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Food Chains: New Film Tracks How Immokalee Workers Won Fair Wages from Corporate Giants

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Opening today around the U.S., the new film “Food Chains” documents the groundbreaking partnership between farm workers, Florida tomato farmers and some of the largest fast-food and grocery chains in the world. We are joined by one of the film’s key players, Gerardo Reyes-Chávez, a farm worker and organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. Reyes-Chávez has helped lead the group’s success getting 12 corporations to join their Fair Food Program — including McDonald’s, Taco Bell and, most recently, the retail giant Wal-Mart. Participants agree to pay a premium for the tomatoes in order to support a “penny per pound” bonus that is then paid to the tomato pickers. Soon, the Fair Food label will appear on Florida tomatoes at participating stores.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: We turn now to a new film that documents the groundbreaking partnership between farm workers, Florida tomato farmers and some of the largest fast-food and grocery chains in the world. It’s called Food Chains, and it stars actress Eva Longoria and author Eric Schlosser, who are also executive producers. It is narrated by the actor Forest Whitaker.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: We know our economy is stronger when we reward an honest day’s work with honest wages. Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.

EVA LONGORIA: Everybody should be concerned with where our food comes from and who picks it.

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: To live hungry while you are working, that’s not a dignified way of living.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: The defendants have been accused of beating them, locking them inside trailers, chaining them to a pole. These abuses are un-American, they are unacceptable, and they must stop.

The history of farm labor in the United States is a history of exploitation.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY: These people have suffered tremendously and grown much more slowly economically than any other segment of our society.

ROBERT F. KENNEDY JR.: If we cannot win this fight, we have lost the soul of America.

BARRY ESTABROOK: I think the entire supermarket business goes out of its way so that you’re not reminded of where your food came from.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: If you want to make change, you need to look at the people at the very top.

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: We became a little problem for the big corporations.

FOREST WHITAKER: Farm workers in Florida placed the responsibility of fair wages and conditions for workers on the big buyers of tomatoes rather than the farmers.

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: What we want is to establish change.

EVA LONGORIA: I still believe agriculture is the backbone of America. You’ve got to pay attention to the labor force.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: Most people have no idea that they’re connected to this system every time they buy fresh fruits and vegetables. If a handful of companies decided that they wanted to eliminate poverty among farm workers, it could happen very, very quickly.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That’s the trailer for Food Chains, which opens in more than 25 theaters around the country today in both English and Spanish.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, we’re joined by one of the film’s key players, Gerardo Reyes-Chávez, farm worker, organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. He has helped lead the group’s success getting 12 corporations to join their Fair Food Program, including McDonald’s, Taco Bell and, most recently, the retail giant Wal-Mart in January. Participants agree to pay a premium for the tomatoes in order to support a penny-per-pound bonus that’s then paid to the tomato pickers. Soon, the Fair Food label will appear on Florida tomatoes at stores participating in the program, including Wal-Mart, Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s.

Gerardo Reyes, welcome back to Democracy Now!, Gerardo Reyes-Chávez. It’s great to have you with us.

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Thank you so much.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about this latest—well, Wal-Mart, I mean, the world’s, what, largest retailer, that you got them to sign onto this, what does it mean?

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Well, it means a lot of—a lot of things. First and foremost, it means an increase in wages for workers, because Wal-Mart is going to be paying the penny per pound, in the same way that the other 11 retailers have been doing. But also included on that agreement, we have the expansion of the program to cover other states. So, right now the program covers about 30,000 workers in Florida’s tomato industry, but then, starting in May and June of 2015, that’s going to expand to every state along the East Coastal line.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: One question—some companies have yet to sign on, and I know when I was out at Ohio State, there was already a student movement there trying to get the university to divest from Wendy’s, because Wendy’s is one of the companies that has refused to join your program. Could you talk about the divestment movement on this issue?

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Yeah, there is—well, interestingly enough, when we started the campaign, we were asking Taco Bell to join, to pay the penny per pound, to condition their purchasing—to cut purchasing, if necessary, when growers would refuse to fix any of the problems in the fields. And at that time, Emil Brolick was president of Taco Bell. Now he’s the CEO of Wendy’s. And the students know that they have a lot of power. They already showed that to Mr. Brolick. And for some reason, he’s trying to resist that. But at the end, I feel that the movement, the consumers, but mainly the students, are going to have a lot, a lot to say about it. So it’s just a matter of time before Wendy’s come on board, we feel.

AMY GOODMAN: I see you have—one of the papers you have in front of you is a Wendy’s protest. Which protest is this in the country?

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Well, as part of the film, that you were mentioning a little bit earlier, there’s going to be about 12 protests, and more that are being organized, over the weekend of the 21st and some protests over the weekend of the 28th. So, we have protests here in New York on Saturday at 3:00 p.m. after the screening at the Quad Cinema. We’re going to march from Union Square to Broadway to protest Wendy’s.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play another clip from Food Chains, which describes how supermarkets are controlling prices and squeezing farmers and farm workers. We hear from the actress Eva Longoria, agribusiness expert Shane Hamilton and farmer Jon Esformes. But first, author Eric Schlosser.

ERIC SCHLOSSER: I think it would be easy to demonize farmers and hold them responsible for the poor wages of migrants. That might have been true in some cases 30 years ago, 40 years ago, but that’s not really the problem today. If you want to make change, I think you need to look at the people who have the real power to make the lives of farm workers better, and those are the people at the very top.

FOREST WHITAKER: Farm workers are the foundation of a massive supply chain that includes farmers and distributors, but that is dominated by fast food, food service and supermarkets, like Publix. The power of supermarkets is rooted in their gross revenue. They earn more than Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, Microsoft and Apple.

EVA LONGORIA: When you talk about grocery chains, it is very, very easy for them to bully the small farmers. They are being villainized, and they know they’re being villainized. But their hands are tied.

SHANE HAMILTON: It’s a very difficult world for most farmers. Certainly, there is this nostalgic vision of, you know, the small family farm, where there was much more control over who you paid and how much they got paid. I think there is a sense now that everybody is deeply interdependent on this entire supply chain.

JON ESFORMES: Agriculture is doing great, as long as you’re not a farmer. There has become such a disconnect over the last 30 years between the ultimate point of sale and the actual production.

AMY GOODMAN: Another excerpt of the [film] Food Chains. It’s opening around the country this weekend. Finally, Gerardo, what you’re hoping to accomplish with this film beyond this weekend?

GERARDO REYES-CHÁVEZ: Well, we expect people to take action, because the beauty of this film is—the difference between this film and many documentaries is that this is an ongoing story. This is a story that people can build on as we are talking about it. The campaign for Fair Food is very well and alive, and we hope that people will join it. Cities like D.C. are preparing to do a protest, as well—Los Angeles, Denver, Tampa, Orlando, Chicago. There’s many people that are organizing actions in support of the campaign for Fair Food. And what we expect is for people to take this as an opportunity to be able to unite with the farm workers of Immokalee in this effort that we have to transform the tomato industry and, in the future, to be able to do much more for the workers in the fields of this nation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Gerardo, thanks so much for being with us. Gerardo Reyes-Chávez, farm worker and organizer with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, featured in the new film Food Chains, which is out in 25 theaters around the country this weekend.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. Coming up, it’s the 10th anniversary of the first edition of Voices of a People’s History of the United States by the late, great historian Howard Zinn. We’ll be joined by actor Viggo Mortensen and Anthony Arnove, the editor of the volume. Stay with us.

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