Documentary filmmaker Sanjay Rawal is the Director of Food Chains, a film crucial to fair labor practices in the United States. His work illuminates a previously hidden cost of food that is arguably the most important—the toll on people involved in the production of our food. Please join Sanjay and Foodstand on Friday, April 8th, for our Food Book & Film Club screening of Food Chains at the Food+Enterprise Summit in Brooklyn. Food+Enterprise is offering Foodstanders special evening entry to the screening and reception for $30. To register, leave quantity fields blank and use the discount code A47BFT. And in the meantime, get to know Sanjay!
For those unfamiliar with Food Chains, please describe the film in a few sentences.
Food Chains follows a small group of farmworkers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, as they expose the abuse rampant in farm labor in the US. We follow their battles against the largest companies on the planet, some of which they win!
Is there current food policy that safeguards against slavery in the U.S. food supply chain?
There are ZERO government safeguards against slavery in the food industry. Yeah there are laws. But there is almost no power to enforce those laws. The only program in the US that guarantees slavery-free produce is the Fair Food Program by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, the stars of Food Chains. Look for their Fair Food Label on tomatoes and strawberries at Whole Foods, Walmart, Giant and Stop&Shop.
How do you define good food?
I don’t care if something is organic or sustainable if the people that picked, grew, manufactured or served the food aren’t treated and paid well. Too many people care too much about what goes into their bodies at the direct expense of caring about those responsible for creating that food. Should we eat organic? Sure. But organic doesn’t mean workers were treated well—there is zero correlation. Same goes for local, natural, everything that gets foodies excited. The food movement has left the worker behind. We need to fix that.
What are some of the food-related revelations you had while filming?
There’s so much interest and consciousness around food these days, but it’s really focused around environmental issues and issues of animal welfare. Even when informed, very few people care about the hands that pick or serve our food. If they did, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, for example, would draw millions of protestors to the street. It doesn’t.
What was your biggest challenge while making this film?
Abuse in agriculture is our nation’s deep dark secret. Farm labor abuse began the moment the first European settlers arrived in Massachusetts and California and mushroomed through the enslavement of Africans. People think that the problems of yore have been eradicated. Sadly, that’s just not true. There is a willfulness in the agricultural sector to obscure the abuse of workers. Consumers, therefore, are not told the actual story behind their food. From Ag-gag laws that made filming a potential felony, to resistance from growers and supermarkets, we had to shake off legal risk every step of the way. This was by no means as dangerous as making a film in a war zone. But this is a story that Big Ag does not want to be told.
Food issues have not quite made it into the Presidential race. If you could ask the future President to consider a food issue that needs to be addressed, what would it be?
About 20 million Americans work in the food sector, many of whom barely make ends meet. Without their service we have no food security. Same goes for the 3 or 4 million undocumented workers who are in the food sector (farmworkers, meatpacking, distribution, dairy, etc). Without job security and dignity much less a non-draconian immigration policy, our food system will absolutely disintegrate. I am shocked and appalled that the issue of equity in our food system isn’t being discussed in even the most basic way.
If you could get the general population to change ONE aspect of their eating habits, what would it be?
Care about who is responsible for your food—whether it’s a farmworker, a restaurant worker or your mom!
What is one of your first memories of food?
Ahhhh—my parents are the best cooks of Indian food in the whole world. I would love to share those memories with anyone who wants to grab a meal with me and my folks.
Who is one famous person, dead or alive, that you would want to share a meal with? And where?
I was so lucky to have been able to spend my 20s with an Indian spiritual teacher who lived in NYC—Sri Chinmoy. He was close to all the peace-makers of his generation—from Mother Teresa to Mandela. He passed in 2007 and while I feel his presence daily, I would love to have another meal with him. He was a real New Yorker in every wonderful sense of the term—and loved diners! These days Greek omelettes with feta and spinach or a Guyanese Aloo Pie can elicit a tear or two of gratitude just for memories of time with him.
What’s always in your fridge? What do you use it for / how do you use it?
I live off frozen cherries and açaí. Açaí bowls twice a day. I am also trying to master cooking eggs every way possible. These days I’m trying to get good at Japanese omelettes—dashiki.
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You used to work in the non-profit and government sectors. How did you first become involved with film?
In the early 2000s I worked on a couple projects overseas (Haiti, Congo) where filmmakers were hovering, making feature length projects on folks I was working with. But in 2009 I helped a friend (in a very minor way) on her first feature length doc—Pray the Devil Back to Hell—about a group of Liberian women peace activists who lead the peace process in West Africa. Those women ended up getting the international credit they deserved because of the film. The film promoted their work to such an extent that the Nobel Peace Committee recognized them with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011. So I saw how powerful film could be!
What’s your favorite meal-on-the-go?
Chocolate Malt Superfood Smoothie!
In your film you discuss how much pull supermarkets have over the supply chain. Can you expand upon this?
Supermarkets earn about 500 billion dollars each year. I’ve heard the common argument that their margins are low. True, but their power is not because of their profits – it’s because of the amount of money they pour into their supply chain. It’s that dollar amount that gives them power. This power is “monopsonistic” (a monopsony). It’s like how Amazon, while not in control of the entire book industry, has enough of the book market that it can bully authors and book publishers (folks in its supply chain). This power is illegal in the US, but it’ll take a Congress with a collective IQ of greater than 500 to tackle.
How can food consumers get involved?
Consumers have to stop believing the lie the food movement is pushing—that they can vote with their credit cards or forks. No one consumer or set of consumers has any control over the supply chain. For real power, a consumer has to become a citizen—exercise your voice on the streets and at the ballot box. Support worker led movements and support an environment that allows workers the freedom to organize or unionize. Our power is in supporting democracy not in supporting commerce alone.
Your good food wish?
May we all eat healthy and live happy.