Critics Corner: FOOD CHAINS

Read two critical perspectives on Food Chains (Sanjay Rawal, 2014), by Patricia Unterman and Helen DeMichiel. Food Chains opens in San Francisco on Friday, November 28, screening at the Roxie Theater through December 4. See below for info about special screenings.


FOOD CHAINS: The Publix Image

by Patricia Unterman

For 35 years, I have been running a restaurant in San Francisco, the Hayes Street Grill, that serves as much food as we can from local suppliers—farmers, ranchers and fishermen we personally know. To that end, I was a founding board member of the educational nonprofit that started the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market over 20 years ago. We provided a direct rural-urban link between local, sustainable farmers and San Francisco restaurants. The demand for these ingredients exploded, especially when we moved to the iconic Ferry Building, and I truly believe this direct access to farmers caused a revolution in the quality of San Francisco restaurant menus and cooking.

Admittedly, I live in a food bubble. Almost everything I eat comes from farms I have visited or from my own backyard. (I keep four chickens for eggs, a poop-enriched compost bin, and enclosed beds and planters for produce.) I almost never set foot in a supermarket. That’s why I was floored by director Sanjay Rawal’s documentary Food Chains , which follows the campaign of a tenacious group of tomato pickers in Southern Florida, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), who stage a hunger strike in front of the headquarters of Publix, Florida’s largest supermarket chain and one of the largest in the world.


This group of farm workers are asking Publix to pay 1 cent more per pound for tomatoes, which would double the pickers’ average wage of $12,000 a year. The impact of that penny on a family of four shoppers? Just 44 cents a year. How in god’s name can the officers of Publix, Safeway and the other gigantic chains, which collectively are the largest purchasers of food in the United States, refuse? Obviously, they have not seen this film.

But you should. You should know how skilled these pickers are, how astoundingly fast they work, how long their day is, how they are treated, how crowded and run-down their living conditions.  They are trapped by immigration laws. If they complain, they lose their jobs. We all depend on farm workers, who perform the essential service of feeding everyone else, yet barely scrape through themselves.


Florida’s Immokalee farm workers have suffered a long history of literal enslavement, abuse and  appallingly low pay, but even the California farm workers-—bolstered by the United Farm Workers Union, this state’s relaxed immigration enforcement and the high demand for farm labor—need help. The film takes a left turn to the Napa Valley to juxtapose shots of an obscenely extravagant Napa Valley wine auction with encampments of grape pickers who can’t afford housing anywhere near the vineyards. Then the camera pans over a rack of the valley’s priciest and hottest bottles—$50, $75, $100, $250. The filmmakers just couldn’t pass on the irony.

Spoiler: Food Chains ends on an unexpected note of triumph. What’s more, the filmmakers offer a solution that goes beyond tomatoes: the supermarket chains could pay farm workers a penny more per pound on every crop and sign on to the Fair Food Program, a commitment to humane labor practices. Chains like Safeway typically treat their own unionized employees well but turn a blind eye to the welfare of farm workers. Now it’s time for workers’ benefits to filter down the food chain.



Patricia Unterman is the chef/co-owner of the Hayes Street Grill in San Francisco. She also writes about food and restaurants and currently publishes Unterman on Food, a newsletter.

Patricia Unterman’s San Francisco Food Lovers’ Guide is available on IndieBound and at Amazon.

Patricia Unterman recently contributed the Forward for French Roots: Two Cooks, Two Countries, and the Beautiful Food Along the Way by Jean-Pierre Moullé and for The Slanted Door: Modern Vietnamese Food by Charles Phan.

Read Patricia’s Unterman’s review of THE LUNCHBOX (2013, Ritesh Batra) here.




FOOD CHAINS: Harsh Reality, Smooth Delivery

by Helen De Michiel

On the day after May 1, 2006 and “The Great American Boycott,” (or “El Gran Paro Estadounidense”), I walked into my local produce market to encounter the extraordinary effect of this one-day national strike. Not much was left in the store. The artfully designed bins and abundant, colorful displays were depleted to thin layers of wilting fruits and vegetables. Our California farm workers who grow, pick and supply food to stores took that Monday off to join protest marches nationwide and demand that their voices be heard on behalf of immigrant rights.

This bold and disruptive action vividly demonstrated how highly dependent you and I are on the invisible, and often brutally exploited labor force at the bottom of the human food supply chain. Far from the fields, we forget this fact.


Food Chains is a new feature-length activist documentary directed by Sanjay Rawal, with the support and participation of actors like Eva Longoria, food activists like Eric Schlosser, and politicians like Robert Kennedy, Jr. It aims to open a campaign and “turn the movie into a movement.” Designed to advocate on behalf of agricultural workers across the country, the film focuses on the current struggles, strategies and tactics of the nascent organizing group, Coalition of Immokalee Workers, who have developed and are implementing The Fair Food Program.

With explanatory narration by Forrest Whitaker, Food Chains shows and frames its message from the point of view of the Immokalee tomato workers who have come to Florida trying to earn a living. They find themselves caught at the bottom of a supply chain that runs from the fields where the tomatoes are picked to corporate superstores where they are sold. As the film lays out the current problems of this system and workflow, it looks at the severe and continuing problems faced by people along the produce supply route from field to consumer. Farm owners are caught in the middle of price wars, with nonstop pressure to undersell their product by transnational corporations. Workers confront terrible working conditions, exploitative pay ($40 per 15-hour workday), possible entrapment in slavery or sexual harassment, and the constant threat of reprisals or deportation for going public about these conditions.

Food Chains makes a justifiable argument that no one who cares about our food supply could ignore or deny: we food consumers are complicit in the horrible conditions facing these most vulnerable and invisible workers when we do not participate in taking action. The film, with its expensive Hollywood production values, stunning cinematography and lush soundtrack, offers a perfectly wrought package for a most dirty, historically complex and vexing issue.


Rawal and his collaborators build a careful case over ninety minutes in which the viewer can consider the consequences of increasing economic apartheid—a situation starkly illustrated by extremes in a county like Napa, where grape pickers live in squalid conditions while the winegrowers reap untold rewards of high product prices, expensive real estate and a good life in the Valley. In contrast to the privatized charitable giving and celebrity wine auctions held to benefit grape workers, commentators Schlosser and food writer Barry Estabrook point out that the fight to force corporate policy changes at the top is fundamental and necessary for the economic well-being of the people working the fields.

The theme of Food Chains is economic justice. The means, as shown through the work of the CIW, is creative non-violence—where human beings lay aside their fears to lay their own bodies on the line to make change happen. The methods include old school labor organizing that is still highly effective in our digital era: getting together to exchange ideas and planning events, protest marches, sit-ins, and when needed, hunger strikes. The film traces one organizing action unfolding through the film—the ongoing effort of the CIW to pressure the Florida-based supermarket chain Publix to meet with them, join the Fair Food Program to pay an extra one-cent per pound for tomatoes and sign on to the Fair Food Code of Conduct.

The film touches on the historical continuum of this issue—archival images from Edward R. Murrow’s Harvest of Shame that connect today’s immigrant farm worker struggles to those faced fifty years ago in Immokalee by African-American field workers. Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Robert Kennedy are linked historically to today’s field labor struggles. While the issues have gone global and transnational, workers’ rights have deteriorated and much more invisible to consumers since the gains by the UFW more than forty years ago. Yet the film makes no mention of labor unions now—have they abandoned farm workers post-NAFTA?


Food Chains joins the current trend of high profile social impact, advocacy moviemaking with big budgets. These movies (including Participant Media productions An Inconvenient Truth , Waiting for “Superman” and Food, Inc. ) are increasingly championed by funders seeking to measure social change through media impact. The strategy follows an already solidified trajectory: viewers watch the movie, join protests, donate money to the cause, and maybe get involved, or at least subscribe to a mailing list. This genre of media argues its point of view to evoke emotional responses from viewers, drive its message home and target us for further “calls to action.”

Even as a sympathetic viewer, I have my own concerns with this type of high-end documentary, which, truthfully, is an advertisement for admirable programs worthy of support. Striving to bridge the gap between “us and them,” the film lays out its case clearly with illustrative, sumptuous imagery photographed with the intention to bring out the humanity of the invisible field workers themselves, who look utterly familiar to anyone who lives in California. Yet, can this richly resourced documentary spur my own engagement?

While workers testify to their victimization, the filmmakers contrast this harsh reality against the energy required for pressuring corporations where there will be the most impact—on their carefully crafted public reputations. By the end of the movie, we discover that Walmart is joining the Fair Food Program. And that Publix still refuses.

As a film advocating a particular position, the conclusions Food Chains draws are highly selective in order to coordinate its message with the ongoing Fair Food campaign. There is little room here for artistic ambiguity. I wanted to know about the actual people working in companies like Walmart, Taco Bell, Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s who were instrumental in signing on to the Fair Food Program. Why and how did they make this effort? These corporate insiders are absent from the story, yet there were real people in those companies who made those agreements happen.


Will the CIW gains be maintained over time after the corporations stop feeling the pressure? How? These are questions that the film does not recognize or acknowledge—they would complicate the smooth delivery of its message. As a citizen interested in food system reform and how these stories are explored, I would have preferred to discover for myself some of the unresolved problems and challenges that this movement has historically faced as it continues to find new ways for renewal in the new century.

Advocacy films take a gamble when they attempt to influence short-term actions. Whether these simplified and highly crafted messages can break through the clutter of competing “asks” becomes increasingly fraught in our noisy media environment. A movie cannot ignite a movement—but it can ask questions, and encourage viewers to ask even more questions. Over the long-term it is the long, persistent, usually unknown, unacknowledged struggles of workers, labor and community organizers—including even, the willing partners embedded within corporations—who will continue to find creative and humane ways to tell their own stories and reform the food chain one penny at a time.



Helen De Michiel is a filmmaker and writer based in the East Bay. Her most recent project is Lunch Love Community , an episodic documentary in 12 short pieces about Berkeley’s pioneering efforts to change school food and impact how children eat. She can be reached at


The Roxie hosts a Spanish language screening of Food Chains on Sunday, November 29 at 1 pm, including a discussion with Gerardo Reyes Chavez and Samiel Orozco. Chavez and Sanjay Rawal appear at 7 pm screenings on November 28 (along with Maisie Ganzier) and November 30. Go to for more info.

Harvest of Shame was broadcast the day after Thanksgiving in 1960. It is still a powerful film. It was intended, the producer said, “to shock the consciousness of the nation.” And it did. Watch the full hour-long film here. On November 24, 2010 CBS did a follow-up, Harvest of Shame: 50 Years Later.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s