Food Chains review by Mark McPherson - Cinema Paradiso
Food Chains is the latest documentary to place a critical eye on the subject of what stocks American grocery stores. But rather than take a controversial appeal for GMO foods or the death of small businesses, this time we focus on the lowest rung of the chains: the farm laborers. The mass wave of Mexican workers that pick produce for mere pennies struggle to live in a world where they are severely marginalized. It’s that rarely seen aspect of the food industry that tends to lose focus, but is still a vastly important area of concern for a group of people losing their humanity.
The migrant workers who toil in the fields live a tough live. Families slammed into cramped trailers arise at 4am not to work, but to drop their children off at daycare by foot. By the time the kids are dropped off and they’ve made it back to their trailer, it is already sunrise and time to work. Long hours are spent in the hot sun picking from tomato patches for around a penny a basket for each worker. The heat grows so intense that the workers are actually grateful to feel a nice breeze from the deadly spray of pesticides. They plow through the endless days for meager wages with plenty of tales to relay of poor conditions and sexual harassment. What exactly do the workers want in their protest against those that profit? An extra penny per pound of tomatoes to raise their wages.
Curiously missing from this documentary are interviews from the average consumer on how they feel about the cost of the product. There are plenty of interviews with the poor migrant workers, the tactical business owners and a host of analysts. They all provide plenty of commentary and insight about the plight of the workers and the economics of their demands, but just what do shoppers have to say about this? An illustrated study found that the average American family would only have to pay an extra 44 cents a year to meet the demands of the workers. Would families be willing to take that level of increase? Most moral individuals would argue “of course, what a stupid question,” but you never see a direct answer from the horse’s mouth.
The consumer perception is ultimately what drives the demand for such a product and its production as clearly evident from the vegetable pickers’ crusade. In an effort to make their plight known and taken seriously, hordes of pickers protested the larger corporations that treated their workers less than the dirt they toil over. Several major fast food chains and even big name stores like Wal-Mart eventually came around in recent years to support better conditions. After all, an extra penny per pound for tomatoes doesn’t seem like such a massive price for better conditions. It’s more than reasonable for people who go through hell just to keep this country stocked with produce. Just about everyone has fallen in line except for Florida’s Publix grocery stores. Not only do they not agree to the demands, but they refuse to even sit down to talk with the protesters. At this point, that’s all the protesters want: to talk.
The documentary is peppered with illustrated facts and talking heads in between a hunger strike for a gathering of workers against Publix to listen to their demands. Workers relay their tragic experiences and how they continue to drive on with little hope for their future. Agriculturalists run off facts and data, as well as historical information on the long road of produce economics. Pleasingly simple animations are thrown in to give a visual representation of the percentages and costs in everything from harassment cases to the figures of businesses.
Food Chains feels slightly undercooked in the angles it could’ve explored, but it’s an effective enough film for its message and goals. Again, I would’ve loved to hear more interviews with how consumers react to merely paying an extra penny for tomatoes. Personally, it’s an acceptably meager increase if it means better lives for these people. I only desire this element since there are no interviews with the higher ups of these fast food chains and grocery stores. Something tells me it’s more than just facts and data behind these practices. But without any larger scope in this arena, we can only speculate. What we do know is that when these workers band together with the public in their controlled protests, they will succeed at achieving better working conditions. By the end of the film, the only pillar left to conquer is Publix which still remains firm in their no-talking attitude. It remains to be seen how they will respond or if they will fall in their silence.