“Food Chains” salutes the people who pick the fruits and vegetables we eat and details their struggle to be treated with dignity. Director Sanjay Rawal explores how supermarkets help perpetuate the poverty and abusive labor conditions farmworkers experience. You may never regard a tomato indifferently again after watching this worthy documentary.
Combining statistics, interviews and footage, Rawal examines how supermarket and fast-food corporations have become the top-rung players in the economics of the food-supply chain. They are also prime culprits in the social injustice affecting those at the bottom – farmworkers.
Narrated by Forest Whitaker, the film transports us to Immokalee, Fla., and into the world of tomato pickers there. We meet workers who live in disturbingly crowded spaces and earn about $42 for a full day’s work. Abuse ranging from robbery to sexual harassment to, in one shocking case, 21st-century slavery can accompany the job.v The film centers on a six-day hunger strike conducted by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The gallant group of tomato pickers is protesting the Florida-based supermarket chain Publix, which unlike Trader Joe’s, Walmart, McDonald’s and other giants, has not signed onto the coalition’s Fair Food Program.
The program calls for companies to pay just 1 cent more for a pound of tomatoes – this would double farmworker earnings – and to demand that employers treat farmworkers decently. Throughout the hunger strike’s duration, Publix representatives refuse to meet with coalition members.
Rawal also examines related subjects, including immigration issues and farmworker history. A clip from a 1960 Edward R. Murrow report titled “Harvest of Shame” reveals abuses that still exist today. A segment on grape pickers in California’s Napa Valley illustrates the national reality of farmworker injustice.
Rawal, a newcomer, hasn’t made the year’s most innovative documentary. This is a conventional advocacy film featuring social-justice crusaders, corporate greed and caring celebrities who happen to be box-office friendly (author Eric Schlosser and actress Eva Longoria among them).
We hear from virtually no female farmworkers, even when sexual harassment is addressed.v We don’t learn, either, how customers feel about shopping at Publix.
But Rawal covers lots of ground and combines statistics and human elements effectively.
Modest but pointed, the film impresses powerfully as a portrait of farmworker hardships and triumphs. The sight of a worker and his family living in a cramped trailer is memorable.
Elsewhere, a laborer describes a tomato field as being so uncomfortably hot that a cool spray of pesticide is almost a relief.
The victories achieved when Taco Bell and Walmart join the Fair Food Program demonstrate the successes attainable by organizing.
Both a labor documentary and realist David and Goliath story, this is a film that everyone should see.
Starring Forest Whitaker, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, Eric Scholosser, Eva Longoria, Barry Estabrook
Directed by Sanjay Rawal
Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes
Note: The director is slated to attend a panel discussion following the 7 p.m. screening Nov. 28 at the Roxie Theater, 3117 16th St., S.F.