Food Chains: How Supermarkets and Fast Food Outlets Control the Price of Food

Food Chain$

Directed by Sanjay Rawai (2014)

Film Review

This documentary concerns a week-long hunger strike the Coalition of Immokalee (CIW) workers held in 2014 in front of Publix headquarters in Lakeland Florida. Their goal was to pressure Florida’s main supermarket chain to join the Fair Food Program. Under this agreement, supermarkets pay slightly more for tomatoes to allow growers to pay farmworkers better.

At the time of filming Florida tomato pickers were averaging $13,000 a year working 10-12 hour days, while enduring toxic chemical exposure from pesticides and herbicides, wage theft. exploitation by slavery rings and (in the case of women workers) rape and sexual harassment.

As the filmmakers document, the complexity of US supply chains means that retailers like supermarkets and fast food restaurant, rather than growers, set the wholesale price of tomatoes and other vegetables. There are many years the prices growers receive are so low (due to competition with cheap Mexican imports) they leave their crop in the field because they can’t afford to harvest it.

For me, the most interesting part of the film traces the history of US farmers replacing African American slaves with immigrant agricultural workers. Initially the industry relied on Chinese, Japanese and Punjabi workers. In the 20th century, legal Mexican migrants replaced other nationalities.

I find it intriguing that most of the industrial North relies on immigrant labor (from destabilized third countries) to harvest food crops.** Squeezed by low prices they receive from supermarkets and fast food outlets, they can’t afford to pay a living wage to native workers.

*Companies that have signed onto the Fair Food Program include

  • Ahold USA (2015)
  • Aramark (2010)
  • Bon Appetit Management Company (2009)
  • Burger King (2008)
  • Chipotle Mexican Grill (2012)
  • Compass Group (2009)
  • The Fresh Market (2015)
  • McDonald’s (2007)
  • Sodexo (2010)
  • Subway (2008)
  • Trader Joe’s (2012)
  • Walmart (2014)
  • Whole Foods Market (2008)
  • Yum Brands (2005)

**In New Zealand, growers pay immigrants from the Pacific Islands to pick their crop.

The full film can be viewed free on Beamafilm.


Relocalization: Opting Out of Corporate Society

Diversidad: A Road Trip to Reconstruct Dinner

Solutionary Pictures (2010)

Film Review

Diversidad tells the story of a 35-day bicycle trip the Sierra Youth Coalition took from Vancouver to Tijuana in 2003. Their goal was to visit West Coast rural farming communities as a prelude to their participation in the 2003 anti-WTO protest in Cancun Mexico.

The goal of the fifth ministerial round of WTO negotiations was to resolve a dispute between developed and developing countries over agricultural trade. North American and Europe hoped to use the WTO to force developing countries to drop all trade barriers that were blocking US and EU agrobusinesses from dumping cheap food on agricultural nations. By 2003, NAFTA*, the precursor to the WTO, had allowed US agrobusiness to put two million Mexican farmers out of work by flooding their markets with cheap corn.

Building Alternatives to the Corporate Economy

The most surprising aspect of the cycle trip was the discovery of a vast network of rural communities and urban neighborhoods that are busily creating an alternative to the capitalist economic system by consciously decreasing consumption, changing consumption choices and building strong local economies

In Olympia, Washington, for example, they discover that Evergreen State College is training students in organic agriculture techniques, as well as new economic models, such as Community Supported Agriculture, to increase access to cheap, locally produced organic foods. In 2003 Thurston County (where Olympia is located) already held a national record as the country with the most CSAs.**

In Oakland, they stay with an African American group which had started a large organic garden in the Oakland ghetto. Likewise in Watts, they stay with the “Seed Lady,” an African American woman who got a scholarship to study organic farming in Cuba. After learning how to grow organic food in containers on concrete, as they do in Havana, she returned to engage her neighborhood in launching the Watts Garden Club.

This is in stark contrast to what the fifteen cyclists discover in Salinas, where they meet with Hispanic farm workers and and discover the corporate farms they work on have lost all their topsoil. Because the remaining soil has been destroyed through mismanagement, it no longer supports crop growth without heavy application of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Cancun WTO Negotiations Collapse

Diversidad ends with dramatic footage of the anti-WTO protests in Cancun, attended by farmers from all over the world. The protest would attract global media attention after one of the Korean farmers mounted the heavy iron fence barricading the protest area and killed himself with a knife.

Buoyed by the ferocity of the protests outside, the third world WTO delegates refused to cave in, as they had in 1999. (See This is What Democracy Looks Like)

Why TPP Was Negotiated in Secret

By 2010 when Diversidad was released, the industrialized world had given up on the WTO as a vehicle for consolidating profits for their multinational corporations. However, unbeknownst to the filmmakers, Obama was already negotiating a new pro-corporate trade treaty called the Transpacific Partnership (TPP) to replace the WTO.

TPP negotiations were conducted in  secret to circumvent the massive popular opposition that repeatedly shut down WTO negotiations. However thanks to Wikileaks, which leaked portions of the secret TPP text over a period years, TPP is highly unlikely to be ratified owing to massive popular opposition to TPP in all 12 partner countries.*** (See Rock Against the TPP)

*The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is an agreement signed by Canada, Mexico, and the United States, creating a trilateral rules-based trade bloc in North America.

**Community-supported agriculture (CSA) is an alternative, locally based economic model of agriculture and food distribution in which consumers advance purchase a share in a farmer’s crop and receive regular distributions of fresh fruits and vegetables in season. (See Top 10 Reasons to Join a CSA)

***Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton officially oppose TPP.