Food Chains Follow-Up

Food Chains movie poster

The sign of a good documentary is that it leaves you with more questions than answers.

If this is the case, then Food Chains did exactly that. There was hardly enough time to cover all of the thoughts, ideas, and questions that arose during the Sunday film screening and the panel discussion that followed. 

That said, we’d like to elaborate on some of the points and programs that were brought up by our panelists and engaged members of the audience.

For those who couldn’t brave the cold on January 14 (we don’t blame you), you missed 86 minutes of a look into the lives of farmworkers in Immokalee, Florida. Known as the tomato capital of the U.S., Immokalee’s population is largely comprised of migrant farmworkers who plant, pick, and process the popular fruit. It’s been reported that a whopping 28% of the town’s residents are people from Central America, Haiti, and Mexico who play this vital role in our food system.

Summary of the 2014 Film

In Food Chains, tomato picker and Coalition of Immokalee Workers Co-founder Lucas Benitez shared that, “The farmworkers in this country aren’t poor. We are screwed.” He was speaking of fellow farmworkers being subjected to not only long hours and grueling work for little pay, but also to the threats that faced the community. Some were working against their will, and many were terrorized by violent employers and living in a climate of fear and intimidation. 

In addition, many farmworkers experienced sexual harassment, assault, or even rape. Not only did these victims feel intimidated and fearful by those who assaulted them, but without knowing their legal rights, they couldn’t do anything about it. Often, reporting the incident would risk losing one’s livelihood.   

attendees in movie theater listening to panel discussion

The narrative of violence implied in the film was reflected more explicitly later, by a 2018 CNN piece that shared that Immokalee was once referred to as “ground zero for modern-day slavery” in America. Workers were forced to work up to 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, for as little as $20 a week. Often under the watch of armed guards, anyone who attempted to escape was pistol-whipped, physically assaulted, and even sometimes shot. 

After years of being subjected to horrendous working conditions and abuse, the farmworkers came together. They found power in community and began to take on the farm owners and the corporations that contributed to their exploitation.

Coalition of Immokalee Workers

The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a worker-based organization that has been internationally recognized for its achievements in protecting human rights and fighting gender-based violence. It was founded by farmworkers for farmworkers, and the lead organizers of the movement are highlighted in Food Chains. The organization was a result of farmworker community organizing that began in 1993 and evolved into a national consumer network in 2000. 

In 2011, CIW launched the Fair Food Program (FFP). The model educates farmworkers about their rights, protecting them from sexual assault and increasing their wages. It also encourages participating buyers to pay a premium that is passed onto workers in the form of a special bonus on each paycheck. This process illustrates transparency by representing all parties involved, including buyers, sellers, and workers.

Food Chains highlighted the struggle in getting Publix Supermarkets to join the FFP (which, to this day, they have refused). However, participating retailers include big names like Subway, Whole Foods, and Walmart. 

Federal Policy to Protect Farmworkers

Grassroots efforts coming from organizations like the CIW have made significant headway toward protecting the rights of farm and food workers. But what’s happening on the federal level? Unfortunately, not much.

The number of farmworkers grossly outweighs the number of federal investigations. Every year, fewer than 1% of agricultural employers are investigated, leaving more than 165 million U.S. workers unprotected. This sets the stage for workplace violations and often results in farmworkers being routinely underpaid.

Fortunately, the new farm bill does present some opportunities for improvements. The Enabling Farmer, Foodworker, Environmental, and Climate Targets through Innovative, Values-aligned, and Equitable (EFFECTIVE) Food Procurement Act is one such piece of legislation that can promote supply chain fairness. 

The USDA is the largest food purchaser in the federal government and the EFFECTIVE Food Procurement Act would outline a new, values-based process for purchasing food that ends up in schools, Indian reservations, hospitals, nursing homes, and community nutrition programs.

Currently, the USDA purchases from a handful of corporations like Tyson Foods—which had more than 30 workplace and environmental violations recorded within three years of receiving their contract. Not only would this legislation increase purchases from beginning, veteran, and historically underserved producers, but it would also prioritize vendors who participate in worker justice certifications or have unionized employees.

a food justice advocate, grassroots organizer, academic, and organic farmer in a panel discussion

H-2A Workers in Ohio

During our panel discussion, Dr. Anisa Kline, PhD spoke about her research with H-2A workers in Ohio. While our nation’s number of H-2A positions increased 70% between 2011 and 2019—and more than 86% in Ohio—very little has been done to record these people or understand their experiences.

To remedy this, Dr. Kline traveled tens of thousands of miles to interview H-2A workers across the state. She found that the average payment is $14.52/hour and that workers receive free housing, which must meet federal guidelines.

Unfortunately, the terms of employment for Ohio’s H-2A workers still leave them vulnerable to potential exploitation. There have been reported instances of illegal recruitment fees, wage underpayments, verbal abuse, and threats of violence or deportation. While the housing must meet certain guidelines, it often goes uninspected and many farmworkers live in unsuitable dwellings, to put it lightly. 

However, this isn’t to say that all H2-A guest worker programs are fraught with problems. Farmers like Gretel Adams at Sunny Meadows Flower Farm in Columbus, Ohio have had positive experiences with H-2A workers. When speaking of the farmworkers who came from Guanajuato, Mexico, she said, “We were grateful to have them, and they were grateful to be here… They’ve really become our family and I can’t imagine the farm without them. I highly encourage any farm that is able and ready to try out this program.”

The program has driven an increase in farmworkers’ wages in Ohio, and earnings and working conditions tend to outperform those of farms just relying on “local workers” who are undocumented. We should learn from these successes and continue to reform the programs with better regulations and enforcement, improved incentive structures for employers, and paths to citizenship for workers, among other things.

Where to Shop?

As the film screening and panel discussion came to an end, there was one question on everyone’s minds: how can I shop in a way that supports farmworkers? Fortunately, Emily Jackle of Mile Creek Farm and Adam Utley of OEFFA’s Fair Farms Program were able to shed light on production systems and social equity practices that promote fairer, safer conditions for agricultural laborers. 

Food Justice Certified Operations

The Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) is a coalition working towards fairness and equity in the food system. The organization came to life when farmworkers and community-scale farmers came together with a vision for a fair, just food system. AJP’s Food Justice Certification is based on rigorous social standards that help farmers and ranchers implement practices that promote farm health and safety, prioritize workplace collaboration and fair negotiation, and ensure living wages for workers. 

Adam Utley shared about the importance of encouraging increasing wages for workers and farmers alike, saying “We cannot ask our farmers to pay higher wages to their employees without asking just as strongly what it would take for farm owners and operators to pay themselves more.” Speaking of the Fair Farms Program, he said, “Our focus is on promoting business analytics and organizational tools to have better relationships with buyers in order to run more profitable farm businesses.”

It’s important to note that AJP’s living wage clause requires farms not paying MIT-defined living wages (the vast majority of them) to involve workers in a planning process by which wages increase incrementally toward living wages. 

Adapted from MIT

Your Local Farmers’ Market or CSA 

There are systemic and economic barriers that come in the way of prioritizing farmworker justice across all types of agricultural systems. However, there are those that better support the safety, well-being, and financial security of the backbone of our food system. 

Farmworkers suffer from more chemical-related injuries than any other U.S. workforce, largely as a result of pesticides. Organic agriculture minimizes exposure to pesticides, thereby limiting serious health issues for farmworkers. 

Additionally, when organic produce is sold directly through a farmers’ market or Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program, it provides consumers with an opportunity to learn more about the people behind the operation. With the farmers having more control over their pricing—as opposed to large retailers who dictate market value—they’re also able to charge amounts that have a higher percentage going back to the people who work with them. 

The small-scale, local farmers who sell within their communities are also more likely to recognize that the hard work of agricultural laborers deserves a fair award. Emily reiterated something that was reflected in Food Chains, that the migrant laborers who play such a key role in our food system are doing the work that people in America don’t want to do. She shared that not only is it hard work, but that the rate at which visiting farmworkers plant, pick, and pack is much faster than she could ever do, even after 20+ years of farming. 

This kind of acknowledgment can serve as the impetus behind farmers making improvements to support their workers better.

Retailer Members of CIW’s Fair Food Program:

  • Ahold USA (2015) – The GIANT Company, Stop & Shop, Food Lion, Giant Food
  • Aramark (2010)
  • Bon Appétit Management Company (2009) – Provenance at The Cleveland Museum of Art
  • Burger King (2008)
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill (2012)
  • Compass Group (2009)
  • The Fresh Market (2015)
  • McDonald’s (2007)
  • Sodexo (2010) – Universities and hospitals around the country
  • Subway (2008)
  • Trader Joe’s (2012)
  • Walmart (2014)
  • Whole Foods Market (2008)
  • Yum Brands (2005) – Taco Bell, KFC, Pizza Hut

Retailers that are NOT Members:

  • Aldi – but they claim they are “committed to human rights and fair labor practices throughout our supply chain and all of our suppliers must comply with the Social Standards in Production”
  • Kroger – but there’s a CIW action opportunity to demand that the giant retailer join the Fair Food Program! 
  • Giant Eagle – but they claim they are “committed to the protection and preservation of human rights around the world” and “do not tolerate corruption, discrimination, harassment, forced or child labor or slavery in any form”

Final Thoughts

Although Food Chains highlighted the plight of farmworkers in Florida, it’s an issue that goes far beyond the tomato fields of Immokalee. Each of us has a stake in this work. We invite you to get in touch with questions or a desire to advocate for policies that protect the people behind our food system.