Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Further Reading for Chipotle Mexican Grill

Just a few days ago, more than two dozen leading writers, activists, film makers, organizers and farmers from the sustainable food and food justice movements issued an open letter to Chipotle Mexican Grill demanding that the quickly-growing burrito chain work in true partnership with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to address the ongoing human rights crisis faced by farmworkers in the Florida tomato industry – something Chipotle refuses to do.

The letter is particularly significant because, unlike most fast-food companies which view sustainable food activists as extremists out to destroy the American way of life, Chipotle has worked hard to befriend the movement, trying desperately to depict an image of itself as a innovator in all things sustainable. Hopefully, the letter is a wake up call to the company that, try as it may to convince them otherwise, those truly committed to a more just and sustainable food system will always side with the grassroots struggle of farmworkers fighting for dignity and human rights over the PR spin of corporate elites. Integrity is not something it can buy; integrity is something that must be reflected in its actions.

While the signatories to the letter include many amazing people – from Josh Viertel, president of Slow Food USA, to the inspiring indigenous rights activist Winona LaDuke – hopefully one particular signer will stick out to Chipotle: Eric Schlosser, journalist and best-selling author of a defining book of our times, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal.

You see, at the end of Chipotle’s pretentious “manifesto” titled “Food With Integrity” in which it claims its goal is “no less ambitious than revolutionizing the way America grows, gathers, serves and eats its food,” Chipotle lists as one of two books in its suggestions for “Further Reading” none other than “Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation.” That’s a bold move for any fast-food company and particularly for one that used to be owned by McDonald’s. After all, Schlosser’s book is an uncompromising critique of the fast-food business model and the ways in which it has warped and harmed our food system on every level. Is Chipotle agreeing then that Schlosser is correct about everything that needs to change about the fast-food industry?

If so, then there are even further readings that Chipotle should have done a long time ago. Anyone who’s been following the Campaign for Fair Food for a while knows that Eric Schlosser is a long-time supporter and close ally of the CIW.

Chipotle would have done well to listen to Eric’s opinion in a New York Times column back in 2005 following the Taco Bell Boycott victory: “Food-service companies now purchase the majority of fresh produce in the United States - and farmers often believe that cutting wages is necessary to cut prices for their largest customers. Meaningful change, therefore, will have to come from the top . . . Taco Bell deserves credit for acknowledging its responsibility on this issue. Now McDonald's, Burger King, Wendy's and Yum's other brands need to do the same.” For more of Eric’s commentary on the need for fast-food companies to take responsibility for protecting farmworkers rights from the pages of the Times, Chipotle could have read here or here.

Or perhaps, Chipotle would have preferred to hear Eric testifying side by side with Lucas Benitez of the CIW in front of a US Senate hearing on Florida farm labor just last year where he said, “the immediate solution to these problems, however, does not lie with the federal government or with state officials in Florida. The largest purchasers of Florida tomatoes must take responsibility for the labor conditions in which those tomatoes are produced. Fruit and vegetable farmers today are under enormous pressure to cut operating costs. They face increased competition from overseas suppliers and price reductions imposed by their largest customers . . . Today the major fast food chains stand atop America’s food chain. Their purchasing decisions can transform entire sectors of the nation’s agricultural economy.” He added, in case anyone believed that reforms could happen without the participation of farmworkers themselves, that “the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has been one of the few brave and effective defenders of migrants in the state of Florida.”

If Chipotle wants change as badly as Eric, it should know that when asked if he sees “actual reform of the food system occurring,” Eric’s immediate response was “there's no question that meaningful reform has begun. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, a wonderful organization that defends the rights of farm workers in Florida, has forged agreements with the leading fast food chains and with Whole Foods.” Yet, oddly Chipotle has rebuked the opportunity to make actual reform that’s been placed at its door step (literally).

It’s also recommended that Chipotle check out this video promo for the movie Food, Inc. (of which Eric is a co-producer) in which he heaps praise on the CIW.

And before Chipotle pats itself on the back anymore for “revolutionizing” our food system, Eric is quite straightforward: “at the moment, the majority of Americans – ordinary working people, the poor, people of color – do not have a seat at this table. The movement for sustainable agriculture has to reckon with the simple fact that it will never be sustainable without these people.” Chipotle really should read – and answer – this question that Eric, again while sitting next to the CIW, posed to a panel at the Slow Food Nation gathering last summer: “Does it matter whether an heirloom tomato is local and organic if it was harvested with slave labor?” Just so Chipotle is clear, “the answer is obvious.”

It’s abundantly obvious. Quoting Eric again: “the exploitation of farm workers should not be tolerated in Florida. It should not be tolerated anywhere in the United States. There are many social problems that are extremely difficult to solve. This is not one of them.” Plain and simple, the solution is for Chipotle to work in partnership with the CIW. That’s been Eric’s demand of fast-food companies for a long time and that’s his demand explicitly of Chipotle today.

It’s funny really, Chipotle isn’t listening to the guy that Chipotle recommends everyone listen to. Chipotle’s “further reading” is demanding that Chipotle go further, and yet Chipotle refuses to take its own advice. This is a phenomenom that’s become so common place we have a name for it: Chipocrisy.

That’s the thing about further reading – sometimes you end up eating your words.

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