The Film Food Chains Tells the Story of Florida Workers, Makes Publix Look Terrible

The Film Food Chains Tells the Story of Florida Workers, Makes Publix Look Terrible
Courtesy of Food Chains

Floridians love Publix: the friendly staff, the bakery, the subs (seriously, the subs). To many of us, the grocery chain is one of the greatest things to have ever been exported from the state.

The store "Where shopping is a pleasure," however, is not such a pleasure to supply. For more than a decade, farm groups such as the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) have been staging protests against Publix, asking for just one additional penny per pound of tomatoes to help put an end to the exploitation of workers -- ironic, considering the store is hailed as being good to its employees (this year it ranked 104 on the Fortune 500 list).

Food Chains, a documentary produced by Eva Longoria, Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation and Food Inc.), Smriti Keshari, Hamilton Fish, and director Sanjay Rawal is outing Publix while illustrating the plight of farm workers across the United States.

See also: Farm Workers to Picket Publix on International Human Rights Day

Tracking the tale of journalist Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit, Food Chains explores the everyday abuse that takes place in the agricultural industry.

Not long ago, the Everglades town of Immokalee was the epicenter of farm-worker abuse. Some of the worst cases involved literal captors (modern-day slavery was, and still is, in some areas, a common occurrence) threatening, slapping, kicking, and beating workers. In one such case, two Immokalee men, Giovanni and Cesar Naverete, were sentenced to 12 years in federal prison for forcing Mexican and Guatemalan men to sleep and even defecate in the back of a U-Haul truck for more than a year.

Forced to work 12 hour-days for free -- the average worker picks and hauls 4,000 pounds of tomatoes a day during season.

From 1997 to 2010, more than 1,200 workers have been freed from similar situations in the area, largely due to the formation and expansion of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). "A lot of people who are in Florida are loosely aware," producer Smriti Keshari tells Short Order. "And a lot don't even know this is going on under their feet."

For women, the situation is even more dire. On average, one out of four in the U.S. workforce experiences sexual harassment; on the farms, the number exponentially increases. Estimates claim that about 80 percent of female farm workers are victims of harassment, and even rape, while working.

In Florida, workers are no longer held in bondage (at least not as often) and women are safer because they now have a voice. The CIW has been able to curb the abuse in two ways: an additional penny per pound of tomatoes to increase workers' wages and a code of conduct on the retailers' end, called the Fair Food Program, to ensure retailers won't buy from farms with human-rights violations.

It's actually this narrative of change that prompted producers to make the film. "We followed the stories in Barry's book and spoke with everyone involved," Keshari says. "We heard the stories of exploitation, and when it came to a solution, it really pointed to the CIW."

While the CIW first targeted farmers with its actions, the coalition quickly learned that they have it nearly as rough as the workers. The cost of farming has risen dramatically over the past 30 years, yet the market cost for tomatoes has remained the same, drastically cutting into farmers' profits. The group refocused its efforts up the chain, to the retail and consumer end of the spectrum.

In other agricultural areas and fields, the situation is actually worse than the tomato industry. Even so, there's still a long way to go for Florida's tomato pickers. The average picker takes home less than $12,000 a year -- supermarkets are a $4-trillion-a-year industry. That's where the additional penny per pound comes in.

Since the Fair Food Program began, $15 million has been paid in premiums to workers, 600 workers have complained about unfair workplace situations, and 100,000 have received materials on their rights. "It's really unique," Keshari says. "It gives a partnership between every entity in food production."

And it's working. Fast-food restaurants and grocery chains, ranging from McDonald's, Taco Bell, and Burger King to Trader Joe's, Walmart, and Whole Foods Market (which will also release a Fair Food label in the coming weeks) have signed onto the program. Still, after protests and hunger strikes in front of its Lakeland headquarters, Publix hasn't relented to activists' requests for the supermarket chain to join the Fair Food Program. You really look bad when Walmart has you beat.

Beautifully put together, Food Chains uses found footage to place the current state of farm work within the context of history. It incorporate excerpts of Martin Luther King Jr., Robert Kennedy, and the civil rights movement; news coverage of César Chávez, Dolores Huerta, and their fight with the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA) to better conditions on farms in midcentury; and, most notable, clips from Edward R. Murrow's esteemed documentary Harvest of Shame, which exposed the horrible conditions experienced by migrant workers just after Thanksgiving Day in 1960.

Smriti and her coproducers hope viewers are inspired and prompted to take action after watching Food Chains. "In Florida, what's incredible is that it's a story of change and a solution that's happening," Smriti says. "We're able to eradicate these abuses. In the past four years, it has been transformed into the most progressive state in agriculture."

We may have Rick Scott for another four years, and we may not have medical weed, but hey, we're leading the way in other ways. Publix, it's time to get it together and do the right thing.

For more information or to find a screening, visit foodchainsfilm.com. It drops in theaters on Friday, November 21.

Follow Sara Ventiera on Twitter, @saraventiera.

Follow Short Order on Facebook, Twitter @Short_Order, and Instagram @ShortOrder.


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