way CIW has worked with everyone from Trader Joe’s to Walmart to enact change.

The film’s executive producer and Fast Food Nation author Eric Scholsser played an important role in developing the film and believes it speaks to an under-represented aspect of today’s food dialogue.

“America’s food system will never be sustainable if it’s based on the abuse of poor workers,” he said in a recent phone interview. “Food issues and human rights are inextricably linked and awareness of that fact is long overdue.”

We’ll bring the news to you.

Get the weekly Civil Eats newsletter, delivered to your inbox.

Like Scholsser, Rawal agreed that what is lacking when it comes to food issues in America, or anywhere else for that matter, is awareness, and hopes that the film will appeal to college students and to a younger demographic who are coming of age in a time when food studies programs and community gardens are becoming more common.

Although the film wrapped in 2012 and ends without showing several of CIW’s recent wins–including the historic agreement by mega-retailer Walmart to sign on to the Fair Food Agreement last January—it is not without a message of hope for food workers and their advocates.

In a post on the CIW blog, the organizers wrote: “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.”



Today’s food system is complex.

Invest in nonprofit journalism that tells the whole story.

Molly Hannon is a freelance journalist based in Virginia. She has written for Al Jazeera America, The New York Times, The Guardian, Modern Farmer, The Daily Beast, Paris Review Daily, among others. She holds an M.A. in arts and culture reporting from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. You can find more of her work here. Read more >

Like the story?
Join the conversation.

  1. Ann Fullarton
    I saw the movie last night and it was very moving. I live 20 miles from Immokalee and although aware of the situation, through our Unitarian Universalist Congregation and our work with the farm workers,I was stunned to realize the attitude of Publix and their un-cooperatve stance. The situation cannot continue. I am going to let my Publix know how I feel and I will work to help get that one penny for the farm workers. A tip of the iceberg.
  2. Timely topic to say the least. Looking forward to seeing this!
  3. JB
    I have to admit that I know very little about the actual food production, despite being a vegan for more than two years now. But I'm not surprised. Food prices overall are very cheap in supermarkets and the price burden has to resonate in the salaries of farm workers. I believe that the only reasonable solution would be to create a functioning urban agriculture. With current technology, it is not difficult to maintain production of a huge variety of vegetables and fruits in any climate and even in an urbanized environment.
  4. Blanca Garcia
    Many people think migrant workers are illegally in the US to work the fields. My family born and raised in the US traveled to a small farm outisde of Naples Florida when I was a teenager to work the fields. I was already of high school age and attended Lely High and I remember being in class at 6:50 a.m. and then we had early release like at 1:30 and my father would be waiting for us to get our work clothes on so we could go work the fields. We lived in really run down mobile homes and our days felt like they got longer and longer. I know how hard this must be for so many people and I really appreciate that you did this movie. I am now an executive office supervisor, 2 of our boys went off to serve in the military and our daughter is a civil engineer. The reason I say this is because working in the fields taught me so many lessons and within them I knew I had to break the migrant cycle and really support my children in being who they want to be.

More from

Food and Farm Labor


Author Tamar Adler and the cover of her new book, The Everlasting Meal Cookbook, about reducing food waste while cooking delicious food. (Author photo credit: Aaron Stern)

Tamar Adler Teaches Home Cooks to Turn Food Waste Into Dinner

The author of the beloved book “An Everlasting Meal” talks about her new companion cookbook geared toward making biscuits with sour milk and other tips for treating leftover food with the respect it deserves.


Why BIPOC Farmers Need More Protection From Climate Change

Vero Mazariegos-Anastassiou standing on her small farm in central California. (Photo courtesy of Vero Mazariegos-Anastassiou)

Food Prices Are Still High. What Role Do Corporate Profits Play?

a young family carries the shopping in together despite high food prices

This Community Garden Helps Farmworkers Feed Themselves. Now It’s Facing Eviction.

A farmworkers grows stands in the fields harvesting food at the Tierras Milperas community garden.

Can Farming With Trees Save the Food System?