Seems like a lot of people are interested and taking positive action about food lately; whether it’s quitting fast food, deciding to start buying organic or going gluten free, the pursuit of a healthier lifestyle is all the buzz in America. Here at Live Fast we’ve recently dedicated serious energy and passion to put together a comprehensive holistic detox program with the help of ShapeShift‘s Kat Turner. But beyond getting educated about what to put on your plate, there is a lot to learn about the nation’s food system, and it all starts where to food actually comes from, and the conditions under which it was harvested.
A few days ago I caught up with my friend Sanjay Rawal, founder of the Illumine Group, a company specialized in nonprofit development, corporate social responsibility and humanitarian aid. His newest documentary project, Food Chain, aims to tell the story of hundreds of thousands of farm workers who suffer some of the worst human rights abuses to pick the food we eat everyday! Please watch this video teaser and read our conversation with Rawal who just got back from spending 8 months on the road gathering precious knowledge about the dirty, vicious secrets of the U.S. farming industry and the tools to make essential changes.
Food Chain explores the state of labor within the agriculture sector in the US and the immoral practices that affect the lives of countless thousands of farm workers. The teaser you just watched focuses on the problems at hand, but the solutions that have been developed by groups like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers are the real focus of the film. Support the project with a Kickstarter pledge!
LF: What happened in your life that made you want to start this project? Tell me about that incident in Miami.
SR: Last summer I was driving from Naples, Florida, one of the wealthiest zip codes in America, to Orlando to catch an early morning flight. At that point I really didn’t know my way around southern Florida at all and was glued to Google Maps on my iPhone, which, as it always does, chose the “quickest” but most backroad-y route. I was driving up single lane highways with no lights and nothing but blackness on either side of the road, desperately craving coffee.
After about an hour I passed through a tiny farming hamlet and saw an open bodega, filled at 5 am with farmworkers beginning their day. They looked actually like they had just ended their day – scruffy, covered in dirt and dust – but cheerful and boisterous. I grabbed a coffee and went on my way.
A couple minutes later I passed a diner whose parking lot was filled with Ford F-150s, not farmworker’s cars but farmer’s.
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. I could’ve been in 1911 not 2011.
I always thought I knew where my food came from and felt gratitude for it.
I realized then that I didn’t. I was asking all the right questions about my food: where (was it grown); how (were the crops treated); when (was it harvested).
I was missing the most important one: Who (picks my food).
LF: What’s the craziest / dirtiest thing you’ve learned on the road?
SR: As we were researching the film, we learned about the prevalence of human trafficking in agriculture. I knew of its existence in America through the sex trade, but human trafficking in food I thought was eradicated after slavery was banned.
I was wrong.
People no longer bringing shiploads of people but truck and busloads of people are brought in to this country.
People come here expecting to earn decent livings and to be able to send some money home. In fact recruiters canvas villages in Mexico to lure workers here just for that reason.
In very few cases, however, the people that are brought here are tricked. They come here and enter into bondage. They are told that before they receive their wages they must pay back the recruiter for his expenses. Or worse, they will never receive any wages and if they try to leave either they or their family back in Mexico will suffer physical harm.
In southern Florida, there have been 9 successful prosecutions of modern-day slavery – trafficking in agriculture. These prosecutions freed 1200 people from bondage. There are estimated to be thousands more across the US.
This is not slavery in the metaphorical sense – like someone being a slave to a job – but abject slavery where, in some cases, people are shackled up at night.
This is extremely extremely rare, but the fact that it happens in the United States in 2012 shocked us deeply.
LF: What’s the most beautiful / inspiring thing you’ve learned on the road?
SF: The great thing is that the system is changing as we speak/eat! True there are horrific abuses that exist within the food system but for the first time in our nation’s history there are solutions. And they’ve arisen in the most unlikely ways.
Over the last 20 years the supermarket industry has intensely consolidated to the point that the largest chain, Kroeger, has more annual gross revenue than Apple. Our food system really is just a glorified supply chain. Stores don’t have the best tasting products but ones most suited for this supply chain. Tomatoes for example must withstand thousand mile truck journeys. We would rather buy a pretty but tasteless tomato than a bruised but tasty one.
With this buying power, supermarkets have been branding themselves as friendly neighborhood institutions. They and chains like fast food restaurants spend billions each year on branding themselves.
One group of workers in Immokalee, Florida – the Coalition of Immokalee Workers – has recognized this and has begun targeting those chains as opposed to farmers.
As it happens, tomato workers earn just 1.4 cents per pound of tomatoes they pick. To double their wages would require us (or groceries) to pay just one cent more. This is totally negligible to stores.
The CIW went to consumers to ask them to insist on this price increase. They’ve battled Taco Bell, McDonalds, Subway, Pizza Hut, Burger King, Trader Joe’s and others successfully for this change.
With this increased wage, the whole system changes. No longer are desperate people competing for jobs with incredibly low wages. When people earn real money they become free from a cycle of abuse.
There are many problems in the US that we cannot change, but this isn’t one of them.
LF: Has filming Food Chain changed the way you eat?
SR: I used to care only for organic and local food but I learned that those definitions don’t necessarily mean workers were treated better. True, under organic conditions workers are exposed to much less brutal pesticides, but they can still be receiving substandard wages and they can still be sexually and verbally harassed.
I do my part now to buy from farmers markets where I can ask farmers about the labor conditions on their farms. And when I do go to big chains, I shop at Whole Foods, which has signed labor agreements with groups like the CIW.
LF: What is the most important issue you’ve retained while making this documentary?
SR: For the food system to change we must not simply become more conscious consumers. We need to become more conscious citizens. There are powerful lobbies at all levels of the food chain, from grocery stores to farmers. But farmworkers have no lobby. We as a population must become their advocates. It is unacceptable that in 2012 millions of people live in servitude to the greater population’s need for cheap affordable food. We need to let grocery stores and politicians know that we are not going to allow them to hide behind the politics of immigration to mask the suffering of farmworkers. This nation has always relied on immigrants to do farm work: from indentured Europeans to forced immigrants like slaves and from Asians to Jamaicans and now Latinos. We need to put an end to this cycle of injustice. And we can, every time we go to a supermarket.
LF: What are the next steps when the project gets funded?
SR: We are finished filming and are 5 months away from finishing the editing process. To complete that process, however, we need to fundraise. So far, all of our expenses from filming are sitting on credit cards. But we’re so desperate to get this film done and spread the word that we are just looking at raising money to pay for things we can’t put on cards, like hiring an editor.
A few large distributors are already interested in this film and we’re hoping for a late fall or winter 2013 release.
Photos courtesy of forestwoodward.com