'Food Chains': Film Review

Forest Woodward
This impassioned call to action will hopefully inspire greater consumer awareness and action

Sanjay Rawal's documentary chronicles the plight of migrant farm workers, specifically tomato pickers in Southern Florida

At one point in Sanjay Rawal's documentary about the oppressive conditions faced by migrant farmworkers, clips are shown from Edward R. Murrow's landmark 1960 documentary, Harvest of Shame, about the same subject. It's a sobering reminder of how little has changed in the more than half-century that has elapsed, a point that Food Chains repeatedly makes in compelling fashion.

Executive produced by, among others, actress Eva Longoria and author Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation), both seen in on-camera interviews, the documentary narrated by Forest Whitaker concentrates on the plight of tomato pickers in Immokalee, Fla., who have banded together to form the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Their goal: to induce their product's major purchasers, specifically the ubiquitous Florida supermarket chain Publix, to simply pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes, a rate increase that would result in an extra cost to consumers of a mere 44 cents a year. Currently receiving an average of $42 a day for their strenuous efforts — which adds up to some $10,000 to $13,000 annually — the workers estimate that the increase would essentially double their salaries. To publicize their cause, they engage in a six-day hunger strike not far from the company's headquarters.

The film well documents the difficult conditions faced by the workers. "We live like animals in cramped houses," says one, who somehow manages to pick some 4,000 pounds of tomatoes a day. Complicating their situation is the fact that most of them are undocumented, and that many of the female workers face pervasive sexual harassment, with a slavery ring being uncovered in 2007.

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The film includes a brief history of the farmworkers' movement, from its Cesar Chavez-led grape strike, supported by the likes of Robert F. Kennedy (his widow Ethel, son Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and  daughter Kerry show up to support the CIW). It also veers into an exploration of the problems faced by grape pickers in Napa Valley, where housing prices are so high that the workers are forced to make lengthy commutes to their jobs.

While the CIW has enjoyed some success with its proposed solution, dubbed the Fair Food Program, such as Walmart's revamping of its produce-buying policies, it still has a long way to go, as evidenced by the refusal of Publix's officials to even meet with the workers. Like so many documentaries seeking to advance social progress, Food Chains is simultaneously inspirational and deeply depressing. Hopefully widening its exposure is the release of a Spanish-language version voiced by the likes of actor Demian Bichir.

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Production: Illumine Films, Two Moon Productions
Narrator: Forest Whitaker
Director: Sanjay Rawal
Screenwriters: Sanjay Rawal, Erin Barnett
Producers: Smriti Keshari, Sanjay Rawal, Eva Longoria, Hamilton Fish
Executive producers: Eva Longoria, Eric Schlooser, Lekha Singh, Abigail Disney, David Damian Figueroa, Bob Leary, Alfonso Montiel, Robert Gonzalez Barrera, Alisa Swidler, Mayra Hernandez, Eric Schlosser
Director of photography: Forest Woodward
Editors: Erin Barnett, Emily Gumpel
Composer: Gil Talmi

No rating, 82 minutes

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