It should be no surprise just how bleak the livelihoods of America’s agricultural laborers have always been, as the vast majority live below the poverty line, but Sanjay Rawal’s Food Chains looks deeper into how dismal the situation has become with the rise of increasingly powerful supermarket corporations. Forming the documentary’s narrative backbone, a large group of laborers and their supporters engage in a weeklong hunger strike at the headquarters of the major Florida-based supermarket Publix, with the protestors simply wanting a small raise in order to elevate the workers out of virtual slave-like conditions. Using an exhaustive litany of stats and contextual history, Rawal doesn’t turn the film into a pity party. Instead, he shrewdly focuses on the workers’ courageous spirit, and as seen throughout decades of protests, optimistically suggesting that calls for labor reform will never die quietly.
Rawal takes an academic approach in his presentation of facts, which at times can operate at such a remove from the audience that it threatens one’s empathy for the film’s subjects. Rawal does, however, strike a balance between his research and actual insight into the personal lives of the long-suffering laborers, where the never-intrusive or leering footage of them going through their punishing daily schedule and their living conditions justly puts a human face on the overwhelming information. Granted, with Food Chains’s constant insistence to portray the workers as people instead of numbers in a stats sheet, it’s easy to accuse the film of one-sidedness, given that Publix is represented by ignorant, faceless overlords. It’s almost humorous that the film’s sole dissenting opinion, from a Publix spokesperson, comes in the form of a scratchy voice message predictably reading from a prepared text on how the company treats its workers fairly, ironically enacting the film’s impression of the corporation.
Perhaps Rawal’s most fascinating excursion into agriculture’s dark side is the vineyards of Napa Valley, where the practically Eden-like scenery masks a dreary labor model. As the wines from the area fetch hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars per bottle, the workers in the fields are still paid only meager wages, even as the economy booms with the arrival of tourists and new residents. These scenes acutely expose ignorance on the part of the upper-class yet well-intentioned vineyard owners, as they throw gaudy charity benefits in order to raise money for their poverty-stricken workers. As author Eric Schlosser pointedly observes, the problem couldn’t be resolved this way, as it’s not a question of charity; the simple solution lies in just raising one’s income, which has been the rallying cry for years that Rawal shows has consistently fallen on deaf ears.