Slaves to Food: Documentary Introduces Consumers to People Who Pick Their Food

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Most of us don’t know much about the people who pick the fruits and vegetables we eat every day, but film maker Sanjay Rawal, founder of the Illumine Group, is making a documentary that will introduce people to those workers. This month, Rawal, along with Smriti Keshari, Jonny Cogut, and Jennifer Hickman, began a road trip to document the stories of the workers who make it possible for Americans to put food on their plates. The film, Slaves to food, will introduce American consumers to the people who are picking the food they eat and the working conditions that these people face.

The documentary, which will begin by telling the story of laborers in California and continue documenting labor conditions as the filmmakers head South , will focus on the economics of labor. The films co-producer, Jonny Cogut, says that the film is an attempt to get people to understand the sources of the food that they eat. “It’s just amazing how easy it is to get whatever you want without actually knowing anything about how it got there,” he explains. Most of the food we eat we get with the help of migrant workers, many of whom are undocumented.

According to the Department of Homeland Security, there were at least 10.8 million undocumented workers in the United States last year and between 2000 and 2010, the population of undocumented migrants grew by 27 percent. 62 percent of these workers are from Mexico. California, the nation’s top agricultural exporter, accounts for 24 percent of the nation’s undocumented workforce.  While immigration laws are a contentious issue in the United States, Sanjay Rawal hopes the film will help people gain a greater appreciation for the role that  immigrants play  in feeding America, “we are going to sit down and talk with them on farms and really get to know them and really get it to help inspire us to feel a deeper since of gratitude for the food that we eat,” he says.

After discussing immigration reform with farmers in Alabama the team of film makers traveled to Vermont to interview Barry Estabrook, author of Tamatoland. Tamatoland, like the film, documents the story of the people who pick the food we eat. In the book, Estabrook states that the “relentless drive for low costs has fostered a thriving modern day slave trade in the United States.” These slave conditions are documented in a report released last March by the Bon Appétit Management Company (BAMCO) Foundation and the United Farm Workers. According to this report, America’s food supply is dependent on a socially and economically marginalized population, who often work in appalling conditions.

The report further states that, “more Americans than ever are interested in knowing where their food comes from, but even the most conscientious eaters and food industry professionals are usually in the dark about who picked it.” The makers of Slaves to Food anticipate that the film will help illuminate the conditions that farm laborers work in, “I think it’s going to be shocking, I think it’s going to be horrifying” says co-producer Jonny Cogut.  “But I think it’s going to be an experience that is completely necessary, we can’t deny reality,” he concludes.

To read more about farm workers, see: Report Outlines Stark Conditions for U.S. Farm Workers, Fair Food, A Penny for Their Hard Work, and Modern Slavery Museum: Coming to a Street or City Near You.

Contributor Graham Salinger is a research intern for Nourishing the Planet.

Danielle Nierenberg
Danielle Nierenberg, an expert on livestock and sustainability, currently serves as Project Director of State of World 2011 for the Worldwatch Institute, a Washington, DC-based environmental think tank. Her knowledge of factory farming and its global spread and sustainable agriculture has been cited widely in the New York Times Magazine, the International Herald Tribune, the Washington Post, and
other publications.

Danielle worked for two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic. She is currently traveling across Africa looking at innovations that are working to alleviate hunger and poverty and blogging everyday at Worldwatch Institute's Nourishing the Planet. She has a regular column with the Mail & Guardian, the Kansas City Star, and the Huffington Post and her writing was been featured in newspapers across Africa including the Cape Town Argus, the Zambia Daily Mail, Coast Week (Kenya), and other African publications. She holds an M.S. in agriculture, food, and environment from Tufts University and a B.A. in environmental policy from Monmouth College.
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