I’ve spent months digging into the global food system – writing dense articles on the policy, history, environmental impact and the poor quality of our food. After gathering a general understanding of the dire state of our soils, our dependence on chemical additives, our increased reliance on global trade and the decreased nutrient density of our food, I want to move away from exposing the dark side of the food system. Instead, I’d like to focus on the bright spots, the people and companies contributing to change in our food system – not only to create a system that is more sustainable but one that can start to repair the damage we have done to our soils and the quality of the food we eat.
As I wrote more pieces about food, people in my life started to ask me what they should eat rather than what they shouldn’t. One issue for consumers is that sometimes it can be hard to see through the marketing campaigns companies use to promote “healthy” food that appeals to people who care about the environment. Often these corporate initiatives are more for the PR opportunities than a commitment to changing food practice, a tactic known as greenwashing.
To help consumers know what products and brands they can feel good about supporting, I am starting a series, Illuminated, that will take a look at companies and products I believe are headed in the right direction. My first post is about Chipotle Mexican Grill, a well-known franchise with 2,500 locations nationwide, which recently announced its commitment to increase local sourcing of ingredients in 2020 and to help drive the future of farming for younger generations.
Chipotle has been attempting to appeal to the conscious consumer for years. In 2013 it released an animated video called “The Scarecrow,” which depicted a future society in which food is produced on conveyor belts and animals are treated inhumanely solely to create byproducts for human consumption. This was the beginning of the company’s “Cultivate A Better World” campaign. Its message: Chipotle cares about the ingredients it uses. The video was met with some criticism for using imagery of a farmer growing vegetables to ultimately sell more meat (as more customers at Chipotle means more meat sold).
Though true, Chipotle has been at the forefront of sourcing better quality meat since 2003, when it started working with Niman Ranch, whose hogs are raised without antibiotics on open pasture and has been recognized for its commitment to grass fed beef ever since. Though the average Chipotle consumer would likely eat at the chain regardless of its sourcing policies, the company has stuck to its pledge to support better quality meat in the hopes that consumers will continue to demand and support these practices.
Alongside these efforts, Chipotle is probably best known for the issues it has had with food safety due to outbreaks of E. coli that left about 50 people sick in 2016. Though irresponsible handling of food was to blame, it was ironically Chipotle’s commitment to fresh ingredients that led to these breakouts in the first place. As Chipotle cooks its meat on site, rather than bringing in pre-cooked frozen meat, this increases the risk of contamination. Since the break outs, Chipotle has overhauled its food safety practices and slowly has been able to regain customer trust.
Six years following the Scarecrow video release, Chipotle has again brought its attention to the sustainable food world. This month, the company launched a campaign, “Investing to Cultivate the Future of Farming,” a demonstration of allegiance to the farmers who grow the food it sells which implies a recognition that a shift in the way our food is produced, processed and consumed is closely aligned with the future of the company.
Most food companies have created what is known as a race to the bottom, where farmers are in constant competition to grow the cheapest food. Not only is Chipotle beginning to invest in the longevity of the farms and farmers its works with, it is encouraging more humane practices in raising the animals it purchases. But most importantly, it is collaborating with farmers on these goals rather than dictating what they should do.
Chipotle is also working with the Young Farmers Coalition, whose purpose is to help ensure the business of farming does not disappear as the current generation of farmers retires. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census, the average age of farmers is 58. Chipotle has announced a new program that offers start-up grants to farmers under age 40. The funding is open-ended and can cover a range of needs, such as a new barn, equipment or a just a jumpstart.
Beyond grants, Chipotle is offering three-year contracts designed to help young farmers remove the uncertainty of starting a business. So many farmers and suppliers today are price takers, which means the market dictates the price they receive as it fluctuates. Longer-term contracts provide stability.
Today, so much of corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns have nothing to do with companies’ core business, which makes Chipotle’s actions stand out. Take the Ronald McDonald foundation, for example, which helps house families while their children are undergoing treatment for cancer. Though commendable, the World Health Organization (WHO) has concluded processed meat eaten daily increases the risk of colorectal cancer, so seems a bit ironic. Or consider Wendy’s adoption charity or that Chick-fil-A focuses on homelessness. All excellent causes, but as food companies, they should be aware of the plight of the farmers that grow the food they depend on.
Chipotle’s newest initiatives are where food companies should be focused right now. The changing climate, deforestation and soil health are directly connected to the food we eat and large companies like Chipotle have the power to influence how we take care of our land and our farmers.