Sanjay Rawal Shocks and Enlightens Us in "Food Chains"
Playing in Theaters
Sanjay Rawal Shocks and Enlightens Us in Food Chains
(from Sag Harbor Express Online 11/20/14)
By Danny Peary
Food Chains fits my category Movies That Should Play in Sag Harbor. This week this important documentary (which is narrated by Forest Whitaker) about the exploitation of farm workers in America, opens nationally, including at the IFC Center and Quad Cinema in New York City. You may have seen executive producer Eva Longoria doing the talk show circuit on behalf of a film that is very close to her. In April, she and Eric Schlosser, another executive producer on the film, were on a panel after a screening at the Tribeca Film Festival. Along with them at the “Tribeca Talks” event was Sanjay Rawal, the film’s noble first-time feature director. It is Rawal’s synopsis in the film’s press notes, from which I excerpt: “Supermarkets have tremendous power over the agricultural system. Over the past three decades they have drained revenue from their supply chain, leaving farm workers in poverty and forced to work under subhuman conditions. Yet the supermarkets take no responsibility for this. The narrative of the film focuses on an intrepid and highly lauded group of tomato pickers from Southern Florida–the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or CIW–who are revolutionizing farm labor…
“The film begins in Immokalee, Florida, one of the poorest towns in America… Workers toil in the fields, picking more than four thousand pounds of tomatoes a day for barely the minimum wage…The CIW is protesting Publix, Florida’s largest supermarket chain and one of the largest in the world. These workers don’t have millions of dollars to advertise. They just have their bodies and are launching a six-day hunger strike on the lawn of Publix’s headquarters. The irony of farm workers starving themselves at a grocery corporation’s offices is lost on Publix who refuse to meet the CIW. The CIW is asking Publix to pay just a penny more per pound for the tomatoes they buy, which would double farm worker wages. Moreover, the CIW wants Publix to exert its incredible market power over its supply chain and force farmers to treat workers with dignity and respect…The film is one of hope and promise for the triumph of morality over corporate greed–to ensure a more dignified life for farm workers and a more humane, transparent food chain.” A few weeks after the festival I spoke to the extremely personable and admirably committed crusader about what he proudly regards as an “expose” in the tradition of Upton Sinclair.
Danny Peary: I know you lived in California before moving to New York, but is your family from India?
Sanjay Rawal: Yes. My dad is from India but did his graduate studies at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, then got a job with the Rockefeller Foundation and drove through West Africa collecting samples of soils and indigenous crops [especially wild cowpeas]. My mom did her graduate work in India and Poland, and then got her first job in Nigeria as a professor. My dad happened to be in the same city and they met and married there. I was born in Nigeria. However, I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, where my father was a professor. and Oakland, California, where he was a tomato breeder for Del Monte.
DP: Your father is Dr. Kanti Rawal, a plant geneticist who has written books about tomatoes. You have described him as an activist, a reason he loves Food Chains, so did you go to Berkeley because it is a political school?
SR: I just always loved Berkeley. I grew up ten minutes away and it was the only college I ever wanted to go to. I qualified for a program in high school that let me take classes there and after I graduated I didn’t even have to apply to get in.
DP: When were you there?
SR: From 1992 to 1996. Until my senior year, I was at the top of my class and thinking of going to medical school. I loved physics, chemistry, and math but when I finally took neurobiology classes in my last year, I couldn’t stand it. I started applying to grad schools, got some rejections and some acceptances, and then decided not to go. I realized I would have to go to school for seven more years to get even a basic knowledge of neurobiology. So after four years I left with a degree that’s really useless unless you go to graduate school. I decided to come to New York after college to study with an Indian spiritual teacher, Sri Chinmoy.
DP: Were you already making films?
SR: Nothing. I didn’t pick up a camera until about 2004 in Haiti. I saw movies when I had nothing else to do, but it wasn’t like film inspired me. I got into the nonprofit world and spent a year in Haiti working for musician Wyclef Jean. Since nobody was documenting the amazing stuff Wyclef was doing to help the people after Hurricane Jeanne, I started doing it. I was in areas where journalists weren’t even allowed, really dangerous slums, and I’d be the only person for miles with a camera. I learned how to shoot film from some war photographers down there. And it was a war zone, with skirmishes between police and gangs. In fact, I was shot at.
DP: Did you consider yourself a filmmaker after Haiti?
SR: It wasn’t until I started working for Abigail Disney in 2008 on Pray the Devil Back to Hell that I officially got involved in the world of film. She produced it and Gini Reticker directed. My expertise wasn’t film, but I knew a lot about government relations and politics in Africa, including Liberia, and for Abby and Gini I was basically an outreach consultant. I also put together the film’s campaign for the Tribeca Film Festival, where it won Best Documentary.
DP: Talk about Illumine. Did you feel a need to form your own company?
SR: Sort of. There were only about five of us when I started it in 2007, but we had really good projects. We’d get the sense of what people wanted to do and figure out how to implement it, find partners, build the project, and, in some cases, help raise the money for the project. We called ourselves project management experts. I worked with some great people, from Wyclef to Donna Karan. I started Wyclef’s foundation, I was on the team that started Donna’s foundation, Urban Zen, and Angelique Kidjo’s foundation, Batonga. I worked briefly on things Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were doing in New Orleans, post-Katrina. The people running those projects were really inspiring and committed, so I was serving them as much or more as I was serving their particular causes. Abby Disney was one of my first clients. And she helped me a lot of with Food Chains. She is credited as an executive producer.
DP: You made two unique shorts before Food Chains. Ocean Monk is about a group of New York City monks, under the tutelage of Sri Chinmoy, who surf regardless of the temperature—something I know you do. Challenging Impossibility chronicles Sri Chinmoy’s own approach to transcendence through incredible achievements in weightlifting—I know you run, I don’t know if you lift weights. The second short is about thirty minutes long.
SR: They’re both pretty long shorts. If I knew that shorts could be five minutes long, I would have made them five minutes long. It took me a year to do each of them. Gini Reticker was the one who encouraged me, saying, “If you want to make a film, don’t put together a team, don’t produce, don’t raise money. Instead learn how to actually make a film by making a short or two.” Ocean Monk was started in late 2009 and finished in 2010. Challenging Impossibility was started in 2010 and finished in 2011.
DP: Ocean Monk played in festivals and online and got good reviews. I know that Challenging Impossibility played in over seventy-five festivals and won awards. What kind of theatrical distribution did they get?
SR: You know that in the shorts world there’s almost no distribution. They’ve been on public access television in different countries. I sold a bunch of DVDs on Amazon, but nothing spectacular. They were film school for me. Making the shorts gave me the confidence, if not the skills, to take on a feature-length film.
DP: When fundraising for Food Chains, did you have credibility and cachet because you’d made the shorts, or did that not matter?
SR: I wished I had cachet, but short documentaries are at the bottom of the barrel. That Challenging Impossibilityplayed at the Tribeca Film Festival helped, but not with funders who won’t look at documentary shorts unless they were made for TV or won Academy Awards. Food Chains was terribly difficult to finance, partly because I’m an unknown filmmaker.
DP: You have said, “I could have and should have given up on this topic long ago, such was the difficulty.”
SR: We couldn’t get funding for a long time. Nobody wanted to touch a film about the exploitation of farm workers. When we began, sustainable food foundations hadn’t yet begun to think about labor. The CIW, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, that plays such a big part in the film, hadn’t yet begun to implement the Fair Food Program in the fields to get the tomato workers in Florida an extra penny a pound from the farmers. Three years ago, Trader Joe’s, Walmart, McDonald’s and most of the fast food restaurants hadn’t yet signed on to the program. The policy makers and thinkers were not yet making the connection between farm labor exploitation and sustainability. It wasn’t until last summer that Michael Pollan, the paragon of the sustainable food industry, said, “It’s time for the food movement to start looking at labor in the food chain.” So there has been a huge change in the three years since I began the film.
DP: I read that you decided to make Food Chains while on a drive.
SR: I was in Fort Myers, Florida, at a genetics conference and took a circuitous route back up to the airport in Orlando. I was driving through a rural area that once had plantations and saw that farm workers now lived there in unincorporated townships. At a particular time of year, there might be 40,000 working in the fields and paying high rents for rundown shacks to their farmer employers, yet there were no city councils, mayors, or police departments. They were like South African labor reserves, off the grid, and the farm workers had little protection from the farmers. I stopped for coffee at five in the morning at the first place I saw open. It was really dusty and dirty and looked like a store in Cuba in which there are only about five things on the shelf. A van pulled up and about fifteen farm workers came in for breakfast before going to work in the fields. They were told to eat in this little bodega although a block and a half away was a beautiful, shiny diner. It was kind of shocking. It struck me that this was Jim Crow but instead of the farm workers being African American, they were now Latino and there was a racial and socioeconomic split that was very clear.
DP: Were these tomato workers?
SR: Most likely. My dad was in the tomato industry so I was on tomato farms all summer long growing up. I ate the best-tasting tomatoes from the time I was five. But until I made this movie, I had never seen the dark side of the industry I grew up with. I didn’t occur to me that tomato pickers elsewhere lived in terrible conditions and were being exploited. I didn’t know the extent of the abuses in the industry, including slavery and rapes. I had no idea how exploitation impacts a human life. It was total ignorance.
DP: As you said, this was off the grid, away from the public eye.
SR: Consumers didn’t have any awareness of it. Immokalee, the poor unincorporated area that we focus on in the movie, is at the center of the American tomato industry—yet nobody ever heard of it. Nobody paid attention and there was no oversight. We cared about where our cows come from and the conditions in which the chickens live, but not about the people who work in the fields so we can eat. I didn’t point my finger at society but at myself. I saw myself as this spiritual person with an understanding of my place in the world, yet my sense of gratitude was very limited regarding what I ate. I hadn’t thought about the people who picked the food. I’d never heard a discussion about farm labor or how vital those laborers are to what goes on our table. The only time I read about it was in Barry Estabrook’s book Tomatoland, and, of course, Eric Schlosser’s book Fast Food Nation.
DP: You have said, “After I saw how farm workers are being treated…I felt ashamed and emboldened to do something about it personally for others who might be as unaware as I was. Food Chains was born from the sense of emptiness and disregard.”
SR: After a shocking visceral experience, you need to find a personal sense of satisfaction to close the hole in your heart. I felt I had to do something. It was not for my personal gain or fame or riches–documentaries would be the worst avenue to take for that. But I felt I could be of service. It’s what I always did. When I came back to New York, I got hold of Barry Estabrook and Eric Schlosser and spoke to them about labor’s place in the food chain. Then I planned a trip to document the exploitation of farm workers in America. This was three weeks after my return from Florida. So I embarked on a project that I expected to take several years. The process of making this film was really one of aspiration.
DP: How long was your trip and where did you go?
SR: My producer, Smriti Keshari, who was with me from the beginning, and I spent nine months on the road, two weeks at a time. We did a little bit of filming in Arizona but really focused on California and Florida, because those are the two largest fresh-market agricultural states in the country and have the most farm workers. New York has 100,000 farm workers, while California has over a million and Florida has between 350,000 and 500,000 in the peak seasons.
DP: Now that there has been an influx of Mexicans working in the fields in Florida, are the two states similar in regard to migrant farm workers?
SR: They couldn’t be more different. California has a long history of farm worker movements, dating from the 1920s to the formation of UFW in the seventies. There’s a safety net for Mexican farm workers in that they can find other jobs in Los Angeles, where there’s a huge Spanish-speaking population. But if you’re an undocumented Mexican worker in Central Florida, you don’t have friends and family in the state so you’re stuck, isolated, marginalized, and vulnerable to poor treatment by farmers. Since 9/11, the border has become much more difficult and expensive to cross so they’ll work the tomato season from November to May, and then instead of returning to Mexico, they’ll track up the east coast all the way to New York and the finish the harvest up here in late September and October, before heading back down. A major difference between the two states is that Florida is a right-to-work state, so there are no farm worker unions. Because the CIW is not a union but a community-based, workers’ rights group, it can’t legally organize. It doesn’t have the protection that California would afford them in the unionizing process. When he was the governor of Florida, Jeb Bush virtually abolished the state’s Department of Labor. So there’s no oversight and no state enforcement of certain federal labor laws and farm workers are excluded from making labor decisions that affect them. The farmers sell their produce to big buyers who used their power over their supply chain to control not only prices and quality but also human rights conditions on farms. It’s an unfair situation that allows for the exploitation of the farm workers.
DP: Eva Longoria, one of your executive producers and a vocal spokesperson for the film, says the mistreatment of Latino farm workers is not an immigration issue but a human rights issue.
SR: We discovered that the most horrific cases of exploitation weren’t dependent on workers’ immigration status but on their poverty level. There were cases in the late ‘90s and early 2000s in Florida where two to three hundred African Americans and Caucasian workers were promised jobs off the streets of Miami, and were then basically held in labor reserves, where they were paid in alcohol if anything, built up massive debt, and were told they couldn’t leave without being arrested, which wasn’t true. [Rawal writes in his press notes, "The NGO Free the Slaves estimates that upwards of 10,000 farm workers live in conditions of modern-day slavery in the US under the threat of physical abuse or death if they were to try to leave their jobs. These workers receive no pay, are sometimes shackled at night and often suffer severe psychological damage."] In such horrific cases of enslavement, it didn’t matter if the laborers were from one nation or another–it was poverty that prevented them from speaking out. That’s still true. If you’re really, really poor you are terrified about losing your job because your family needs food and shelter. When filming, we were working with a population of mostly undocumented workers who were too scared to go on camera because they didn’t want to lose their jobs or to be kicked out of their houses. We were working with an industry that historically was closed off from scrutiny. We had to sneak on to farms and shoot secretly in order to get the footage that ended up in the movie.
DP: Since poverty is the major reason for the vulnerability of these farm workers, would a minimum wage law have a beneficial effect on them?
SR: It would and it wouldn’t. Farm workers technically don’t have to be paid by the hour as their basic standard of pay. They’re paid by the piece. That piece rate, according to state and national laws, has to be equivalent to minimum wage. The piece or bucket rate is not set by any federal body, per se. It’s very fluid, and we’ve seen that as the minimum wage has gone up the piece rate hasn’t. It should be three times as much as it is right now if it had gone up according to the minimum wage and standard of living increases. It’s a draconian process similar to how slaves were judged and graded by the poundage picked. If slaves didn’t meet a certain threshold they were whipped; now if a day worker doesn’t pick enough fruit to earn the equivalent of the minimum wage, the farmer won’t hire that worker the next day. It’s brutal. It’s ultimately a question of human dignity. You want to be treated well and you want your time to be valued. If a tomato worker gets about a cent per pound and each tomato sells retail at between $.99 and $2.99, the value of that labor is between a third of a percent and one percent. There’s something wrong and the workers know it. When the person who is picking the crop isn’t valued as much as the broker or the CEO there’s fundamental inequality in this country.
DP: The American public is in favor of a minimum wage but is there a danger that the public will back off when it realizes the CIW’s Fair Food Progam is actually trying to double the farm workers’ wages? The public might think asking to double a salary is outrageous, although in reality it would merely give the farm workers a living wage,
SR: It would be very difficult to market the Fair Food Program or the Campaign for Fair Food as programs meant to double wages. So what they smartly boil it down to is just an extra penny a pound, because people can understand how little that penny means to a corporation. It has been very difficult for a worker at McDonalds to say I need double my wages to have a living wage. Doubling its workers’ wages would have no effect on McDonald’s bottom line, but some people look at the salary jump from $7 to $14 and that $7 is hard for them to process. However, an increase of a penny for a farm worker is not hard for them to process. It’s much more palatable for a consumer who doesn’t even bother to pick a penny off the sidewalk.
DP: You ended up with 400 hours of footage, but did you capture it all during that one trip?
SR: We actually did the majority of those 400 hours over those nine months. But we continued shooting throughout 2013 to capture the complete change in the CIW situation and the success of the Fair Food Program.
DP: How much had you filmed by the time of your Kickstarter campaign?
SR: A good 300 hours. The Kickstarter campaign was an eye-opener. Smrita and I worried people didn’t really care about our topic and didn’t know if we’d get enough public support to meet our goal of raising $27,000 in six weeks. We raised it in two weeks. That was validation that we were on the right track and people actually care about this. That was very inspiring.
DP: I’m sure you were helped in fundraising by Eva Longoria, but was it okay that when the rights to Food Chainswere sold, Variety called it “Eva Longoria’s film” and didn’t mention you?
SR: It is as much Eva’s film as mine because it could not have been made without her. We raised money because of her association with the film. She’s a trendsetter so when she signed on as an executive producer, people believed that out topic must be worth reporting. If she was backing the filmmakers then it must be a good film. Because of Eva, foundations began to take us more seriously based on the topic and the footage we shot. This is a topic that a number of celebrities championed in the seventies, from Martin Sheen to Edward James Olmos. Celebrities today are championing immigration reform, which is a good thing, but who is giving a voice to ultra low-wage, undocumented farm laborers? Eva is the main one by far. She was one of the key reasons Walmart signed on to the Fair Food Program when it did. That was huge because Walmart is the largest food broker in the country, taking in one third of the money spent in America on groceries. Eva sells perfume and make-up at Walmart, so she had a lot to lose if her relationship with Walmart ended, but she was steadfast in her support of the CIW in its dealings with Walmart. She was very sincere in her commitment. Walmart realized that if it signed before the film Eva and I were making was finished it could be at least part of the narrative, and to a positive degree.
DP: When did Eva and Eric Schlosser come on board?
SR: Eva was a producer on the documentary The Harvest, about child farm workers. It’s really good, but I think she wanted to do something broader in scope as her next film. She expressed interest in our project in February 2012 and immediately began connecting us to significant people in the movement like Dolores Huerta and Hilda Solis, living legends. Then in November of 2012, she signed on as an executive producer. Eric came in initially as an interviewee in August 201l. He was an intimate part of the process the whole way and spent tons of time with us, but he signed on, officially, as an executive producer in November 2013.
DP: Talk about the strategy of CIW’s Fair Food Program.
SR: It couldn’t approach the situation from a moral standpoint, so it did it from a basic economic standpoint. Central Florida is not a bastion of progressive politics and the CIW found that it couldn’t change the mentality of the farmers. Instead it had to create a market incentive for the farming industry so that it was understood that treating farm workers well is in everyone’s best interests. Although it couldn’t unionize, the CIW learned from César Chávez and the UFW how to organize marches and protests and force change in the tomato industry. There were three problems that the coalition saw in farming. Number one, the farmers were being paid by supermarkets that couldn’t afford or didn’t want to make the basic and necessary penny-a-pound pay increase. So the CIW went to the very top and by challenging the brands that had investments in public relations, communications, and marketing it got the corporations to subsidize the wages of workers by that penny per pound increase. Walmart signed on. Trader Joe’s signed on, although not before a six-year fight. Whole Foods signed on almost instantly, as did a few of the very large food service companies, Bon Appétit, Compass Group and Sodexo. Secondly, as part of the Fair Food Program farmers were told they had to treat their workers well or they would no longer be allowed to sell to the biggest buyers. Thirdly, the Fair Food program eliminated the middle men, the labor contractors who for decades separated farmers from workers. The Fair Food Program says that workers now have to be considered direct employees and treated well.
The CIW actually goes on to farms now, as mandated by the Fair Food Program, and gives workers booklets and tells them their rights. Basically these farms now subcontract their HR department to the coalition. The coalition also operates through a non-profit called the Fair Foods Standards Council, a 24/7 hotline that workers can call and anonymously make reports. The Council actually fairly investigates every complaint, which has never really happened anywhere in the US. As a result of the workers being treated with more dignity, the farmers are seeing productivity increase, worker loyalty increase, and their farms benefit from being part of the Fair Food Program because it gives them access to twelve of the largest tomato buyers on the planet.
DP: I know the UFW depended a lot on students. Has the CIW?
SR: The CIW achieved success only because of students. Even in colleges where there was no connection to Florida farm work, there has been activism by students. For example the University of Oklahoma was one of the first colleges to organize en masse for the CIW. In 2001, the CIW began protesting Taco Bell, and after three years of student protests, about thirty Taco Bells were kicked off college campuses. Taco Bell signed on and expanded to the entire young brand’s portfolio that includes Kentucky Fried Chicken and Pizza Hut. McDonald’s was the second to sign on. Burger King signed on. Chipolte signed on–not without a fight. That’s the demographic–young people who are eat burritos at 4 a.m. Students joining in has generated a change at every fast food restaurant except Wendy’s. We’re reaching out to Wendy’s right now, and I can make that public because Eva Longoria used to work at Wendy’s in high school. Also the CEO of Wendy’s used to be the COO of Young Brands, the first big signatory to the Fair Food Program. I have no idea why Wendy’s has resisted signing on to the Fair Food Program. To make the system more equitable is not too great a price for them to pay–especially when consumers learn that at Wendy’s, there’s no way to tell if the tomatoes on the burgers were picked by a slave or a woman who was raped or harassed in the field. Rape and Wendy’s shouldn’t go together.
DP: If your film has a leading man it’s Gerardo Reyes Chávez, who is charismatic and clear-thinking and an articulate spokesperson for the CIW.
SR: He’s a great character. In my mind he is a leader, but the CIW is unique in that they don’t have a leader. They have a central committee of twenty to thirty people, virtually half men and half women, and it makes the decisions. It’s like Occupy Wall Street with actual demands. It’s been working this way for twenty years. The Central Committee has to vote unanimously on every single thing. In the hierarchy of the CIW the first year employee earns as much as the cofounders. Gerardo joined the CIW when he was about nineteen, when a couple of his roommates took him to a meeting. One of those roommates had recently been assisted by the CIW in getting out of a horrific case of modern day slavery. It was eye-opening for a kid who immigrated from Mexico to the United States expecting a different way of life and seeing that in Florida at least it was easy to end up in kind of an unimaginable nightmare. He saw very quickly the normal situation for most workers was exploitation and the extreme situation was slavery. He began to realize that it was his duty to be part of this movement. He’s charismatic and very smart and can provide an analysis of the tomato market that most agra-business experts can’t do. Gerardo’s main job is to go from Fair Food farm to Fair Food farm to educate workers about their rights. He also goes from state to state speaking at conferences and working with church groups and economic rights and social justice NGOs that are part of the CIWs sphere of friends. He communicates and motivates them. The CIW doesn’t just take help, it goes and helps other people with their causes and protests.
DP: How widespread is the Fair Food Program in Florida?
SR: It’s only the tomato industry, but it spans several thousand square miles, and it involves a hundred thousand workers every year. The Walmart signing is going to spread the Fair Food Program to corporate-owned farms up and down the east coast, and very soon it could go outside the tomato industry as well. Perhaps the strawberry industry is the next place to implement the program. The deep message of this film is that worker-lead movements in supply chains was pioneered by the CIW, but it’s applicable to workers everywhere. The entire Florida tomato industry has changed in the last three years from being the most oppressive industry in this country to the most progressive in agriculture. Now people are realizing that there’s a measurable value to treating workers well. And I think on some level they realize it’s good for their souls, good for them as human beings.
DP: So are the tomato pickers now getting the extra penny per pound?
SR: They are. The corporate-owned farms have to send all their pay statements to the Fair Foods Standards Council and it makes sure that the extra pennies are flowing through the supply chain to the workers. The CIW never touches the pennies.
DP: You brokered the Walmart deal, basically, but did you do it through the movie?
SR: I can’t say that I brokered it, because that would mean I was the go-between for Walmart and the CIW, but the film was a very strong carrot for Walmart. The CIW’s Fair Food Program had been lauded by the UN and by the White House because it’s one of the few programs to effectively eradicate human rights abuses in the supply chain. Walmart saw that right away. Other companies haven’t. Three out of every four dollars that Walmart makes come from groceries, and it knows that if it treats the farmers well, it will have more access to supply and its costs over a twenty-year period will be lower than any other chain’s. I think Walmart realized that signing up for the Fair Food Program was the right thing to do. Also, in case this movie has an impact on the way people look at food, Walmart wanted to be on the right side of the issue. We don’t treat Walmart as well as Food, Inc. did, but it’s not the villain in our movie. It very well could have been, but because they signed up with the Fair Food Program, it’s not. We wanted to make sure the film has an ending that is hopeful. That ending is the CIW’s Fair Food Program. It’s mission accomplished in the Florida tomato industry, now with Walmart having signed on. All these supermarkets follow Walmart; they follow its pricing structure and compete on every level. Even Publix can’t ignore that the giant chain has now sided with the farm workers.
DP: I’d think that if Publix becomes isolated, it will become the target of protesters and the CIW could go after it.
SR: Publix’s not signing is the best thing for our movie. I think it has been advised that if it succumbs to the CIW before it has an IPO, the analysts won’t rate it as high. Its CEO Carole Jenkins is worth $1 billion, and if Publix has an IPO, she’ll probably be worth on paper three to five times that overnight. So there’s a very strong prospect of greed there, and it’s totally misguided. There’s also deep-seated arrogance. I’ve spoken on and off the record to workers at Publix where the CIW has been protesting. And it’s very clear to them that Publix is fighting the CIW because it is brown and Latino. Migrant workers have expressed sadness that Publix hasn’t even spoken to the CIW. They say its nothing other than racism. If these picketers were low-wage Caucasian mothers, as there are throughout America. somebody from Publix would have come out and talked to them. But the fact that they’re Latino provides Publix a viable reason in its mind not to talk to them.
DP: Was it your intention to be part of the story you were filming?
SR: It was never my intention to be part of the story. But there were pivotal moments when we filmmakers served as intermediaries between the workers and the aggressors who wanted nothing to do with the CIW or other farm workers. They were willing to talk to me because they knew I was a US citizen and can speak English without an accent. We couldn’t help being part of the action but I was appalled that people would talk to me about the problems rather than the people experiencing the problems. I was speaking to inhumanity face to face and seeing racism and the perpetuation of inequality.
DP: Now that Walmart is on board, is it necessary for the Fair Food Program to go after Publix?
SR: The Fair Food Program is on an upwards trajectory but still gigantic retailers like Publix, Kroger, and Safeway haven’t signed on. They’re smaller than Walmart but those three represent about $200 billion in annual revenue, the same as Exxon makes globally. And they’re just in the United States. If they don’t sign on to the Fair Food Program there always will exist an alternative for farmers who don’t want to threat farm workers well. Farmers can’t sell to Walmart now unless they’re part of the Fair Food Program but they can still make money being in the Publix, Kroger, and Safeway supply chain. In order for the Fair Food Program to be the standard in the tomato industry, everybody has to sign on.
DP: Was it hard when making your film to distinguish between local issues and what is happening globally?
SR: The situation for farm workers is worse in Europe but one of the reasons why we focused on America was that the solution that we found is America-based. In Spain, the majority of workers are from Africa. In Italy now there are tons of Albanians and now a lot of Libyans working in fields, and it’s a disaster. It’s really new phenomenon in Germany to have ultra-poor Polish workers picking the asparagus. Here we have a longer history of having foreign labor in our fields and so there’s much more consciousness of it. It’s never been welcome, but our society, I think, is more receptive to solutions than any other society. There is an understanding that while these large grocery chains perpetuate exploitation they are at the same time the source of the solution. So we pick on America but do that because we can change things.
DP: How are you going to market this film?
SR: We have been lucky to have the support of a number of really powerful grassroots organizations, labor organization, student organizations, the CIW. We’re going to rely on those groups of labor-rights activists to spread the message of the film and to be an intimate part of our outreach program. Our distributor, Screen Media, is opening the film in a minimum of ten cities on November 21st, so we’re really lucky. I think we can create a sea change in the next year because of this film. This is a critical time for this movement. This is the first time in at least forty years, since the UFW, that there is a glimmer of hope for farm workers. The film is intended to amplify the work the CIW doing and educate the consumers that this is a huge problem and their role is simple–when you go to the grocery store, if it isn’t selling Fair Food tomatoes, ask them to. As Eric Schlosser says at the end of the film, “There are many problems in America that would be very difficult to solve but this is not one of them.”