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FOOD CHAINS: Eric Schlosser talks about his new film—and what we have yet to learn about our food

6b8cb4fc-f171-4513-8323-32db0e8c2de3November 19, 2014 – Despite America’s pervasive obsession with food and the state of our food system, far too little attention is given to the price paid for our food by farmworkers.

FOOD CHAINS, which opens Friday in Salinas and around the country, is the latest film produced by local author Eric Schlosser and actress Eva Longoria. It exposes the human cost of our food and the complicity in this of supermarkets and fast food outlets. It also provides hope for a better way. 

Director Sanjay Rawal includes footage shot in Watsonville and the Salinas Valley, although most of the film focuses on the particularly dire struggle and successful activism of tomato pickers in Florida.

The Salinas opening at Maya Cinemas on Friday night at 7:20pm includes a panel on local farm labor issues with Alegria de la Cruz of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, Pearl Khan and Jesús Lopez of the CA Rural Assistance League. Tickets may be purchased on the theater’s website www.mayacinemas.com.

Screenings continue through Tuesday; to view the trailer and learn more, go to: www.foodchainsfilm.com

What follows are Schlosser’s comments on the documentary and what we still need to learn about where our food comes from. 

EMB: The release of FOOD CHAINS is generating a lot of excitement. What most excites you about the film?

ES: My introduction to America’s food system occurred twenty years ago when I followed the strawberry harvest in California, depicting the plight of migrant farm workers. It feels good that a film is finally addressing the issue of how we treat the workers who feed us. If you care about creating a sustainable food system, you have to care about the people at the very bottom of it. Because this system will never be sustainable if it’s based on the exploitation of the poorest, most vulnerable workers in the United States. 

EMB: You’re well known for writing Fast Food Nation and producing Food Inc., but lately you’ve been focused on nuclear weapons, which you write about in your new book, Command and Control. Why did you decide to revisit your concern about food and the people who produce it by making FOOD CHAINS?

"Food Chains" New York Screening
Food Chains producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser at a screening in New York.

ES: Of all the issues addressed in FAST FOOD NATION, the abuse of immigrant workers is the one that I care most about.

EMB: If people see just one documentary this year, why should it be FOOD CHAINS?

ES: If you eat a healthy diet, if you consume as many fresh fruits and vegetables as possible, then you are connected to these workers with every bite. I know a lot of vegetarians are concerned about animal rights, which is terrific. But we need to have more concern and more activism on behalf of human rights. 

EMB: What about this movie will surprise people?

ES: That slavery still exists in 21st century America. 

EMB: What would surprise people about the treatment of farmworkers today?

ES: That in many ways thing are worse than they were decades ago, when Cesar Chavez and the UFW first made it clear that farmworkers deserve a living wage and life of dignity.

EMB: FOOD CHAINS examines the complicity of grocery chains and fast food companies in the poverty of farmworkers in America. What do you think it will take for them to start paying farmworkers their due? 

ES: Pressure from consumers will have a wonderful effect. Chains like Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s, and even Wal-Mart are now part of the Fair Food Program, committed to eliminating abuses in the fields. There’s really no excuse at this point for the companies who refuse to do the right thing.

Tomato pickers in Florida from the film FOOD CHAINS

EMB: How do you see consumers as being complicit in the poverty—and even the enslavement—of farmworkers today?

ES: We are complicit by being unaware. We need to know where our food comes from and ensure that the people who bring it to us are treated fairly.

EMB: There is footage in the film about farmworkers in Watsonville and the Salinas Valley. What does the movie explore about our local situation?

ES: The film focuses mainly on the terrible working conditions in central Florida. But it does tell the story of a young farmworker here who falls in love and marries a local grower, yet faces deportation for having come to the United States without proper documentation many years ago. 

EMB: Locally, berry growers say there is shortage of berry pickers. What do you make of that?

ES: Berry pickers tend to earn the lowest wages and are the most likely to be undocumented. A reform of the immigration laws—and a higher wage—would no doubt end that shortage of berry pickers.

EMB: Is the welfare of our local farmworkers better than the average for farmworkers in the U.S.? Or worse? And why do you think that’s the case?

ES: It all depends on the farm and the farmer. I know that Driscoll’s traditionally has paid some of the highest wages in the industry and has been responsible for some of the best working conditions. Housing remains a terrible problem in our area. And there needs to be a stable work force so that growers don’t have to worry each season about who will be available to harvest their crops.

EMB: What is the good news to be gleaned from FOOD CHAINS?

ES: The good news is that within a decade, a small farm worker organization called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, based in one of the poorest agricultural communities in the nation, has eliminated slavery from local fields, ended the sexual harassment of female workers, and signed agreements with some of the world’s largest food companies that guarantee better wages and working conditions. The coalition’s success provides a model that can be emulated and extended to farm workers in other crops throughout the United States.

EMB: What are the most important things that individual consumers can do to help the plight of farmworkers?

ES: Open their eyes, look clearly at the problem, and take action. Every supermarket in this country should be supporting the Fair Food Program—and consumers can make that happen.

About the author

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SARAH WOOD—founding editor and publisher of Edible Monterey Bay—has had a life-long passion for food, cooking, people and our planet.

She planted her first organic garden and cared for her first chicken when she was in elementary school in a farming region of Upstate New York.

Wood spent the early part of her career based in Ottawa, Canada, working in international development and international education. After considering culinary school, she opted to pursue her loves for writing, learning about the world and helping make it a better place by obtaining a fellowship and an MA in Journalism from New York University.

While working for a daily newspaper in New Jersey, she wrote stories that helped farmers fend off development and won a state-wide public service award from the New Jersey Press Association for an investigative series of articles about a slumlord who had hoodwinked ratings agencies and investment banks into propping him up with some early commercial mortgage securitizations. The series led Wood to spend several years in financial journalism, most recently, as editor-in-chief of the leading magazine covering the U.S. hedge-fund industry.

Wood could not be happier to now be writing and editing articles about the Monterey Bay foodshed and the amazing people who help make it so vibrant and diverse. And, after spending much of her adult life gardening on fire escapes, she’s very glad to be planting in the ground again.

Wood lives with her husband, Rob Fisher, a fourth-generation Californian, and young daughter in Carmel Valley. Their favorite meal is a picnic dinner at Pt. Lobos State Reserve.