Thanksgiving is complex. It represents very different things to different people. Family. Food. Harvest. Yams. Colonialism. Black Friday. Winter is coming.
But whatever it means to you personally, as food entrepreneurs, we run Thanksgiving. We power a supply chain that brings food from farms to grocery store shelves, where US Americans will collectively spend $2.4 billion on this Thursday’s feast. Entrepreneurs and business owners will ultimately decide how to distribute that revenue to create optimal business conditions and set wages and living conditions for the people who work along the supply chain.
Director Sanjay Rawal’s new documentary “Food Chains” tells the story of the human cost of our food supply chain, or more specifically, how much of that $2.4 billion that consumers pay to grocery stores ends up in the pockets of farmworkers after food buyers and distributors take their cut. Spoiler alert, it’s about $42 per farmworker per day or less than $12,000 a year.
Rawal and Executive Producers Eva Longoria and Eric Schlosser tell the story of a group of Florida farmworkers, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), as they hold food buyers accountable for draining revenue from the global food supply chain, leaving workers with next to nothing. The film shows the modern-day slavery conditions that the CIW are protesting—brutally physical 15-hour work days on farms many miles from where farmworkers can find affordable housing—cramped trailers that house 16 people at a time—deplorable working conditions, wage theft and sexual assault.
Watching the plight of the Florida tomato pickers in "Food Chains", it's easy to want to blame the farm owners for creating such undignified conditions. But as CIW leaders explain, the consolidation of behemoth grocery store food buyers has created intense market pressure on farmers. Either sell your products (and pay your workers) at the market rate, or go out of business.
The CIW's creative non-violent protests have persuaded the likes of Walmart, Trader Joe's, Burger King and Sodexo to join The Fair Food Program, which asks large retailers to pay one penny more per pound for tomatoes and to refuse to buy from farms with human rights violations. If the retailers decide to pass the cost on to consumers that extra penny per pound means families pay a total of 44 cents more for tomatoes each year. Meanwhile that extra penny per pound doubles the annual wages of the tomato pickers.
It seems like an obvious choice to make—don't buy from retailers and restaurants that haven't joined The Fair Food Program. Start with crossing Publix Supermarkets and Wendy's off your list. But as food buyers ourselves, we can do more than simply boycott these establishments. As artisan food producers, food truck owners, restauranteurs and food tech startups we are also complicit in making decisions about where to source and how much to pay for the food that we ultimately sell.
Like the large chains, food startups must manage our gross margins and net profits to keep our businesses healthy. And because it’s so hard to run a food business it’s easy to forget our place in the chain, to forget that we too rely on farmworkers to grow the ingredients for our products, our restaurants and our stores. A penny difference in how we price our products can make a world of difference to the people doing the hardest work in our supply chain.
If you run a food business please watch “Food Chains” this Thanksgiving to understand what it’s like to work at the beginning of the food supply chain. Let's give more than thanks to our farmworkers this Thanksgiving, lets give them a raise.