In H.G. Wells' prescient The Time Machine (1895), the seminal British science-fiction author foretold of a dystopian future in which the indolent, lotus-eating Eloi live off the toils of a race of devolved humans—the Morlocks—who barbarically survive running incessant machines in underground caves.
Wells' dismal vision of humanity is nearer than you may think. And like the Eloi, we above-ground 2014 dwellers may be the ones running out of time. Today is no great present for the legions of migrant workers who toil in our fields for what often amounts to a few dollars an hour for backbreaking labor. A new documentary on their plight, Food Chains, plucks out the unsavory links between American agribusiness, grocery behemoths and the voracious U.S. consumer, who continues to labor under the illusion that cheap products don’t come with an insidious hidden cost.
Produced in part by Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and actress/advocate Eva Longoria, Food Chains serves up bitter facts and figures about how farm workers have become fodder for corporate food giants like the Florida-based Publix stores. Touched off by the entrance of Walmart into the grocery business in the 1980s, the industry has distilled into a Darwinian handful of top-feeding corporations, including Kroger and Safeway. These multi-billion-dollar chains now have the unprecedented power to drive the hardest of bargains with suppliers, forcing prices way, way down for their products. That may be good for penny-pinching consumers, but inevitably bad for the producers and their workers, especially small-potatoes farmers.
To that witches’ brew, add and stir in NAFTA, the seismic 1992 agreement that mowed down trade barriers between the U.S., Mexico and Canada. One of the main unintended byproducts of the Clinton-engineered pact was that scores of south-of-the-border farms went under, driven out of business by competition from lower-priced American foodstuffs. And here’s the bitter frosting on the funnel cake: As a result, thousands of unemployed and displaced Mexican nationals fled to El Norte—the vast majority undocumented, to find menial work in American fields and factories.
Director Sanjay Rawal’s tract doesn’t always go down easy, and no one will mistake it for such delectable documentary fare as Food, Inc. or Super-Size Me. His 82-minute film is more of a rallying flag, boosting the crusade of a coalition of Immokalee, Florida tomato pickers and sympathizers in their decades-long fight to squeeze out a pittance more in wages (through their “Fair Food Program”) from the highly profitable, employee-owned Publix chain.
Rawal and his producers grasp for, but barely touch the bigger picture of the long history of worker exploitation in U.S. fields and farms. We hear of the seeds of labor agitation planted in the 1960s by Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers, but Rawal could have better forged the deep-rooted connections between the grocery giants, the restaurant industry and the omnivorous American consumer.
To broaden his scope, Rawal ventures far afield from Florida, planting his cameras in California’s lush Napa Valley. Here migrant grape harvesters are priced out of the ritzy housing market and many are forced to live in shantytowns many miles away from the fields. Like so much of post-Reagan America, this is a land of two classes, two divided cultures, existing side by side yet certainly not seen in Alexander Payne’s boisterous wine-country tour Sideways. As for the Napa growers, they surely must feel some sour grapes at Rawal’s claims, since narrator Forest Whitaker omits mention of the public housing the county specifically built for seasonal workers starting in 2002.
Food Chains is most sobering when it doesn’t pick and choose its facts. It takes us back in time to Thanksgiving 1960, when the CBS-TV landmark Harvest of Shame plowed up the pervasive poverty among America’s farm laborers. Back then a Southern farm owner admitted, “We used to own our slaves, and now we just rent them.”
In an American agribusiness dependent on cheap, exploitable labor from newer generations of huddled masses, it’s not only grapes that may ripen with wrath.