The Hands that Feed Us: Food Chains

The Hands that Feed Us: Food Chains

by Food Chains film producer, Sanjay Rawal

There are close to 2 million farmworkers in the US which means that 1 out of every 150 people or so is a farmworker. Each of us eats about 330 pounds of fresh fruits and vegetables every year, nearly all of which is picked by hand. There are no machines harvesting our lettuce or our kale. Farmworkers bend at the waste about 1000 times per hour as they harvest our leafy greens. This holds true for most of our produce.

Ninety five percent of this fresh produce goes into the “supply chain” which delivers these goods to us via restaurants, food service, fast food and grocery stores. Supermarket chains account for more than 50% of the sales of fresh produce and in fact, those stores earn an outsized percentage of their profits from produce.

Let’s take a tomato. The average retail price for a large round tomato is about $2.90 per pound, a price that rarely fluctuates for a consumer. But there are wild fluctuations for farmers. In fact, in some months, farmers receive less than 15 cents per pound. In others, they receive a dollar. From the retail price, the workers who pick those tomatoes earn about 1.5 cents per pound if that tomato is from Florida – less if from anywhere else, like Mexico. Worse than these sub-poverty wages are the conditions. Farm labor ranks amongst the most dangerous professions in America. In addition to the physicality, there is a tremendous amount of verbal and sexual harassment.

One region of the industry is fighting hard to change this – Florida’s tomato sector. Together with farmworkers (the Coaliton of Immokalee Workers), farmers have instituted a set of rigorous checks and balances to ensure workers rights are met. The inspiration to do so comes from large purchasers of their tomatoes. These retail buyers were pressured by workers, in fact, to use their market power to help the industry transform.

So, in the spirit of Cesar Chavez Day, March 31st, which marks the end of National Farmworker Awareness Week, what can you do? Number one, support farmworker-driven programs like the Coalition’s Fair Food Program. Support retailers that support workers. And, most importantly, ask your chefs and supermarket managers if they can tell you which produce items were picked by well-paid, well-treated workers. If they can’t answer this, and they probably won’t be able to – tell them you’ll give them a couple weeks, but you’ll be back.

Movements don’t begin with answers. They begin with questions. And your questions can help transform an industry that so desperately needs it.

Sanjay Rawal is an Indian American strategist and filmmaker who focuses on the links between our sustenance and the thousands of anonymous workers who grow it in the fields — many of whom experience wage theft and physical or sexual abuse.

After working in the nonprofit sector alongside his father, agricultural geneticist Dr. Kanti Rawal, for nearly a decade, he decided to put what he learned to work in the media. Mr. Rawal served as a consultant to documentary filmmakers and then branched out as a filmmaker himself with “Ocean Monk,” who took the Best Short Doc Prize at the 2010 St. Louis Film Festival, and “Challenging Impossibility,” which premiered at Tribeca in 2011.

Now, Mr. Rawal is speaking to an even larger audience with a feature-length documentary called “Food Chains.” This film, which premiered at the latest Berlinale, describes the challenges that farm workers endure despite years of work by leaders such as Cesar Chavez. “Food Chains” reveals the human cost in our food supply and the complicity of large buyers of produce like fast food and supermarkets,” said a spokesperson.