Friday, December 11, 2009

Steve Ells Challenged to a Debate on the Merits of the Campaign for Fair Food!

In an incisive critique of Chipotle's asinine excuses for not joining the Campaign for Fair Food, Food and Society Fellow Sean Sellers has thrown down the virtual gauntlet and challenged Chipotle CEO Steve Ells to a debate. Below is an excerpt from the must-read article.

Read Sean's full article on
Food with Integrity?
Steve Ells, will you accept the "Chipotle Challenge?"

“Of course I’m not in favor of slavery! But signing an agreement [with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers] does not actually change those conditions for farmworkers,” Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle Mexican Grill, gibed in front of an audience of 250 at the University of Pennsylvania’s prestigious Wharton School of Business on November 19. “I mean, they just don’t see the bigger picture,” he continued. “To change the fast-food paradigm is huge. We’re trying to do the right thing.”

Ells’ defensive posture came in immediate response to a question posed by Marina Saenz-Luna, a staff member of Just Harvest USA, who works closely with the Florida-based Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW). Since 2006, the grassroots farmworker organization has petitioned Chipotle – a leading fast-casual restaurant chain specializing in gourmet burritos – to enter into an agreement to improve wages and working conditions for Florida tomato pickers. Four years later, farmworkers’ and consumers’ stomachs have soured in light of Chipotle’s persistent hostility towards the workers’ organization.

It didn’t have to be this way. Ells founded Chipotle in 1993 with an $85,000 start-up loan from his father. The venture has since bloomed into one of Fortune’s 100 fastest-growing companies with over 800 restaurant nationwide. Along the way, Chipotle has emerged as a self-styled leader in the fields of sustainable agriculture and socially responsible supply chain management through its highly publicized commitment to “Food With Integrity.”

Chipotle explains on its website that, “‘Food With Integrity’ isn’t a marketing slogan.” Rather, it “means working back along the food chain. It means going beyond distributors to discover how the vegetables are grown, how the pigs, cows and chickens are raised, where the best spices come from.” For his part, Ells, the chef-cum-corporate executive, reflects, “Learning about this dark side of modern agriculture made me want to find out how we could do things differently.”

Yet Chipotle has responded to the human rights crisis in Florida’s fields – including seven federally prosecuted cases of modern-day slavery since 1997 – with silence, evasion, and cynical spin. And Ells seemingly has no compunction about using his high-profile speaking engagements to spread misinformation about the CIW’s Campaign for Fair Food and the impact of his company’s policies on farmworkers.

What is at stake is not mere public relations dividends or quarrels over the meaning of “integrity.” Chipotle apparently believes that farmworkers are incapable of developing mutually beneficial solutions to the problems they face within the agricultural industry. And though Chipotle is but a tiny player within a massive food industry landscape, their stance flies in the face of core principles painstakingly advanced by the Campaign for Fair Food over the past decade: farmworker participation in the protection of their own labor rights; supply chain transparency; and third-party verification and monitoring.

It’s easy to shut down debate and mock earnest criticism when one stands alone at the podium and holds the microphone. But a closer reading of the recent exchange between Ells and Saenz-Luna belies a festering insecurity within Ells and his company over its chosen course of action.

So here’s my challenge: Let’s have a real debate, Mr. Ells, at any public forum of your choosing. After all, if you can’t back up your position, then integrity demands that you change it.

Read the full article on here at

Friday, December 4, 2009

Denver is on the move!

It’s been a while since we’ve provided an update. But that’s not because nothing has been happening in Denver. On the contrary, we’ve been too busy to have time to update everyone.

On Friday November 20th, the Student Advisory Committee to the Auraria Board (SACAB; a student government body comprised of representatives from the three different universities housed on the Auraria Campus) passed a resolution urging the campus food service provider Sodexo to work with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. The resolution reads in part:

“AHEC [Auraria Higher Education Center] has an ongoing contractual relationship for the provision of catering and dining services with the food service corporation Sodexo; and . . . we, SACAB Representatives, through our student fees, and the use of catering services fund this food service contract between AHEC and the Sodexo corporation . . . THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED that SACAB urges the Sodexo corporation to meet with the CIW to negotiate the terms for directly improving Florida tomato pickers' wages by $.01 per pound of tomatoes, and, together with the CIW, implement an enforceable, human rights-based Code of Conduct for its tomato supply chain.”

The other student government bodies at Auraria are moving forward with passing resolutions of their own.

The same day as SACAB passed it’s resolution, students from throughout the Front Range gathered on the Auraria Campus to discuss participating in the Dine With Dignity campaign on the own campuses and coordinating their efforts with students throughout Denver and around the state. Sodexo is not only the food service provider on Auraria Campus but also on all the other campuses in Denver and many campuses throughout Colorado. And students from those many campuses are preparing to take action to hold Sodexo accountable for the human rights abuses occurring in it’s tomato supply chain.

Meanwhile, a delegation of Denver Fair Foodistas paid a visit to a certain Denver-based “fast casual” restaurant chain. No, not THAT restaurant chain. This time it was a visit to the corporate offices of sub-sandwich giant Quiznos. Unlike our other experiences with Denver’s other fast casual food corporations, Quiznos actually listened to us in a respectful manner and even expressed support for the principles of Fair Food. Of course, more than just words are needed; action is needed, and we will be watching Quiznos closely to ensure that it joins the growing mass of corporate food purchasers cooperating with the CIW to create a more just food system.

(We hope that Chipotle doesn’t like think that we’ve forgotten about it just because we’re paying attention to Quiznos. No need to feel left out, Chipotle, we've still got an eye for you!)

During this same busy week, Denver consumers also participated in the National Supermarket Week of Action by delivering letters to the mangers of King Sooper supermarkets demanding that Kroger (King Sooper’s parent company and the largest supermarket chain in the country) join in agreement with the CIW.

Throughout the country, the Campaign for Fair Food is pressing forward at rapid speed. Pickets, rallies, marches, letter drops, street theater and more have been breaking out from California to Florida. Just next week the CIW is holding a major march on headquarters of the Florida-based supermarket Publix while student and grassroot allies are planning a demonstration outside the corporate offices of food service provider Aramark in Philadelphia as part of the Fair Food Solidarity Tour led by United Workers.

Everyone in Denver has a lot to be proud of as part of this incredible movement.