Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Food Chains opens at the break of dawn, as tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida, hustle onto buses and out to the fields where they spend long hours trying to pick enough fruit to survive. Late in the evening they return to cramped trailers, with barely enough wages to purchase groceries for a family meal. Though Florida's rich soil generates hundreds of millions of dollars worth of tomatoes, those harvesting them make around $12,000 a year. And the worst part, as tomato picker Gerardo Reyes Chavez points out, at the end of the day there's only the realization of "how little you mean to the people you are working for."
"We're not poor in this country—we're screwed," remarks farm advocate Lucas Benitez in Food Chains, an illuminating documentary about ag workers that hits theaters today. Directed by Sanjay Rawal (Ocean Monk), the film sheds light on how our produce depends on the labor of workers who are paid by the piece and are twice as likely to live beneath the poverty line as salaried employees.
But Food Chains isn't just a typical tale of helpless peons getting swallowed by an oppressive system. The film, produced by Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) and Eva Langoria and narrated by Forest Whitaker, highlights the progress that's been achieved. Much of the movie traces the arduous and ultimately triumphant push by Florida's Coalition of Immokalee Workers. After years of organizing, the CIW convinced consumers and companies to pay a "penny-per-pound" premium to tomato pickers and established a code of conduct that bans on-the-job harassment and unpaid labor.
Since 2011, national brands like Burger King and Subway have signed on to the CIW's Fair Food Program. In January, Walmart joined. And last month, a "Fair Food" label debuted on tomatoes in Whole Foods. Ninety percent of tomato pickers in Florida now benefit from the program. In a state once deemed "ground zero for modern-day slavery," the CIW reports finding no incidents of forced labor since the program's inception. So far, buyers have funneled $15 million into the Fair Food Program through the premium, which shows up as a bonus on each worker's paycheck. "The fact that the CIW was able to create this program in the most hostile environment for farm workers in the US shows me that it's a model," says Rawal. "If it works in Florida, it can work anywhere else."
Food Chains' underlying message is that foodie-ism must encompass more than just a concern for how dinner looks and tastes. People always ask, "Where was the pig raised? What food did it eat?" says Rawal. It's time to start asking: "What were the conditions of the workers who slaughtered that pig?"
Sanjay Rawal Courtesy Food Chains
I caught up with Rawal to discuss the social cost of cheap food and his own connection to where our food comes from.
Mother Jones: Your dad has a career as a tomato geneticist. Did you guys grow tomatoes?
Sanjay Rawal: My dad worked for Del Monte and then for Monsanto as one of the chief scientists on the Calgene Flavr Savr Tomato. But it was a huge disaster because the tomato didn't taste good. And then my dad started his own genetics company and I began doing that with him. He and I ran a genetics company for 10 years. And so I sold seeds to Florida.
MJ: The tomato your dad worked on was all about taste, right?
SR: Yeah. The Flavr Savr wasn't about taste at all; that was just the name. It was about the shape and the shipability of it. My dad's company was all about flavor. His tomatoes are some of the best selling at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods. Other people grow them and sell them. My dad was a breeder. Most of his work happened in little test plots and didn't require much labor. He tried growing them for a while, and realized that farming is hard. It's just brutally hard. We didn't have the interest or fortitude to farm.
MJ: Why do you think you started to pay attention to workers' issues when you did?
"Farming is hard. It's just brutally hard. We didn't have the interest or fortitude to farm."
SR: I worked on human rights projects in Haiti, Cameroon, and East Asia, and the bigger ones tended to do with agriculture. My role was to make sure that there was equity that remained at the base of those projects, with the workers. I had a couple of different lives. I had the human rights life, and I had the family business life. I remember being at this tomato seed conference in Fort Meyers, Florida. This was like three months after Barry [Estabrook's] book came out. So I'm reading Tomatoland, and I'm literally 30 minutes away from Immokalee, Florida. It all hit home.
In Florida, then, and for farm workers for the most part in the US, there's a real sense of economic segregation. In the South, the structures of economic segregation still existed. Now those people are no longer African-American; for the most part, they're Latino. In California, it's different. We saw people sleeping in homeless encampments in Napa Valley and Sonoma. Horrific ones in Watsonville. It's different because you're looking at homelessness and the lack of housing, less than something that's institutionalized.
MJ: The Immokalee workers are central to the film and their story is so rich. Why did you feel the need to also include voices from all over the country, especially California, for this film?
SR: Farm work is a very difficult job, no matter what state you're in. California is an important state in the history of farm work because it was the only one that let unions flourish. California is the largest agricultural state in the country, in terms of fresh produce. You can't make a movie about farm labor without including California.
At the same time, what's happening in Florida is revolutionary. César Chavez and Dolores Huerta spent 20 years building the United Farm Workers. A lot of the progress they achieved has been rolled back slowly. Florida was deemed by one prosecutor from the Department of Justice as "ground zero for modern-day slavery in the United States." Horrific. And this is seven or eight years ago. But the Coalition, with a couple of farmers, and now a lot of farmers, started the Fair Food Program. They've gone from ground-zero for slavery to no slavery. There hasn't been a case of slavery in the last four years since the Fair Food Program's been in action.
Now, four years into it, they've got data, which showed initially a huge spike in sexual harassment complaints. That meant that, for the first time, people felt like they could complain. And now they're showing a pretty steep decline [in complaints] because the perpetuators of those abuses are now not in the system anymore. The fact that the CIW was able to create this program in the most hostile environment for farm workers in the US shows me that it's a model. If it works in Florida, it can work anywhere else. It's a beautiful thing.
MJ: How is this Fair Food Program different from past efforts to reform agricultural labor standards?
SR: California state law is better than any other state law, but no one will say that the enforcement of labor laws in California is up to par with the law itself. There's the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act, but that's a code of conduct developed by politicians. In Florida, the code of conduct was written by the farm workers. In Florida, when you harvest tomatoes, you put them in a bucket. And that bucket holds 32 pounds with a flat top. But in the old days they made you "cup" [overfill] the bucket. So you were getting paid for 32 pounds, but you were putting in 35 pounds. And if you didn't cup it, they would throw it back at you. So one of the first things the farm workers said was, 'We don't need to have a single tomato above the rim of the bucket.' There's no way anyone in Tallahassee or Sacramento would have been able to figure that out. But it's critical for the workers.
MJ: Why do you think the largest grocery store retailers have been slower than fast-food chains and food-service providers to adopt the Fair Food Program?
SR: Walmart's been the only big one that's signed on and that doesn't even represent a quarter of the whole market. The grocery store business is different. They have a control over the supply chain that no other business is allowed to have legally. It's the concept of "monopsony." There are clear laws to indict a company for monopolistic practices. But a monopsony means you control the supply chain. You control the terms under which you do business. A farm is not a direct employee of, let's say, Kroger. And Kroger might only buy a quarter of that farm's cucumbers. But if that farm wants to have any hope of selling to Kroger, they've got to make sure that every single cucumber meets Kroger's terms. So that means Kroger effectively sets the terms for every single farm that wants to sell to it. That's why when you go to any single store, all the cucumbers look the same. All the tomatoes look the same. This uniformity is key.
There is a law against monopsonies. And according to one economist in our movie, Shane Hamilton, it's the most confusing law in the entire US. No one can even understand it, much less enforce it.
MJ: The film focuses on the Publix grocery store chain in Florida, which still hasn't signed on to the Fair Food Program. You mentioned that Publix has never even agreed to speak to the CIW. You have to wonder about the psychology behind refusing to talk to a group of people who have been protesting so long.
SR: Publix is a private company. It's still owned by the Jenkins family that lives in Central Florida. Corporate cultures are slow to change. In my opinion, one of the hardest things for Walmart to do in joining the Fair Food program was pay the extra penny. It's not because the people that ran the program on the side of Walmart didn't know that it was the right thing to do. But Walmart's philosophy is shave pennies off of everything. Everyone's measured by shaving pennies. You're not taught to add pennies to anything.
"Walmart's philosophy is shave pennies off of everything. You're not taught to add pennies to anything."
MJ: You navigate some pretty depressing territory in this film. What were some of the moments of light during the shooting process?
SR: We really struggled with including immigration as a reality on the ground, and not just as a political reality. We were at a camp of workers in Watsonville, and this one guy started talking to us and he spoke really good English. He said, "My wife and I have a chicken farm. You should come see it." He told me about his border crossing—super depressing—but he was like, "My wife is American." I'm thinking, "Yeah, she's Mexican-American." We go to his house, and she's blonde-haired and blue-eyed. It's not your usual story. It wasn't like she had some sympathy towards a certain class of immigrants; it was just love. Their first date, he didn't speak English. If degrees weren't an issue, he could have a very high-level job like doctor or lawyer. He's pouring his energy into organic chicken farming. Hopefully people will go like, "Yeah, he should have a future in this country." His wife said it: "We should feel gratitude towards the people who bring us our food. It's hard work."
MJ: Why were Napa's vineyard workers a group you wanted to include?
SR: If we pick on any issue in the film it's inequality. The progressive liberals in Napa just happen to be extremely rich. Their attitudes towards farm workers are more a function of class rather than party. You see multi-million dollar homes ringed by vineyards with people who can't make a living wage and who live far away. There are Mexican farm workers everywhere, Latinos in every restaurant in Napa Valley, but they aren't part of the narrative. It's as if the narrative of Napa Valley wine can't be cheapened by the notion that somebody poor contributed to it.
That to me is emblematic of the tremendous interest we have in food these days, where we take pictures of it. I was at a screening with Chef Jose Duarte, a well-known chef in Boston, and he was saying that in the six years he's had the restaurant, he's been asked every question: "Where was this pig raised? What kind of food did it eat? Where did this lettuce come from?" Nobody ever asked: "What were the conditions of the workers who slaughtered that pig?" When you look at the pinnacle of foodie culture that drives the foodie networks, that drives the "Top Chefs"—the question isn't being asked. Which is unusual, because Alice Waters and Michael Pollan are passionate about food-worker rights. The elders of the food movement are all about labor, and it hasn't trickled down yet.
MJ: Did your eating habits change after making this film?
SR: I've always tried to buy local, and I only occasionally shop at grocery stores. Unfortunately, it's impossible to buy everything certified fair labor. I think I've changed more in terms of attitude: a deeper sense of gratitude. Am I grateful for the food? Will that make me more connected to workers? Yeah, it does. Will it make me more receptive to hear that there are certain programs that workers are doing that I can support? Yeah. The first step is gratitude, as wishy-washy as that seems.
Sao Paulo police officers confront student protesters during a strike in August.
The high-profile killings of figures like Ferguson, Missouri's Michael Brown have stirred a national conversation about police brutality as of late. But it turns out the Americas' second biggest economy struggles with this issue on a much greater scale: Brazil's police killed more than 11,000 civilians between 2008 and 2013; on average, a staggering six people every day. This jaw-dropping number was released today in a Brazilian Public Security Forum (BPSF) report whichrounds up statistics illuminating the country's struggles with public safety. To put the figure in context, it took police in the United States 30 years to kill the same number of civilians, despite the fact that there are at least 50 percent more people in the US.
Sao Paulo in particular has seen an increase in civilian deaths at the hands of the authorities. Between January and September of 2014, officers killed 478 people during confrontations, twice as many victims as during that same period last year. The uptick parallels an increasingly lawless criminal culture, say authorities. "Rather than turn themselves in to the police, criminals prefer to open fire," Sao Paulo police department's Jose Vicente da Silva told the AP. "That is what is causing the increase."
"Unfortunately, we are a country where police kill more and die more."
Many of Brazil's police killings happen in the predominately black favelas of Rio de Janeiro, where there's been a heightened military presence, in part to try and pacify the area for the World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Brazilian journalist Juliana Barbassa, who's writing a book on the issues feeding Brazil's massive national protests, described this tension when she spoke with my colleague Ian Gordon in July. When more police entered Rio's slums, "at the beginning there was this real hope that they could do something," Barbassa said; for one, break up the drug rings controlling the community. But then "you've got military police fully armed, in your community 24/7, regulating things like when you can have parties—it's not without its serious problems." Barbassa explained that the city has seen some "very ugly cases of abuse of power," including authorities torturing and killing civilians and then hiding the bodies. "To see these things happen, with this freshly trained, specifically chosen group of officers, really helped unravel a little bit the expectations and hopes that people had."
While the BPSF report paints a grim portrait of police use of force in Brazil, it also reveals how officers themselves suffer at the hands of the country's rampant violence. While fewer officers died on duty in 2013 than in 2012, many more were killed (from non-natural causes) on their off-hours: In 2013, 369 policemen perished while off-duty, compared to 191 just two years earlier. BPSF researchers note that it's tricky to pinpoint exactly why officers are being targeted outside of work, but in some parts of the country, killing a cop is a gang rite of passage.
"Unfortunately, we are a country where police kill more and die more," BPSF's researchers write. They later conclude: "Death should be understood as taboo, and not an acceptable outcome of security policy."
We've entered the age of the coconut. While the lactose intolerant quaff Starbucks' new coconut milk lattes, the gluten averse are busy baking with coconut flour. The number of coconut oil products—for both cooking and skin moisturizing—grew by 800 percent between 2008 and 2012.
Of course, the craze started with a different part of the hairy tropical fruit: its liquid center. Ethnic markets in the United States have sold coconut water for decades, but it didn't go mainstream until 2004, when, as the New York Times'David Segal reported earlier this year, two separate brands, Vita Coco and Zico, happened to launch simultaneously. Inspired by the drink's popularity in Brazil and Central America, the entrepreneurs emphasized the beverage's hydrating minerals—an all-natural Gatorade. Food trends analyst Harry Balzer of the market research firm NPD Group notes that the launches coincided with our growing fixation on natural eating; Whole Foods was an early vendor. Between 2008 and 2012, the number of coconut water brands quintupled. Today, a 12-ounce serving goes for $1.50 to $2.00—adding up to a $500 million industry, with PepsiCo and Coca-Cola owning big sellers.
After a lawsuit accused Vita Coco of exaggerating health claims, the brand rewrote its labels and paid a $10 million settlement.
Americans were the perfect market for this salty-sweet liquid because we already bought into the benefits of post-exercise beverages, says Jonny Forsyth of another market research group, Mintel. But ads touting coconut water's superior hydration turned out to be overblown. After a 2011 lawsuit accused Vita Coco of exaggerating when it claimed that the beverage had "15 times the electrolytes found in sports drinks," the company agreed to rewrite its labels and shell out a $10 million settlement (though it did not admit any wrongdoing). Lilian Cheung, director of health promotion at Harvard's School of Public Health, says coconut water does contain some electrolytes, especially potassium. And it usually packs less sugar than sports drinks—around 1.3 grams an ounce compared to Gatorade's 1.7 grams. But for those getting seriously sweaty during workouts, sports drinks contain more sodium than coconut water. And for the rest of us, water is still the best choice for hydration, says Cheung, especially because it's easy to replace lost electrolytes with food (oranges, spinach, and kidney beans, for example).
Iffy science notwithstanding, the coconut water trend spurred industry confidence in the fruit's oil ($10 to $15 for a jar), which came with a whole new set of questionable health promises. In 2005, the Food and Drug Administration scolded health guru Joseph Mercola for saying that Tropical Traditions Virgin Coconut Oil could "reduce the risk of heart disease" and "lower your cholesterol." Some nutritionists have praised the oil's higher proportion of medium-chain fatty acids, which are less likely than long-chain fatty acids to deposit fat into your tissue. But unlike olive oil or vegetable oil, coconut oil is still mostly saturated fat, and eating too much of it could raise levels of the bad kind of cholesterol, "a major cause of heart attacks," says Frank Sacks, a Harvard professor of cardiovascular disease prevention. Even more so if the product has gone through harsh processing, says Cornell nutrition science professor Tom Brenna.
Here's what coconut products are good for: companies' bottom lines. American brands are "making really high margins and buy the coconuts for virtually nothing," Mintel's Forsyth told BeverageDaily.com. In the Philippines, the world's second-largest coconut producer after Indonesia, nearly two-thirds of small-scale coconut farmers live in poverty. Though harvesting the fruit requires a perilous climb, often up trees treated with harsh pesticides, they make just $3 a day at the height of the harvest. Each coconut yields around 500 mL of liquid; a 12-ounce bottle uses about two-thirds of a nut. Of the $2 that you pay for a bottle of the stuff, the farmer makes between 7 and 14 cents. And don't forget that all that coconut water must be shipped across the planet, adding considerably to the product's greenhouse gas footprint.
So what's a coconut lover to do? One option: Buy an ethically made product. Earlier this year, Fair Trade launched a coconut certification program that guarantees farmers a 10 percent premium on top of their sale price to be used toward causes like typhoon relief. Participants in the program include Naked, Coco Libre, and Nutiva Virgin Coconut Oil. The brand Harmless Harvest only works with organic farms, and its Fair for Life certification prioritizes fair pay. Another company, Big Tree Farms, reduces shipping emissions by selling dehydrated coconut powder so you can make your own coconut water. Guilt remedies? Maybe. Magic health elixirs? Probably not.
When Sara Farizan presented early drafts of her young-adult novels at writing workshops, her fellow graduate students at Lesley University often responded with a stunned "Huh." The YA genre tends to be dominated by wizards and trolls, but here was Farizan writing about gay teenage sexual angst. Her 2013 debut novel, If You Could Be Mine, centers on Sahar, an Iranian teenager who considers desperate measures—including sex reassignment surgery—to try to stop her true love's arranged marriage. Farizan, born in the United States to Iranian parents, figured the book would sell on the fringes. Instead, it quickly landed on several "best YA reading" lists and snagged a Lambda Literary Award.
Her new novel, Tell Me Again How a Crush Should Feel, takes place closer to home. Out October 7, it is set in a waspy prep school, not unlike the one Farizan attended as a closeted teen in Massachusetts ("pre-Ellen," she notes). "I had this outgoing personality, and I was class president, but inside, I was going to my car to cry."
Farizan's stories, as full of gossip as any school cafeteria, are nonetheless funny and frank. They deal with uncomfortable issues—and not just for "girls named Emily or Annie." For that matter, Farizan thinks her fellow YA authors could do better at appealing to kids of all stripes. "Not that Harry isn't great," she says. "But if Ron and Hermione had been some other identity—black, Latina, gay—I think that would have made a huge difference."
Mother Jones: You've said: "I write books I wish I had as a teenager." Can you elaborate?
"It didn't bother me that my first crush was animated, or a mouse; it bothered me that she was female."
Sara Farizan: My first crush, as early as age 5, was Gadget the Mouse from Chip 'n Dale Rescue Rangers. It didn't bother me that she was animated, or a mouse; it bothered me that she was female. I had these inclinations, and was really terrified by them. This was pre-Ellen of course, and given the culture my parents are from—where a husband and wife is very important, and kids, and then those kids grow up to be doctors hopefully—I spent a lot of years in this silent fear and anger. As a teenager, I had this outgoing personality, and I was class president and doing all kinds of things; but inside was going to my car to cry. I had no problems explaining to people what my Iranian heritage meant, and trying to be a good representative. What did worry me was that I was secretly gay.
MJ: What were you reading at the time?
SF: There were LGBT-oriented books for teens by Julie Anne Peters, and Nancy Garden's Annie on My Mind. I normally got those from my town library rather than my school. But there wasn't anything about someone of a different background, you know. They were all girls named Emily and Annie. While those books were really helpful to me, there was a disconnect in that the only LGBT books that I had read about in school were concerning very of-European-descent people.
MJ: You started your books as graduate school projects. Did you think they'd become more than that?
SF: I really didn't see them ever being published, based on what they're about. Everyone in the "Writing for Young People" track was writing trolls and wizards, and, um, not LGBT people of color, certainly. I thought perhaps they were too niche. I didn't anticipate that all of this would have happened—that I'd be speaking to you, for one.
MJ: There are a lot of doctors in your books, and I see that your father was a surgeon. Did you feel pressure to go that route?
SF: No, but I think it was a profession that was understood. It's one that's really lofty and prestigious. I think for a lot of Persian parents in the States, being a doctor was the gold standard. There's this comedian, Amir K, who does an impression of his dad, who's like, "What do you mean you want to be a comedian? You can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor, you can open up a bank." And Amir's like, "Dad, you can't just go around opening up banks." [See video below.] My sister and I have gone very media-related routes. My parents are really wonderful about it, but it's not something they knew anything about. It's all very new territory for them.
MJ: Is your book, If You Could Be Mine, banned in Iran?
SF: I don't know that they know about it. I don't Google myself. I don't look myself up. One, because I'm a fragile flower. And two, it's going to mess up anything I want to write in the future.
MJ: You paint a very believable portrait of life in Iran. Did you live there for a time?
SF: I've been there. I have the passport stamps. I worry about being exploitative because I'm a Westerner. But for me it was very important, being a member of the LGBT community and dealing with that kind if frustration and isolation, to imagine what it would be like growing up in the country my parents are from.
MJ: The idea of transexualism plays a big role in the new book—though it seems pretty evident that Sahar is not trans. But I was surprised to learn that transgender Iranians can get subsidies for gender reassignment surgeries, and that they have more government protections than homosexuals.
A boy steps out of a bus full of families deported from Mexico back to Honduras in July of this year.
Escaping rampant violence in parts of Central America, tens of thousands of child migrants made a treacherous journey up to the United States border this year. To help dissuade such a vulnerable population from taking such risky treks in the first place, Obama announced Tuesday that he plans to roll out a new program to allow children to apply for refugee status from their home countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.
See MoJo's full coverage of the surge of unaccompanied child migrants from Central America.
The program is still in the planning stages, and it remains unclear how old the kids must be and what circumstances they must be caught in to successfully apply for asylum. But at least it's a move in the right direction, says Michelle Brané of the Women's Refugee Commission. "They are laying the groundwork and designating an avenue—it's a good starting off point," she says.
"That's not even close to enough. We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."
White House spokesperson Shawn Turner told the New York Times that the initiative is meant to "provide a safe, legal, and orderly alternative to the dangerous journey children are currently taking to join relatives in the United States." The point made in the last part of this statement has caught the attention of human rights advocates including Brané, as it suggests that only children who already have a relative in the US will qualify for asylum under this new program, leaving out thousands who are trying to escape newly developing unrest and gang violence.
Advocates also worry about the number of applicants that will be granted asylum. The White House's announcement projects that 4,000 people total from Latin America and the Caribbean could be granted refugee visas in fiscal year 2015. (Let's not forget that region includes troubled countries like Cuba, Venezuela, and Haiti). The children who would be allowed to apply for refugee status from their home countries appear to be a subcategory of that 4,000. "That's not even close to enough," says Brané. "We saw 60,000 kids arrive from Central America this year."
"Kids have a threat against their lives. They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."
One study by the UN High Commissioner of Refugees revealed that 60 percent of recent child migrants interviewed expressed a targeted fear, like a death threat, which is the type of experience that can qualify you for asylum. If you use that statistic, that means 36,000 of the kids who crossed the border this year should qualify for refugee visas—nine times the total number Obama is promising.
But Brané says an even bigger concern with the program is its potential to eclipse or replace protections given to targeted migrants who arrive at the Mexico/US border. "A program like this is fine as a complementary approach," she says, "but it cannot replace protection at the border; it should not impede access to asylum in the US." Ironically, it's the children whose lives are most threatened that could have the hardest time applying for refugee status from their home countries. "In some of these cases, kids have a threat against their lives," says Brané. "They don't have time to stand in line, file an application, come back later, stand in line again. They have to leave immediately."