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The difference  a penny makes

Photo: Scott Bauer (CC)

Be wary of what you load onto your dinner plate.

That’s the message of the University of Ottawa’s Laboratory for the Interdisciplinary Study of Food (LISF), which seeks to change how students are participating in food systems

Following the successful 2011 documentary Food Inc., filmmaker and author Eric Schlosser returns as executive producer of Food Chains, alongside actress and activist Eva Longoria, a film that the LISF screened on campus on March 25.

Marie-Josée Massicotte, director of LISF and a U of O professor, organized the screening to increase the Food Lab’s visibility and highlight issues with the food system in North America today.

Food Chains is a documentary looking at the Coalition of Immokalee workers in Florida and tomato pickers who are also mainly migrant workers from Mexico and Guatemala.

The Coalition of Immokalee workers developed the Fair Food Program, a revolution in the farm fields to end their poverty and exploitation.

“The Immokalee workers organized amongst themselves to campaign for better pay, working and living conditions,” she says. “Their goal was to highlight that within food chains, those who work the land and help to produce the food we eat on a daily basis are the worst paid.”

Massicotte says our food system is controlled by big money with a concentration of supermarket and fast food restaurant power.

The global supermarket industry is now worth more than US$4 trillion. Unlike most labourers, farm workers are often paid by the piece, rather than by the hour, with most earning an average salary of $12,000 a year.

“The campaign is to raise the wage per pound of tomatoes by one cent,” says Massicotte. “It shows what little difference to consumers that a salary increase for agricultural workers would make.”

Campus Sustainability manager Jonathan Rausseo says, “We need to work harder to balance paying agricultural workers enough, without food becoming too expensive, with a tricky dynamic between the two.”

Massicotte says raising awareness is important because the public doesn’t usually understand where their food comes from, or realize the working conditions of those who produce it. She says organizing from the “bottom up” is the best way to achieve social justice for workers, as workers know their priorities best, although solidarity and building larger networks is also necessary.

However the American documentary doesn’t address whether these issues with the food system exist in the same way in Canada. Rausseo says Canada is just as culpable as the United States for bringing in cheap migrant labour.

Massicotte says Canada has an agreement for agricultural migrant workers to come here under special conditions, with big battles for people within the programs, such as the right to unionize. She says the issues are similar but legislation is different, with perhaps greater protections for migrant workers in Canada.

“Food issues have become increasingly jazzy or sexy in recent years,” she says, “and there is a lot of interest in understanding them amongst the student body.”