From the artisan coffee we sip on the way to work, to the cookery programmes that fill every channel when we get home, as a society we’ve never thought as much about our food and where it comes from. But how often do we think about the people who grow and pick it?
The food system often goes to great lengths to conceal those involved in producing what we eat, obscuring the conditions of workers behind the supermarket shelves. Food Chains is a new documentary that aims to reveal the hidden stories of farm labourers and the injustices they suffer. Although it focusses on the US, the patterns of exploitation that it exposes and the lessons to be learned are applicable to most countries in the rest of the world.
While food prices are at an all time high, farm labourers endure awful conditions and earn far below the minimum wage, while thousands work as slaves. To find out how it’s possible for a system like this to exist in the modern world and ask what we can do to change it, Huck spoke to producer Smriti Keshari.
What’s your background in documentary filmmaking? How did the team come together?
My love for working in film blossomed during a four-year stint at ESPN, I was part of the team that worked on X Games & ESPN Films. Behind every sports moment, there’s a deeper story beyond the scores and accolades, one that shows the human side.
I made a short film with friends about a wonderful surfing organisation in Peru. And some months later, Food Chains director Sanjay Rawal and I met through a small group of surfers who are also filmmakers in NYC. We assembled our initial five-person team of talented and adventure-prone friends who were inspired to hit the road and set off to capture the stories in agriculture.
How were you introduced to the injustices of US farm labour and when did you decide to make a documentary about the issue?
I was aware of the issues faced by meatpacking workers through Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. But it wasn’t until Sanjay and I began discussing how strange it was that, despite the public’s current interest in the origins and growth of their food, there was such little information about who was actually picking it.
“Who picks our food?” That was the simple question we wanted to find out, so we set off to speak with everyone connected to that link in the food system, with a focus on farm workers.
How did you find the specific locations you chose to shoot in and how important was it to represent them authentically?
In the US, fresh fruits and vegetables are grown in all 50 states but California and Florida produce the largest selection and quantity. Florida produces 70% of tomatoes in the winter months.
Our initial trip zigzagged throughout the entire country and we filmed predominantly at large farms. Farms aren’t typically off the major interstates, they are situated close to secondary roads and often hidden, and that’s why many people don’t come across a large-scale farm. Food marketing and packaging conveys a nostalgic image of a traditional family farm, yet they are run more like factories.
We capture the process in a way many haven’t seen. From the hard back-breaking work in planting, staking and harvesting the food to the mechanical distribution of the packaging plant to the supermarkets – that’s the real image behind the food we eat.
What were the challenges in presenting their story to a wider audience?
Agriculture traditionally relies on immigrants to do farm work. It’s been a cycle of abusing a new wave of immigrants; dating back from slavery and to waves of migration from China & Japan and now Latinos in the US. It’s a vulnerable work force; that is more desperate and susceptible to abuses and exploitation.
As we were researching the film we were shocked to learn about the abuses and exploitation, from the prevalence of sexual harassment to some extreme cases of modern day slavery in agriculture. It’s all linked to a systematic infrastructure within the food system. That connection isn’t obvious from a consumer standpoint.
Farmworkers are at the bottom of a massive supply chain that is composed of farmers and distributors but is dominated at the very top by supermarkets and fast food chains. Over the last 30 years the supermarket industry has consolidated intensely, to the point that one of the largest chains in the US, Kroeger, has more annual gross revenue than Apple. With this purchasing power, supermarkets control the production process and decide what happens within their supply chain. They brand themselves as friendly neighbourhood institutions, masking what happens beyond the shelves.
What are the major things you have learned from making the doc?
The great thing is that the system is changing as we eat! While we were across the country filming and asking about the solution, everyone kept mentioning a group of tomato workers in Immokalee, Florida – the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). The CIW has recognised the structural links and began targeting the buyers of food to take responsibility of their supply chain.
They created the Fair Food Program, which increases wages for workers and guarantees protections against sexual harassment, forced labour, unsafe working conditions and other abuses. The film follows a five-day hunger fast by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers targeted against Florida’s largest supermarket, Publix. There are many problems we face that we all realise are very, very difficult to navigate and change but this isn’t one of them.
How do you hope your documentary will have an impact?
The film captures the present day proven model to improve the life of farmworkers through the CIW’s Fair Food Program. Since we began filming, Wal-Mart joined this programme and chose fairness within their farms, giving farmworkers a boost. That’s huge!
We’re beginning to see these changes as consumers become more aware of their connection to the entire system. Companies listen to their consumers, and we need to become the advocates for farmworkers and put public pressure on grocery stores and politicians. We have an extensive engagement plan that targets students, parents, consumers, and community organisations to learn and act around these issues.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
A filmmaker friend of mine recently congratulated us in the world premiere of Food Chains at Berlinale and asked “Are you ready for the real work of the film to begin?” Needless to say, the outreach of the film is really important to us so we are focused on a robust US fall release and working on bringing the film out internationally.
I recently came to the conclusion that I’m truly happiest when I’m in the flow of making something. I typically have a multiplicity of projects that connect dots and challenge how a person understands the reality they live in.
I love exploring with different mediums in the film and interactive world, which helps me understand our reality in the process. I’m in early development on an immersive piece that challenges our viewing environment. I am also in the process of finishing a film/music app that explores the intersection of music & visuals. I have a narrative script in development that looks at our common idea of time and memory.
There are a few great opportunities in the pipeline capturing the outskirts of the outdoors and adventure sports world, and then there’s my lifelong endless project of getting better at surfing!
Find out more about Food Chains.