Farm workers fight for their rights in "Food Chains" documentary


"Food Chains" director Sanjay Rawal answers audience questions after a screening of his documentary By Jamie Leventhal

Students don’t normally look at their salad or pizza and think to themselves, “I wonder if the laborers who picked those tomatoes were treated and paid fairly,” but after Real Food at NU’s (NURF) presentation of “Food Chains” on Tuesday night, some are rethinking their food sources.

Clumps of people gathered in Harris Hall before the film, excitedly chattering about signing up for classes, campus environmental issues and the mystery SEED winter guest speaker. They quickly quieted down as Colleen Fitzgerrell and Miranda Cawley, the co-presidents of NURF, introduced the film and its director, Sanjay Rawal, who attended the screening.

The lights dimmed, and soon images of rolling farm fields bursting with tomatoes, peppers, strawberries and mistreated workers filled the large screen.

“We’ve seen over the last 30 years, the wages of farm workers have remained stagnant,” said Rawal. “In real dollars, which means with inflation, they’ve actually gone down.”

The film, which takes place in 2011, focuses on workers in the south Florida town of Immokalee as they battle against major corporations for basic workers’ rights and fair pay. Rawal said he believes that the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, or the CIW, has developed a solution called the Fair Food Program that is applicable to every other group in the country. The program encourages major corporations to only work with farms that provide workers with responsible treatment and salaries.

“There are maybe five stores that control 70 percent of the grocery industry, which means that… a farmer can no longer negotiate with the buyer,” said Rawal.”The only place where a farmer can maintain some profitability is with wages of workers.“

The Fair Food Program began in 2002, when the workers decided to target large organizations to attack the problems of farming from the top down. The CIW realized that they could double workers’ salaries by asking buyers to pay an extra cent per pound of tomatoes.

In addition to salary increases, the Fair Food Program requires farms to treat their employees responsibly. While an average of 25 percent of women experience sexual harassment at work, an estimated 80 percent of women laborers are harassed on these farms, said Rawal. Many of these go unreported.

The CIW first targeted Taco Bell, a major tomato buyer, by garnering support from college students around the country. They held protests and boycotted the fast food chain, and eventually Taco Bell signed on to the program. Other major companies soon followed, and today, 13 companies have signed on to the agreement, including Whole Foods, Walmart and Trader Joe’s, as well as Sodexo, Northwestern’s food supplier.

Although these are huge steps for the movement, the CIW still has work to do. The central conflict of the movie is the laborers’ dispute with Publix, a major grocery store in central Florida that refuses to sign onto the Fair Food Program.

In the film, Publix declines to talk with the workers during a six-day hunger strike, and calls the police when they peacefully attempt to talk to the Chief Financial Officer. A statement from a Publix spokesperson declares the company would not negotiate over what they labeled as “labor disputes.”

The film is working to help the CIW have an impact. After its release, people flooded Publix’s Facebook page with questions, forcing them to respond. They have since invited farmers to clarify the Fair Food Program to them, but have not yet signed on. And Publix is not only company resisting.

“We’re really trying to focus the attention on Wendy’s,” said Rawal. “The commercials are really nice and it seems like a very family oriented company, and for them to disregard the conditions of workers really doesn’t make any sense.”

After watching the movie and a Q&A session with Rawal, SESP junior Renee Wellman said she left with a different perspective about her food sources.

“I think it will make me more aware of where my food comes from and think twice about organic and nonorganic and other certifications that might be on food,” said Wellman. “I hope it will help NURF move forward to get more real food on campus.”

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