It’s been 10 years since the Morgan Spurlock documentary “Super Size Me ” challenged people to think about what goes into a meal at McDonald’s. We’ve never been able to look at chicken nuggets quite the same way.
The 2009 documentary “Food Inc. ,” showing how food is produced, was similarly revolutionary, contributing to a food culture awash in buzzwords: Organic, fair trade, GMO-free, gluten-free, cage-free, grass fed, free range, conflict-free, ethically sourced.
Now, a new documentary, produced by Eva Longoria and “Fast Food Nation ” author Eric Schlosser, narrated by Forest Whitaker, wants to focus America’s fixation with food on the people responsible for getting it to us in the first place: farmworkers.
“Food Chains ” largely centers on the dispute between Immokalee, Fla., tomato pickers and the Publix supermarket chain. At issue is a years-long standoff between the grocer and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), which began the Fair Food Program. The film follows farmworkers through a six-day public hunger strike, staged at Publix headquarters, while explaining the impetus for the action.
The Fair Food Program is a voluntary initiative, seeking to eliminate many of the same problems that United Farm Workers of America co-founder Cesar Chavez spent his life fighting: wage theft, sexual harassment and assault in the fields, pesticide poisoning and what was effectively modern-day slavery.
But perhaps the biggest issue, and the one that has drawn the most attention, is getting large-scale buyers of tomatoes to pay a penny more per pound, which the activists say would double farmworker salaries.
“Right now, a worker has to pick two and a quarter tons of tomatoes to make the equivalent of the minimum wage, and that’s in an average day of 10 hours,” Gerardo Reyes Chavez, an Immokalee farmworker who harvests tomatoes and watermelons, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
“The farmworkers in this country aren’t poor,” Lucas Benitez, a tomato picker in Immokalee, says in the film. “We are screwed.”
Director Sanjay Rawal does not explicitly appoint Gerardo Chavez as Cesar Chavez’s successor in the fight for farmworker rights, but there is notable symmetry in the story lines. The CIW started organizing in 1993, the same year Cesar Chavez died at age 66.
In 1968, Robert F. Kennedy was present for a “spiritual and penitential fast for nonviolence,” led by Cesar Chavez and the UFW. In 2012, Kennedy’s widow, Ethel, and their children Kerry and Robert Jr. were present to speak at the end of a six-day hunger strike the CIW staged while protesting Publix outside the company’s headquarters.
Publix did not respond to requests from The Post to comment on the dispute or the film specifically; it does have a response to the continued campaign in a section on its Web site devoted to the “CIW issue.”
Since the CIW began the Campaign for Fair Food in 2001, 90 percent of the Florida tomato industry has joined. Twelve corporate partners including Taco Bell, McDonald’s, Chipotle, Trader Joe’s and Wal-Mart have signed the Fair Food contract, which guarantees a baseline of safe working conditions and a price of at least 2 cents per pound of tomatoes. The Fair Foods Standards Council, which grew out of CIW’s work, is an independent third party that allows workers to report labor violations without fear of retaliation from their employers.
“What we bring with the Fair Food Program is not another model of corporate social responsibility, because the goal is not to make any corporation legit,” Chavez said. “The goal is to address human rights and labor rights that exist in the fields. The creation of the program comes directly from the participation of the workers in the program and the ideas of our community. That’s what we call worker-led social responsibility.”
When it came to reporting problems such as sexual harassment and wage theft to regional offices of the National Labor Relations Board, formal mechanisms were slow and reactionary. The systems in place weren’t conducive to the sort of immediate reforms for which many farmworkers were desperate. In the film, we see Gerardo Chavez speaking at a CIW gathering. “We are the new Department of Labor,” he tells his fellow farmworkers.
“Whenever there was a situation, the consequences were not enough to do something, and they would be applied after a problem has already happened,” Chavez said. “They would clean the mess after. There was no convention.”
Now there are plans to expand the Fair Food Program nationally to other crops and industries where workers face similar hardships. One of the immediate effects of “Food Chains” was that Chavez and the Napa Valley Grapegrowers made plans to meet after a screening and panel discussion at the Napa Valley Film Festival.
More than anything, what the CIW may have on its side is patience and persistence. It took 13 years from when the CIW began the Campaign for Fair Food to get Wal-Mart to sign on. Wal-Mart is cited in “Food Chains” as one of the corporations responsible for driving produce prices down when it entered the grocery market in the 1970s, because of its tremendous buying power.
Now, as the nation’s largest purveyor of organic produce, it’s on the other side.
“I don’t know how long this is going to take for corporations who are not participating, like Wendy’s, Publix, Stop and Shop, Giant and others that are not a part of the program yet,” Chavez said. “Ideally, in 10 years, we would love for the Fair Food Program to become the standard in which business is conducted. We would love to be talking about how the program was able to change the consciousness of the nation and became an example of how things could be changed for other industries, too.”
“Food Chains” opens in select cities Friday. West End Cinema is hosting a screening and panel discussion at 7:20 p.m. Friday. The CIW is hosting a Vigil for Farmworker Justice at 6 p.m. Saturday at George Washington University Plaza.