Eating Ethically – review of “Food Chains”

Food Chains is worth your time.

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The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW) is a human rights organization based in Immokalee, Florida, made up of agricultural workers (turned activists) who campaign for fair working conditions.

The average person in the US is pretty divorced from the process that gets their food on the table. You may have a backyard garden, but probably most of your food comes from a grocery store. This gives the illusion that food is a simple commodity and not connected to politics, capitalism, and human labor.

Food Chains follows the (CIW) as they protest Publix (a grocery chain in Florida) to pay one penny more per pound of tomatoes. Does that sound crazy? For consumers, that translates into paying approximately 44 cents more per year, but it would effectively double what the agricultural workers in the CIW earn per year.

The CIW gets a fair amount of press (I’ve been seeing more about them recently as students at several colleges have recently fasted for CIW awareness), and in 2014 was awarded the 2014 Presidential Medal for Extraordinary Efforts to Combat Human Trafficking, but even if you’ve heard of them before, Food Chains is really worth watching because it puts human faces to the food process. Agricultural workers in the US  are typically some of the most exploited workers, and not that long ago, it was a system based on slavery. After the Emancipation Proclamation, share cropping, convict leasing, and early migrant worker programs effectively continued slavery because even when workers were paid, it was so little that they didn’t have any other options. And even today, migrant workers are still exploited under slavery. The CIW works to ensure there are more protections for workers, that workers are educated about their rights, and that the agricultural industry has more checks and balances, and they have had a lot of success.

I think there’s a lot of emphasis now on what we’re putting into our bodies– is it organic, is it clean, is it … –but not a lot of emphasis on how we’re getting that food. Agriculture is one of the most deeply unequal systems out there, so it is crucial that we ask those hard questions and do our due diligence.

This article 4 Not-So-Easy Ways to Dismantle Racism in the Food System is a great primer on the history and issues that food justice faces:

Farm management is among the whitest professions, while farm labor is predominantly brown and exploited. Meanwhile, people of color tend to suffer from diet-related illnesses such as diabetes and obesity, and to live in “food apartheid” neighborhoods—high-poverty areas flooded with fast food and corner stores, but lacking healthy food options. While some writers refer to these areas as “food deserts,” I prefer the term “food apartheid” because this is a human-created system of segregation, not a natural ecosystem.

Our food system needs a redesign if it’s to feed us without perpetuating racism and oppression.

Building a just society is hard because it means thinking outside of ourselves. Food lobbies and government and large corporations do not want us to see where our food comes from, because it makes it easier for them to exploit labor and maximize profits for those at the top. But this is inhumane and unjust, and ultimately a drain on society. I love a good documentary and I’m picky about what I recommend, but Food Chains is really important and really worth the watch.