Monday, July 20, 2009

Why were Fair Food activists kicked out of Food, Inc.?

The Campaign for Fair Food and the new documentary Food, Inc. share – by any objective observation – a common vision and common struggle.

Food, Inc. is an urgent call to create a more just and sustainable food system while the Campaign for Fair Food has a broad network of people working on the ground to do just that.

The Campaign is seeking to raise awareness of the exploitation of farmworkers occurring in the shadows of our corporate-controlled food system – precisely the types of issues that Food, Inc. exposes.

Official Food, Inc. literature listing “10 things you can do to change our food system” encourages people to: “Demand job protections for farm workers and food processors, encouraging fair wages and other protections.” The Campaign not only encourages people to take action but actually provides an avenue to fight for and win fair wages and farmworker rights.

All this would explain why Eric Schlosser, author of Fast Food Nation and a co-producer of Food, Inc., has been a strong supporter and active participant in the Campaign, and why, when speaking about the film, he has highlighted the work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers as a prime example of meaningful change. And it explains why Schlosser along with the director of Food, Inc. Robert Kenner (and dozens of other prominent sustainable food activists) signed an open letter stating: “We view the CIW’s struggle for dignity as a non-negotiable part of the struggle for a sustainable food system.”

These facts also explain why members of Denver Fair Food arranged with the local theater and Food, Inc.’s national public education campaign so that we could table and speak briefly with the audience before a film screening.

What it doesn’t explain is why when we arrived at the theater a peppy young woman with a talent for faux-niceness told us that we would not be allowed to speak before the audience or to set up a table. Could it be because we were working to create a more just and sustainable food system, because we were distributing a letter signed by the filmmakers, because we were encouraging people take action to demand respect for farmworker rights?

As strange as it sounds, these are indeed the reasons we were kicked out of the screening of Food, Inc. To make sense of this, you should first know that:

- Chipotle Mexican Grill has long been the main campaign target in our efforts to create a food system that includes farmworker justice – efforts which Chipotle has ignored, avoided and resisted.
- The letter signed by the filmmakers that we were distributing is actually addressed to Chipotle, and lambastes the company for failing to ensure that the tomatoes in its burritos were not picked by exploited workers.
- And the action which we were encouraging was to demand that Chipotle finally work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in order to protect the rights of farmworkers.

As you may have guessed already, the woman who kicked us out worked not for Food, Inc. or the theater but for Chipotle. You see, Chipotle rented the theater that night – one of 32 free screenings of the film that it sponsored around the country – and did not want us pointing out the obvious contradiction between its sponsorship and its disregard for the worth and dignity of the women and men who harvest its tomatoes.

According to Chipotle, it was sponsoring the screenings because “the issues raised by the film Food, Inc. are important and complex, and everything we do at Chipotle strives to address them. Our philosophy of Food With Integrity is an active process of working back along the food chain . . .based on a foundation of not exploiting animals, the environment, or people.”

Chipotle can make such lofty claims only when it excludes farmworkers from its “philosophy.” When the fields from which Chipotle sources its tomatoes are the standard used to judge the integrity of its food, it cannot claim to not play a role in a system of food production based clearly on the exploitation of human beings. It cannot claim to be “working back along the food [supply] chain” while denying the farmworkers who actually work in that supply chain the ability to participate in the decisions about that supply chain which affect their lives. And it cannot claim to be addressing the issues raised by Food, Inc. and yet, when presented with an obvious path to address one such issue by committing to work with the CIW, be unwilling to take it.

Chipotle, despite trying to portray otherwise, is out of sync with the common cause articulated by Food, Inc. As Eric Schlosser, Robert Kenner and the other signers of the open letter to the company explain: “We applaud your goal of sourcing ‘food with integrity’ . . . Yet for us, naturally raised meat – important as it is – does not trump decently treated human beings.” Chipotle is stubbornly holding out against the progress achieved by the Campaign for Fair Food while those who truly want a sustainable food system – such as the makers of the film – are actively pushing the Campaign forward. There is a comic sensibility to seeing Chipotle hitch its brand image to the Food, Inc. bandwagon at same time as the film’s makers accuse it of “public relations damage control” in regards to its response to the CIW. Sadly the amusement is dampened when the reality sinks in that Chipotle’s sponsorship of Food, Inc. is a cynical attempt to exploit our dreams of a just and sustainable world as Chipotle is simultaneously suppressing farmworkers’ dreams of dignified working conditions.

Chipotle founder and CEO Steve Ells says, “I hope that all our customers see this film. The more they know about where their food comes from, the more they will appreciate what we do.” But if Chipotle’s customers knew that their tomatoes came from the exploitation of farmworkers and that Chipotle was not willing to take the necessary steps to do something about it, then they might not be so appreciative. In fact, they might be outraged; they might demand change, get organized and take action.

Chipotle knows this and thus doesn’t really want its customers to know the truth behind their food. That’s why we were kicked out of Food, Inc. And that’s why it was so important for us to be there.

Even though Chipotle ruined our plans to speak and even tried to have the cops called on us, we stuck around til the film got out and passed out copies of the open letter to Chipotle to a very receptive crowd, speaking with well over a hundred people while proudly holding our banner reading: “Food, Inc. – Great Film. Chipotle – Don’t believe the hype.” What’s more, throughout the country allies of the CIW took to the movies with the same simple but compelling message.

Chipotle can certainly try as it will to shut us up but it would do better to heed the words of Victor Hugo: “no army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come.” Or to paraphrase the late Fred Hampton, you can kick a revolutionary out of a film screening but you can’t kick out a revolution.


  1. They caught on! Darn! It sounds like y'all still made a good scene and more importantly, reached a bunch of new folks.

  2. Go Denver Fair Food! Keep taking the revolution to Chipotle. =)

  3. Seriously? Don’t you see that you and Chipotle are fighting the same battle? Funny how you and Chipotle were aiming to address the same audience on…holy shit…the same issues! So ya got kicked out of the theatre…bummer  What % of the bill did your organization float for renting the venue? My guess is 0% & that’s probably why your asses got kicked out. So who should you really be mad at? Chipotle for not allowing you to crash a private party? Or the dimwitted members of DFF who “arranged” an agreement with the local theatre? You might be better of protesting and reaching out to organizations and individuals who are exploiting the farm workers (ie their employers who pay those piss poor wages) rather than organizations who are taking a stand & playing a predominant role in the solution…not the problem.

  4. yay you!! That was an awesome action! We'll help spread the word!

  5. right on. it's such a shitty tactic for corporations targeted by any issue to water it down and exclude any sort of real address of problems...

    keep up the struggle,
    greetings from florida!

  6. This wouldn't be the first time Chipotle attempted to co-opt/undermine a campaign that targets Chipotle. The company shows, behaviorally, an interest in convincing consumers that they are better than other fast food joints by downplaying their responsiveness to such campaigns, then once they cave in they use the praise of the campaigners, who only show appreciation for Chipotle's accepting criticism or some agreement, as advertising material to boost their image in public relations. I covered a protest for, entitled "Chipotle: 'Food With [or without] Integrity'?", and I included mention of this tactic used by Chipotle regarding a campaign by PETA. It appears that Chipotle's strategy is to hijack the cause, and the publicity that comes with it, while stripping that publicity from the organization that pressured them to do so, thus creating the public appearance of there never being any campaign of pressure at all. The credit for improving conditions is absorbed by Chipotle rather than the organization that pressured Chipotle. From all accounts I've noticed this is precisely how Chipotle dealt with PETA. It now appears, based on this news, that they are attempting to do the same thing with Fair Food Alliance. Chipotle must have some seriously dubious P.R. people on board.

  7. To Anonymous,

    Chipotle, despite it’s organic beans and naturally raised meat, is not “fighting the same battle” as long as it refuses to work with the CIW to end the exploitation of farmworkers in its supply chain. To once again quote the makers of Food, Inc. and the many other sustainable food leaders who signed the open letter to Chipotle: “Naturally raised meat . . . does not trump decently treated human beings . . . We view the CIW’s struggle for dignity as a non-negotiable part of the struggle for a sustainable food system.”

    That Chipotle had rented the theater is not a reason to sit idly by but to the contrary a reason to act. As long as Chipotle continues being a stubborn holdout against farmworker justice, we’ll rightly direct our anger at it. If Chipotle tries to buy legitimacy in the sustainable food world with screenings of Food, Inc., we’ll use every means at our disposal to crash its party and expose the ugly truth behind its food, even if that means getting kicked out. The only intelligent response to injustice is resistance. (BTW, the film screening was not a “private party” but a free public event.)

    As to why we’re not protesting the employers of the farmworkers, Eric Schlosser (co-producer of Food, Inc. and a prominent commentator in it) can answer: “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 . . . 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.” That fast food companies hold the power to transform their suppliers’ operations is a point on which DFF, the CIW, the makers of Food, Inc. and even Chipotle all agree. Please, do your homework before proposing dumb ideas.

    You’d have to be pretty dimwitted to blindly accept that Chipotle is “taking a stand and playing a predominant role in the solution” and thus doesn’t need to be held accountable for its actions. We, the people, must not rely on self-serving proclamations of corporate benevolence but rather we ourselves must be the ones to demand the solutions . . . not the problems. If Chipotle wants to take a stand in the movement for a just and sustainable food system than it will have to listen to us, not us to it. Chipotle could easily play a role in the solution by signing an agreement with the CIW – the power is in its hands. And as Fredrick Douglass said, “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

    PS if you want to comment again you better clean up your language and have the integrity to identify yourself when you insult us.

  8. Great article... thanks for posting.

  9. Also, Robert, you rock. What a great and educational respose to "anonymous!"