An Interview With Smriti Keshari, the producer of the powerful film, Food Chains

As we go about our day sipping on our premium coffee, taking selfies on our gold plated iPhones and wait in line for those new $200 Jordans, we have become emotionally unaware of the lives impacted for our comfort of living.

Rarely are we moved, when even the most extreme cases of working conditions make the headlines. It doesn’t humble us. We don’t stop using our iPhone or wearing our foreign made Hilfiger. We just keep stepping with the J’s on our feet.

What would it take to humble us? For me, it would take the powerful documentary, Food Chains.

Eva Longoria in Food Chains

Eva Longoria in Food Chains

Executive produced by Eva longoria, Food Chains reveals the human cost in our food supply and the complicity of large buyers of produce like fast food and supermarkets. Fast food is big, but supermarkets are bigger – earning $4 trillion globally. They have tremendous power over the agricultural system. Over the past 3 decades, they have drained revenue from their supply chain leaving farmworkers in poverty and forced to work under subhuman conditions. Yet many take no responsibility for this. The narrative of the film focuses on an intrepid and highly lauded group of tomato pickers from Southern Florida – the Coalition of Immokalee Workers or CIW – who are revolutionizing farm labor.

Smriti Keshari

Smriti Keshari

Their story is one of hope and promise for the triumph of morality over corporate greed – to ensure a dignified life for farm workers and a more humane, transparent food chain.[Source: foodchainsfilm.com]

After watching this film, I felt like I must do more for those people working hard to make our year-around food supply possible. I decided to reach out to Smriti Keshari, one of the producer of Food Chains, to learn more about the film.

Below is the transcript of our conversation.

Yoma Edwin: Hello

Smriti Keshari: Hello

Yoma: Thank you for taking my call, I know we had to do a few reschedules and I apologize about that.

Smriti: Oh no problem at all. Good morning, how is your day going?

Yoma: My day is going good. How about yours?

Smriti: It’s really good. I don’t know where you’re based, but I am in New York and it’s icy out here.

Yoma: I am in Florida.

Smriti: Oh, you stop that.

Yoma: Sorry, I know that really sucks.

Smriti: [laughter] I am a runner and I just cannot bear not being able to go out running. I would essentially be tippy toeing and not really going anywhere.

Yoma: I can imagine. My god-brother is in Boston and I called to check on him and they’re getting hit really hard. He is a workout fanatic as well and he can’t wait to it clears up a bit. So I hope you are safe though.

Smriti: Yes, and thanks for telling me that story because I am headed to Boston tomorrow morning.

Yoma: Okay, wow. Sorry.

Smriti: Do you have any more good news for me?

Yoma: Yes. I am just throwing salt on the wounds, right?

Smriti: Yes.

Yoma: Ok. Regarding ‘Food Chains’. I watched the film and I must say, the documentary actually changed my perspective and overall viewpoint on investigative journalism. Prior to this, I had never heard of ‘Food Chains”, but was really impacted by it. I am familiar with Eric Schlosser and some of the documents that he has done, but prior to getting the screener email, I hadn’t really heard of it.

Smriti: Thank you and we’re so glad you watched it.

Yoma: Before we get into it the details of this awesome documentary, I wanted to get a little more info about you. I’m always interested in the back story of what makes people passionate about a particular cause. I started doing some research on you and find your background to be really unique. Could you touch on that a little bit?

Smriti: Sure. So, I am originally from India. My entire family is from there and we immigrated to the United States. At first we went to Puerto Rico and spent most of my years growing up in Puerto Rico. So Spanish is actually my second language and English is my third. I will always feel a connection to Spanish-speaking countries and land, they feel kind of like a home to me. I traveled and moved a lot as a young child growing up. My parents both have PhDs in Quantum Mechanics, so they are professors. Can you hear me okay?

Yoma: Yes, I can hear you perfectly.

Smriti: Okay. I think moving around, always throughout growing up and being in different places, I was always interested and I kind of found it incredible how so many people have such unique stories and I think that’s where my connection to storytelling has always been, just by virtue of places that I have lived. I think that there is something really unique when you are the one aspect that travels around to different realities, is that, you see the things that bring people together and the things that break people apart. You kind of become an observer often of these cultures.

So a lot of everything that I have done has had that in some way or another, and it has taken different shapes and forms in media and film. At first it was in sports and you probably saw that. With my ESPN background, I worked with the marketing, production, and brand team. While I was there, I worked with all of the properties that are part of ESPN. That was at the beginning of the ESPN films, 30 for 30 series and E60. It was these incredible stories that looks at the moments that really makes these athletes we look at as stars.

So one of the films that we worked on that I loved was about Kobe Bryant and it was just a day in the life of Kobe. We didn’t show the game, it was just all build-up or lead-up to the game. It kind of shows you the human side of these stars. I kind of caught the bug while I was doing that, so I really wanted to be more involved with the subjects and with people. I am also a surfer and that is how I met Sanjay (the director of Food Chains). We met through a group of filmmakers in New York that are also surfers and his family’s background is in agriculture and he told me about some of the situations.

In and around that time, a book had come out called Tomatoes Land, by Barry Esther Brook, that looked at tomatoes and how modern agriculture sort of changed this fruit. I had read Fast Food Nation, Seafood Inc. and I do remember the part that was about the factory workers that really kind of stayed with me. So, we started talking about this and immediately just realized that the workers were not being accounted for in this day and age of the food conversation that is going on. We just started from there and got a small crew together and decided to speak to everyone involved in the entire supply chain.

Yoma: When Sanjay told you about this project given did you ever think that may be this is too controversial? Was there a period of doubt about involved with the project?

Smriti: As we were getting started, we were always trying to figure out, who are the bad guys. Whenever there is injustice, there is always someone that has a lot of power and it’s about an imbalance of power and this film puts a spotlight on that that. We always wanted to create a film that had the solution to change it. We went all around the country; spoke with everyone involved from workers to labor contractors to the department of labor to experts and organizers. When it came to the solution of how to improve working conditions, how to make sure that women are not facing sexual harassment, slavery isn’t going on, wage theft and that people are not living in some of the most horrible conditions. When it came to the solution, an example where the farm workers were in control and had power and justice, it lead us to the CIW. Their kind of groundbreaking in their approach to targeting the buyers of food, really is revolutionary. They created this model that looked at the power of the market and saw that it’s these buyers that have their entire economic power, they are responsible for the behavior that is happening, all the way down the supply chain.

Yoma: Wow, that’s powerful. Also, included as part of the film was some Hollywood heavy hitters. You had Eva Longoria, Eric Schlosser and Forest Whitaker, who narrated the film. How did you get these well-known names on board?

Smriti: Well, Eric is kind of such a revolutionary voice with this and really kind of gave birth to the food movement, you know I would say. He has covered this, when he covered strawberry workers in the early 90’s and sharecropping that was going on over there. So he has been a really great and powerful voice with this. He has been this tremendous source of knowledge and he also us with Eva. Eva had been very interested in this issue. She executive produced a documentary a few years ago, called The Harvest. It looked at the conditions and mistreatment of child farm workers. So this was something that was really close and near and dear to her. She is an expert in this as well. We interviewed her and we just knew that she had this authentic and strong voice and interest in this. With Forest, he has just been a good friend and lent his voice. We also had Damian Brashere, who is an amazing actor, who did the Spanish narration of the film.

Yoma: Being in Florida and understanding the power that Publix wields in the state, I was kind of thrown back by their lack of effort. The CIW was able to get the largest players in the industry to the table, but for some reason, Publix would not follow their example.

Smriti: That list also included Wal-Mart.

Yoma: Wow. Usually, if you get Wal-Mart onboard, who’s the largest player in the group, the other companies usually follows. I was kind of struck by the fact that Publix didn’t come to the table to join these other key industry players in taking a stand.

Smriti: Yes, the Fair Food Program, which is this kind of revolutionary food program started by the CIW. It ensures that all the basic human rights of all the men and women in the field, including rights of safe working conditions, to water and shade, working free of sexual violence and forced labor, it ensures that they get those basic human rights. It is really this new model for human rights in this global supply chain. It is something that other industries are looking at as an example. CIW was also presented with the Presidential award from John Kerry on last week.

Yoma: I saw that.

Smriti: Yes, they’ve gotten numerous awards; they were on the front page of the New York Times. The Fair Food Program was called the “best working environment in agriculture in America.” The fact that Publix knows all this and they still refuse. They refuse to just simply have a conversation. This is also the same with Wendy’s, which they also have a campaign against. Wendy’s is the last major fast-food retailer that hasn’t come on board and I think it is just a matter of time.

Yoma: I think so too. One of the things that made me made about Publix, is they’re so dominate here. I live on the outskirts of Orlando, in Hunter’s Creek, and there is a Publix everywhere. You can’t go anywhere without seeing one. It’s almost like they have a corporate obligation because of the amount of stores and power the control in the state of Florida. Even with that responsibility, you would think that they would be out in the forefront in these efforts. I just thought their lack of initiative was really weird. Has there been any update in terms of them extended an olive branch, in terms of reaching out to possibly join The Fair Food Program, or are they still silent on this issue?

Smriti: What’s really incredible, I think, we created this film as a tool for workers. We wanted this film to be a way for people/consumers to get organized. Around the release of the film, we had numerous protests and actions afterward. We had a lot of activities as we continued to build this momentum on social media and there was a lot of attention that began to show up on Publix’s Facebook page, and for the first time, they started responding, actually responding to comments about it. They kept saying things that were really lies and weren’t true. They kept saying that they would be willing to pay if it was within the price of the tomato, but everything that the CIW is asking for is very legitimate and it’s working. You know, 13 major corporations are already on board, so it doesn’t take a lot for Publix, this is something that should be in their best interest to make sure that there aren’t any human rights violations in their own fields.

Yoma: Definitely. In my opinion, I believe anytime you have a control over a market and there is a certain level of injustice that you are directly involved, it should be a top priority because it could impact your business moving forward. When watching the film and the amount being ask was only a penny, I was almost shouting at the screen. I’m like, it’s a freakin’ penny, are these workers not worth a penny? To be honest, if you look at the way the workers are living and the different things that they need to do to be able to function day-to-day, it just kind of hit me. They were asking for only a penny and they wouldn’t even come to the table out to consider that.

Smriti: Yes. It is very unfortunate. One of the greatest things that Lucas Benitas always says, which he states in the film, “it’s just a matter of time. It’s not an if, but it’s a when.” The market is agnostic and the market responds to people. I think with the power of consumers supporting and demanding that these organizations do the right thing, is really powerful. One of the things that is really incredible, last year the CIW ended up launching the Fair Food Label. They waited almost 5 years to create this label, because they wanted to stand for the fair working conditions and effective monitoring process and that is what the ‘label’ represents. It represents a new day for farm workers, it’s no longer an aspirational, but fully realized and working in the Florida tomato fields.

Yoma: That’s really impactful. Well, I will do my part. After I was finish watching, I started texting friends. I’m like saying “hey, you need to watch this film.” Some of them texted me back like “dude, why are you texting me this late”, so I was overly excited. I know there are some people out there that won’t care and don’t think this issue will affect them. What would you say to those people who feel like this issue doesn’t matter?

Smriti: First of all Yoma, thank you so much for being a spokesperson and texting your friends early in the morning or late at night. That is exactly what we need, we need more of that and we really have a strong voice in our digital world. We are beginning to launch community screenings and education tours. The film is also available on iTunes for download or rental. So you can gift it to them. People love presents, this is one of the things that Eva says in the film, it is really strong and it is very simple, its “if you eat, you are affected.” Everyone should care about what they put into their bodies and who’s affected and who’s connected to it.

Yoma: Definitely. I didn’t think about that, to just send them a gift. I’ll give them no choice but to watch it. I truly believe that this documentary could be a good model of an effective way of organizing and really getting the message out about any type of injustice or cause. It really captures the power to organize and shows an effective way to be consistent in spreading your message to effect change. Last year when America was captivated by the protest in Ferguson and NYC, I said there needs to be a consistent message to impact chance long-term. Because the CIW has been organizing effectively for a really long time, their method could be a model for other issues in America.

Smriti: Yes. I think that, no one is going to know the reality of what a person or a group of people are facing, except for those folks themselves and I think it’s that reality that the CIW had and continues to have that allows them to have consistency in their messaging and could effect a program and a solution that is constantly looking forward and it is at the most basic level, to ensure the human rights of the people in the field and to have a monitoring system that is working. That is one of the most important things, how can this not just be a beautiful PR push, but it’s actually working, it’s actually effects the lives of farm workers daily.

Yoma: So what’s next for you? I know that you are very busy and you have a lot of things that you have going on and I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. Do you have any projects that we need to be looking out for?

Smriti: Well, this one is really exciting as I mentioned earlier that we are transitioning into the community and educational tour. As most films really take off, as they get adopted by their communities, we are asking everyone whether they are students, members of an organization or whichever type to really bring this movie and this issue into their community by hosting screenings. So that is really exciting. During our theatrical release of the film, we had an immense amount of interest, but our team back here in New York is just working through all that and setting up our community initiatives. So all through this year you’re going to be seeing Food Chains a lot in your local community.

Yoma: That is good. Has it been hard in getting this film in front of people to host the community screenings? Also, does getingthe big names involved made easier for potential screening markets?

Smriti: It has been. Even having Eva, having Eric and having Forest, has definitely assisted in getting a wider audience for this. Eva is wonderful, she had done a lot of talk shows and interviews as well as everyone else on the team. She was on Colbert Report, Seth Meyers, and Bellmore and that really helped get the word of the film out there more. We opened theatrically and we are available on iTunes, we will be on Netflix next month and we are transitioning into our phase of community screenings and education tours and having campaigns around that. Next month is National Farmworker Awareness week at the end of March, so we are planning a big push around that. So you will be hearing a lot more about Food Chains in the coming up months.

Yoma: I will definitely be involved in spreading the message.

Smriti: That’s cool.

Yoma: So remember to send me whatever you have.

Smriti: Absolutely. You know, I am really impressed and encouraged, because it’s really in this way that we are getting the word out about the film out, so I really appreciate your interest in it.

Yoma: No problem, anything I can do I will do it. I will definitely be able to do it. I know you are very busy and you kind of had to rearrange your schedule to get on the call with me today and I really appreciate you taking the time to speak with me.

Smriti: Absolutely, thank you.

Yoma: All right, thank you. Have a great day, if you need me send me an email or you should have my number since you called into this thing, okay?

Smriti: Great, sounds good. All right, talk to you soon.

Yoma: All right, be good, stay warm and I look forward to talking to you soon.

Smriti: Thanks, Yoma.

Yoma: You’re welcome. Goodbye.

Smriti: Bye

You can learn more about Food Chains by visiting: foodchainsfilm.com. For more information about Coalition of Immokalee Workers, visit ciw-online.org. I encourage everyone to watch this film and consider spreading the powerful message of this film.

Yoma Edwin

Yoma Edwin

Yoma Edwin is the Founder and Publisher of CultureMass. He’s a recognized thought leader in digital strategy, brand development, new media and mobile marketing. Over the past 10 years, Yoma has built a successful media strategy business with offices in Florida and South Carolina. Yoma is a mass communication graduate from Benedict College, an active investor and advocate of kids in foster care. He created CultureMass Media, Inc. to focus on building global digital media properties such as CultureMass.

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