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December 04, 2014
On November 23rd, I went to see the documentary “Food Chains” during its premiere screening at the West End Cinema, organized by DC Fair Food. Thanks to Founding Farmers, a DC restaurant sourcing local food, I got a free ticket to the show. I was lucky, since all of the shows for the film’s opening week were sold out! However, due to the successful promotion by DC Fair Food and the popularity of “Food Chains,” during it’s opening week, the film’s screenings at West End Cinema have been extended until Dec 4th.
“Food Chains” tells an important story about our food system. In both its history and its present form, it has been a food system that exploits human lives for labor. The film’s premiere just before Thanksgiving couldn’t be more fitting. As families and friends sit together and give thanks around a genuine feast, some may forget that their food has been harvested or processed by those who struggle daily to make sure they can put food on the their own tables. However, this film does more than make us feel guilty. It actually empowers us, as consumers, to make the right choices about where to purchase our food, and how to use our purchasing power to tell companies to do the right thing.
In the film, we are taken to the large, industrial farms in Immokalee, FL where the majority of our country's tomatoes are grown, including the tomatoes grown for big companies such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Taco Bell, and Wal-mart.
In these fields, acre after acre of tomatoes are planted and picked green (ripened via ethanol gas for their long commute) by hundreds of migrant workers. These workers aren't paid by the hour. They’re paid per bucket of tomatoes they pick. In the film you can see the farmworkers rushing as fast as they can to pick every visible tomato they see and put them in a large bucket. When the bucket it is full they run to a truck to give it to another farmworker, who in return gives them a chip, which they use to collect their wages for that day. For every 32 lb bucket they pick, they earn an average of 45 cents. To get an average day’s salary (about 56 dollars), each worker has to fill about 125 buckets – two tons of tomatoes.
In the summer of 2012 I visited Immokalee for the Student/Farmworker Alliance’s annual “Encuentro,” (or meeting), a gathering of college students fighting together alongside the farmworkers of Immokalee. When I visited Immokalee we went to see the houses that the farmworkers lived in. Because these farmworkers have no transportation, the places they can live in Immokalee are very limited. In the small houses we visited we were invited to guess how much the rent was for each month. Despite all of our best guesses, we were all guessing too low. I don’t remember the exact amount, but I remember thinking that it was at least twice as much as the rent for my 3-bedroom apartment in Louisiana at the time. Because one farmworker can only make so much money in one week, these tiny houses were usually occupied by 10-15 farmworkers.
All of this is really disheartening, and even more so when you can see the actual people being exploited and hear their stories. However, despite all of this, this film is far from depressing. “Food Chains” shows the real struggle of the farmworkers in Immokalee and their fight to be treated with dignity and justice – not only for themselves but also for the future of their families. Despite how hard their lives are they are winning victories every day.
Farmworkers in Immokalee have been organizing for years, but they started gaining major victories in the last ten years when they started thinking more strategically about who they could target to get better working conditions. Pressuring the farmers who owned the land and paid their wages was not working. How does the exploitation of their labor work in our food system? The farmworkers are being squeezed out, both by the large growers and by the buyers of tomatoes. The film does a great job illustrating how this system works.
Years ago, we had dozens of different grocery stores. Now we have just a handful of large grocery chains such as Walt-Mart, Publix, Kroger, Giant and others. Because there are only a few big buyers now, there is very little competition. And thanks to Wal-Mart, the pressure to sell even cheaper food is always present. For other grocery stores to compete with Wal-Mart, they feel pressured to find cheaper and cheaper tomatoes.
These buyers, not the growers, make the demand for prices of tomatoes. Large growers have no choice but to sell to these buyers at whatever price they demand. In some cases, prices of tomatoes have been so low that it has actually been cheaper to let the tomatoes rot in the fields rather than pick them and sell them.
The growers get squeezed out. Because they have few options for cutting costs, they are pressured to squeeze as much labor as they can out of their workers for cheaper wages. If one farm does not sell their tomatoes for the price that these buyers demand, then the buyers will simply go to the next farm. Knowing this, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers realized that in order to fight for better working conditions and wages, they had to go straight to the buyers.
With their first campaign directed at Taco Bell, after years of fighting they won their first victory in 2005: Taco Bell agreed to pay a penny more per pound of tomatoes, nearly doubling farmworker salaries. Not only that, but Taco Bell also signed the Fair Food Agreement, committing to enforce more humane working conditions. Now in 2014, about twelve companies have signed this agreement and have agreed to pay a penny more per pound for farmworkers! Some of these signatories include McDonald’s, Chipotle, Whole Foods, and even Wal-Mart.
The beauty of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers’ campaign is that it unites consumers and farmworkers together, from both sides of the food supply chain. As the “Food Chains” film illustrates, farmworkers were able to win these victories in part because of the action of newly educated consumers - the Student/Farmworker Alliance was organized by college students who wanted to support the farmworkers, so they used their consumer power to pressure their college dining companies to sign the Fair Food Agreement. As a result of their action, Aramark, Sodexo, and Compass Group have all signed the Fair food Agreement, accounting for at least 98% of the tomatoes eaten in U.S. Universities.
Today, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers and their supporters are targeting Wendy’s, one of the last major fast food giants, to sign the Fair Food Agreement. They are also pressuring Publix, a grocery store chain in Florida to come to the table with the farmworkers from their own state. They have been fighting these two corporations for years, and so far they have not even agreed to speak to the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. However, despite this, all of us in the room for the “Food Chains” film screening knew it was only a matter of time. Their model for getting companies to treat farmworkers more fairly has been growing more and more successful, creating real change in the lives of the farmworkers of Immokalee. It has been so helpful to them that farmworkers of other crops in other areas may be looking to adapt their model to address their own struggles.
If you are catching this blog entry in time, I recommend going to see the film “Food Chains,” – or stream it online. It is a tough story to digest at first, but it’s also an empowering one. We have so much more power than we realize to do great things, and to make sure that the companies we buy from are treating all of their workers with dignity and respect.
This is one of the reasons why I care so much about where my food comes from. This is also why I don’t mind paying a little bit more for good food. When you know that the people who grow and harvest your food are treated with dignity and respect, and are paid a living a wage, isn’t it worth it to pay a little bit more? For us at 4P Foods, we are used to paying significantly more for vegetables and fruits than most other places would. We may not profit as much from it, but we know that we are creating a local food system that we all want to be part of – and are glad to have other people be a part of as well.