After working for non-profits, government agencies while running a small agricultural genetics company with his father, Sanjay Rawal took up documentary filmmaking. Food Chains is his first documentary feature and it won the Doc Impact Award 2016. This interview was conducted on behalf of mediaforchange.org by Shamina de Gonzaga.
SG: Your biography references that you grew up in an agricultural family and your film, Food Chains, opens with a dedication to the spiritual leader, Sri Chinmoy. How did your upbringing and spirituality influence your approach to the subject of workers’ rights in the tomato industry?
SR: The film is a combination of two tracks in my life, family history and spiritual pursuits: my dad was a botanist focused on the tomato industry, so I had seen the tomato industry growing up in the Central Valley of California, but through the specific lens of small research fields where people were employed full time. There was farm labor everywhere, but I wasn’t directly exposed to exploitation.
What I learned through Sri Chinmoy was the importance of gratitude. When I moved to New York in 1997 to study with him, I wanted to understand my place in the world. Fast-forward to the summer of 2011- I went to a tomato conference in Florida on behalf of my dad, and I was reading a book called Tomatoland at the time about the abuse of tomato workers. It struck me that I needed a reckoning …. Despite having grown up in an agricultural family, having pledged my life to gratitude and oneness, and living in a culture where healthy eating is promoted, I had no sense of what it really took to grow my food. So it was a sense of shame that motivated me to start Food Chains.
SG: Prior to your film, I wasn’t aware of the extent of supermarkets’ economic power and influence on workers….
SR: Supermarkets exist in a realm where there are no monopolistic tendencies; the grocery supply chain is segregated on almost every level, there’s no vertical integration. However, large supermarket corporations don’t need to control 100% of the whole supply chain in order to wield an outsized influence. For example, Walmart controls about 30% of the US produce market. Once it sets terms on its supply chain, those will have a major impact on every level below. For example, even if a farm only sells 30% of its produce to Wal-mart, just by complying by Wal-mart’s terms, every other store the farm sells to gets tomatoes grown to Wal-mart specifications. There is a complex law against monopsony, but very little ability to enforce it. In the 1950s, the Senate held a hearing against the Great A&P supermarket, which was considered to have too much power, and A&P countered that they were being targeted unfairly. The Senate felt that A&P controlled the pricing of goods. A&P countered that they in fact were not colluding with other markets to determine pricing. The Senate was basing arguments around the theory of monopolies not monopsonies. The Great A&P didn’t have to collude with any other supermarkets on pricing. Just by virtue of their power over the supply chain, the terms they set (which influenced pricing) set the standards across the industry. In the US, water and clean air are considered rights, so there is a regulatory framework around their delivery, or protection. That is not the case with most food. Tomatoes grown on the same farm can be priced totally differently at the retail level depending on the supermarket; there is zero price control on food. The consolidation in the food industry over the past 30 years has resulted in a situation where the terms they set have a tremendous impact at all other levels. Paul Krugman discussed these dynamics in an article about the monopsonistic tendencies of Amazon. It’s basically capitalism in its purest, most unregulated form.
In the US, water and clean air are considered rights, so there is a regulatory framework around their delivery, or protection. That is not the case with food. Tomatoes grown on the same farm can be sold for totally different prices depending on the supermarket; there is zero price control on food. The consolidation in the food industry over the past 30 years has resulted in a situation where the terms they set have a tremendous impact at all other levels.
SG: Your film focuses on the actions of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Looking into their work, it seems they even have influence overseas, with textile workers in Bangladesh, among other groups. How did that come to be?
Movements of the oppressed are beginning to coalesce. We see this in the “Fight for $15” and “Black Lives Matter.” Groups are recognizing that what’s good for one is good for all. In terms of influence abroad, Scott Nova’s organization, the Workers Rights Consortium, had helped the CIW draft a legally binding agreement with Taco Bell in 2004. A decade later, when leading a fight with H&M and Zara, they applied updated versions of that agreement. Workers might seem like they’re in separate sectors, but they are in deep and sincere communication.
SG: Who watches your film? How do you reach audiences beyond activists and sympathizers? Did you feel that you needed celebrity involvement?
SR: When it comes to issues of extreme oppression, there is generally a vacuum of interest. At this year’s ESPY awards LeBron James and other athletes opened with a plea to other athletes to use their voice for good. How many years did it take for athletes like that to step up around this specific movement? In the farm workers movement, over the last 30 years (after the heyday of the UFW) there has been a lot of work at the grassroots level, but very little public consciousness, so we needed to involve people whose voices reach multitudes. Thanks to the participation of Eva Longoria, Forest Whitaker and coverage from Bill Maher and Stephen Colbert, I do feel that we were able to break out of the “preaching to the choir” mold. However, we didn’t make this film for it to be watched by millions of people, since consumers actually have zero power when it comes to conditions down the supply chain. When consumers act like citizens – that is, shifting their power from merely making informed choices to organizing and joining protests – change happens. We wanted to create a tool that would energize the existing movement of people aligned with these issues. The timing of film coincided with Walmart and The Fresh Market signing the CIW’s Fair Food Program, so the film added energy to an already existing and successful campaign.
SG: You feature some historical footage from the 1960 “Harvest of Shame” report, so clearly this has been a longstanding struggle. To what do you attribute the lack of general public outrage and change?
SR: In the past, advocacy was focused on farmers, but they have lost the power they historically had in the supply chain. The existing set of legal rules and regulations recognizes the impact of employers on employees, but doesn’t recognize the impact of economic pressure from companies at other levels of the supply chain. In the era of Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez, the impetus was towards unionizing because of the dynamics in the supply chain coupled with the fact that the majority of workers were documented. Today, the majority of workers are undocumented, so the idea of being able to fight an employer no longer applies, as workers are fearful of losing their ability to stay in the US. Advocates can only fight for better relationships by going up the supply chain.
SG: At one point, you showcase an auction in Napa, and one can’t help but notice the whiteness of the participants raising money, ostensibly to benefit people who are predominantly of color. Is the concept of charity more palatable than fair wages to affluent people in this context?
SR: In this country, people of means tend to view poverty as a disease, which in turn creates a set of assumptions that poor people don’t do well with money. I believe the instigating factor is a little deeper and more insidious than a desire to be altruistic. There is a deeply engrained paternalistic colonial attitude in our society that considers that Brown and Black people can’t make informed decisions for themselves. So, instead of raising wages and giving people the salaries they deserve, we’ve witnessed the creation of an ecosystem of charities that support low-wage workers. It’s somehow easier for people to trust the NGO system than to trust workers themselves. Workers’ frustration at knowing they deserve higher wages and not being able to control their own destiny led to the “Fight for $15” movement. The concept of a living wage reflects workers’ human rights and the right to make necessary choices for their family.
The Long Road Ahead
SG: Your film notes that Walmart signed the Fair Food Program, yet Walmart has also been in the spotlight for low wages for their employees…. Is it difficult to determine which issue to focus on, when there are so many?
SR: Companies in the supermarket industry have more employees than many governments. We can’t expect bad actors to become good overnight. Each battle won is a victory for everyone and demonstrates a receptivity to change. Target does 25 or 30 billion in food alone and doesn’t support unions…. There is value in splitting hairs and looking at how many battles can be won.
SG: The flagrant sexual abuse in the fields is another issue that your documentary addresses.
SR: There haven’t been exhaustive studies on levels of sexual violence in the fields, mainly because it’s very difficult to get access to women in the field who feel comfortable to speak freely. A very conservative estimate is that 80% are harassed. Many California female workers refer to the fields as the “green motel”. The activist, Librada Paz, references having experienced rape in every state she worked in as a farm worker, and she worked in more than just one or two states. The level of sexual violence is horrific and feudal. It’s so shocking that people can be tempted to think it’s sensationalistic. This is one of the areas where the CIW has been extraordinarily effective. Through the Fair Food Program, enforcement of women’s human rights has become a reality on the tomato fields of Florida.
SG: The resistance of Publix to signing the Fair Food Programme (FFP) is a thread of the film. How do you explain their unwillingness to meet with the workers when other companies have signed on?
SR: My unsubstantiated theory is that Publix’s culture is influenced by the area of their founding – Central Florida. Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Devil in the Grove” explores Central Florida, which was also a historical stronghold of the KKK. Florida in general had more lynchings than all other Southern states combined and Central Florida was the heart of the segregationist power structure. It’s the home of the orange industry, which was fueled in the 20s and 30s and 40s by the labor of tens of thousands of African American descendants of freed slaves. So the company was born out of an environment where Whites’ rights were held in regard, and Black farmworkers rights weren’t. Attitudes toward African-Americans have, of course, progressed since then, but, in my opinion, attitudes toward farmworkers haven’t. I’m not saying that the founder of Publix or his children, who now run the company out of Central Florida, were in the KKK, but I do think it’s noteworthy that this region is where Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davies were murdered. It’s an area of Florida that is totally backward in terms of the acceptance of minority rights. In a recent mayoral election in Lakeland, the challenger for Mayor was a former grand dragon of the KKK. So there is a set of attitudes towards farm workers that has been perpetuated since the company’s inception. Hundreds of clergy want Publix to sign the FFP, Publix executives know the problem intimately, it’s just a question of whether they want to sign or not…. Publix is one of the top five groceries in country, one of the top ten or so in the world, and it operates in only five out of 50 states, which speaks to its power in Florida, where people have very few choices for food shopping. There is ongoing pressure on Publix. People who are interested should visit the CIW website and learn how to win a victory that’s a long time due.