Chipotle’s imagination – how pure is it?

You might have seen this haunting and beautiful new viral commercial from Chipotle (complete with a Fiona Apple cover of ‘Pure Imagination’). If not, check it out below.

The first time I saw it, I thought, YES! Beautiful animation, great music, down with Big Food! Hooray! 

And then I saw this response from Funny or Die.

So which one is right? Should we see Chipotle as a corporation trying to educate the public and make a real change in how industrial food is sourced and produced? Or are they trying to manipulate us into purchasing their “better” burritos?

I’d say both. 

When it comes to sourcing ingredients, Chipotle does set itself apart from virtually all other quick-service restaurant chains (with the possible exception of Moe’s, which sources their meat with more discretion than say, McDonald’s). They use the tag “food with integrity.” Most of their meats are produced without giving the animals added hormones or sub-therapeutic antibiotics. They claim to source their produce locally and organically “when practical” and use dairy products from cows raised without added hormones. 

The fact that this information is even available on their website sets them apart from other restaurants, who make claims about the “quality” of their food and its “freshness” but not about where it came from. No matter what, Chipotle deserves credit for even acknowledging that it matters where your food comes from and in the case of meat and dairy, how the animal was raised. I don’t see Ronald McDonald giving kids lectures on the CAFO feedlots where Mayor McCheese sources his beef.


Chipotle is still a huge corporation. In 2012, they made $2.7 BILLION in sales revenue. They have corporate interests, with shareholders to please. And they spend an enormous amount of money on marketing, including this commercial and its accompanying games. This commercial was designed with the intent to (as the Funny or Die parody points out) tug at your heart strings and make you feel something. Yes, it is telling you that industrial agriculture is fundamentally not “right.” But it’s also telling you to buy Chipotle burritos. Don’t make the burrito at home with whole, clean foods. Buy Chipotle and let them do the worrying about where the food comes from. You can TRUST them.

The last time I was in a Chipotle, there was a sign saying the beef was conventionally raised. While I respect that they bothered to even inform people of that, it’s true that they would rather purchase and serve conventional beef than say “we’re out of beef today, please choose pork, vegetables or chicken.” To me that says that profit (and the satisfaction of customers who want their beef, no matter what) comes first.

Let’s not forget that Chipotle also admits that GMOs are present in most of their menu items (save for salad fixings and the pork carnitas). While they have labeled the items and claim to be working toward eliminating them, they still are reliant on GMO soy and corn, including the soybean oil used to cook their rice (which is also why the rice is so high-cal). So while they are taking steps toward moving beyond some industrial agriculture practices, they are fully entrenched in others. 

Does this mean you should stop eating at Chipotle? Not necessarily. I don’t lump them in the same category as McDonald’s, since of quick-service restaurants they have shown the most transparency with their ingredients and a willingness to respond to increasing consumer demand for more sustainable, humanely raised food. But you should know what you’re eating – and when you see something like the Scarecrow, recognize it for what it is – beautiful, haunting marketing – and let it inspire you to make your own burrito.

why you need to watch “A Place at the Table”

I actually saw A Place at the Table about a month ago, thanks to Amazon Prime allowing me to rent it while it was in theaters. I’ve been stewing on it since, wondering whether or not to write about the issue of hunger. After all, I live in a two-income household where we are most decidedly NOT food insecure, and I also grew up in a family where I never went one day hungry. I’ve always been grateful for that, at least on a surface level. But I’ve never felt that gratitude so profoundly as I did when I saw this film.

Here’s the synopsis, from the film’s website:

Fifty million people in the U.S.—one in four children—don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Directors Kristi Jacobson and Lori Silverbush examine the issue of hunger in America through the lens of three people struggling with food insecurity: Barbie, a single Philadelphia mother who grew up in poverty and is trying to provide a better life for her two kids; Rosie, a Colorado fifth-grader who often has to depend on friends and neighbors to feed her and has trouble concentrating in school; and Tremonica, a Mississippi second-grader whose asthma and health issues are exacerbated by the largely empty calories her hardworking mother can afford.

You read that correctly. 25% of American children are food insecure, meaning that they don’t know where their next meal is coming from. 1 in 6 Americans don’t have enough to eat. Among countries with advanced economies, America ranks worst for food insecurity among its citizens. 1 in 2 American children will receive supplemental food assistance during their lifetimes. Half. More than 23 million Americans live in food deserts, where the availability of fresh, healthy food is severely limited if it exists at all and a grocery store with the amenities most of us take for granted is a car ride away.

This documentary was powerful, not just because of the facts and statistics it presented about how bad the problem actually is, but because it made you look into the faces of hungry people. It forced you to confront the grim realities that families across America confront every day – how do you put your son to bed at night when he asks for more food and you have no money and nothing in your cupboards and you’ve already exhausted your allotted food pantry distribution? What do you do when you know your daughter isn’t doing well in school because she’s so hungry she can’t concentrate? How do you get a nation of simultaneously obese and hungry people? How is this happening in America, of all places?

For the first time in history, we have a hunger problem in our country that is not due to a shortage of food. America produces more food than we could ever possibly consume, and as we know, much of it is wasted. But we have spent trillions of dollars on food subsidies for corporations and not individuals; we spend more money bailing out banks than we do our own working poor. We give government subsidies for unhealthy calories – as the price of fresh, healthy food rises, the cost of packaged, corn based junk goes lower and lower. If you need calories to survive, you can get the most caloric bang for your buck on the fast food dollar menu. Why are we surprised when this type of diet takes its toll?

This film highlights some great work food banks are doing. In my area, the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank does amazing work. Mark and I are even planning on growing an extra raised bed of food this summer for its produce donations. But food banks can’t provide for every need, and they have to function with what they are given. Donations that come from grocery stores are often processed, shelf-stable foods. We can’t feed America on charity alone. We need real, bipartisan legislative protections for food assistance and school lunches. Hunger doesn’t have any regard for party politics and it doesn’t discriminate. Many of us who are food secure now could just as easily not be, given the right combination of circumstances.

Which brings me to the biggest lesson I learned from this film. A reminder, more than a lesson. I think that one of the legacies American society inherited from its forefathers was the attitude that if you just work hard enough, you’ll be fine. Self-sufficiency has been our motto for centuries, to the point where people hear the words welfare and food stamps and equate that with laziness and fraud. Any system that we try to run as humans will have its share of fraud and people that manage to take advantage of the system. But there are people who work more hours a week than I do, in harder circumstances, that still need welfare to feed their kids. And they aren’t sitting at home watching cable drinking booze and collecting the government’s money. I worked at a grocery store in graduate school, and the people that came through with EBT cards weren’t flaunting their good fortune for everyone to see, that’s for damn sure.

This film reminds you that people just like you are going to go to bed tonight with an ache in their stomachs because they didn’t eat today so their kids could. Or they ate today, but have no idea whether they will tomorrow. If it was your child asking you for food because he was so hungry he couldn’t sleep, wouldn’t you hope that someone had stood up for you in the halls of Congress and in the White House to give you a stronger safety net? Food is fundamental and we need to treat it as such. 

We cannot hope as a country to accomplish real social change until we feed our people. Food and water and shelter are among the most basic of needs, and in a country with overflowing wealth, it’s a travesty that we allow the basic needs of our citizens to go unanswered. How can we expect to develop the leaders of tomorrow when malnutrition stunts children’s ability to learn and grow? Which future scientist or world leader is going to bed without a full belly tonight?

Challenge yourself and watch A Place at the Table. Find out what you can do to take a stand against hunger here. Consider also donating to your local food bank to help meet immediate needs, especially if that food bank takes fresh food donations. When you are drowning in zucchini and tomatoes in a few months, stop and be grateful for the bounty with which you are blessed and share. 

Starting with a food bank garden bed and letters to my legislators, I’m making a commitment to myself to revisit this issue again until I’m satisfied that I’m doing my part to give everyone a place at the table. Will you?

did a slave harvest the cocoa in your candy bar?

I spend a lot of time thinking about the ethics of what I consume (and not just since reading Peter Singer’s book). I am constantly asking myself when I am at a store or a restaurant – how is this product more than just a thing to buy? How does it affect the environment, the hands that produced it, my health, etc. This is especially true for what I think of as luxury foods – the ones that we really don’t need to survive. High on that list is chocolate. 

Cocoa beans are grown in tropical climates – primarily West Africa and Latin America. West Africa is by far the largest producer, with 35% of the world’s supply of chocolate coming from Ivory Coast alone. Cocoa bean harvesting is hard work. Workers harvest pods from trees using machetes and then gather the pods in heavy sacks. Agricultural chemicals such as pesticides and fungicides are used on the trees, which exposes workers to detrimental health effects. 

But who is doing that work? Too often, the unsettling answer is forced/slave labor, including children under age 12. Add the difficult and unsafe nature of the work to the conditions of extreme poverty (malnourishment and unsanity conditions) as well as a lack of access to education and the threat of physical violence, and you have major violations of International Labour Organization (ILO) standards, particularly for children. The minimum age for children to work is 15, and the rule is 18 for hazardous jobs – and harvesting chocolate with machetes and being sprayed with chemicals qualifies as hazardous.

Thousands of trafficked children working in the cocoa industry have been documented, leading to enough debate that in 2001, the industry started making promises that it would work to eliminate child or forced labor/slavery from its supply lines. These promises were voluntary, and done in response to a legislative battle. In 2001, Senator Tom Harkin and Representative Eliot Engel introduced an amendment to an agricultural bill that would give the FDA resources to create a label that would indicate that no child labor was used in the creation of that product. The bill passed in the house, but was stalled in the Senate due to intense industry lobbying. 

Rather than have the bill pass, the industry negotiated what’s known as the Harkin-Engel Protocol in September 2001. The industry (including 8 major chocolate companies) set July 2005 as a deadline to establish credible standards as they related to adult forced labor and “the worst forms of child labor.” 

By 2005, they hadn’t met the deadline and failed to create and implement an industry-wide certification standard. The signers met and gave themselves an extension to 2008. And then they blew that deadline. And they gave themselves until 2010. In 2010, when they STILL had not met the protocol’s objectives, they vowed to reduce the instances of child labor and slavery by 70% by 2020.

Much of this struggle over more than 10 years has been a blame game. Governments of west African countries say they don’t have the resources to investigate and prosecute violations. The industry says they can’t be held responsible for what suppliers do, and that it’s the suppliers’ responsibility to ensure that their beans were not harvested by children. (Most chocolate producers buy their cocoa at commodities exchanges where cocoa from many Ivory Coast sources is mixed. They claim they don’t know where their beans come from.) A group even tried to sue the industry on behalf of three children trafficked from Mali and put to work in cocoa harvesting, but the U.S. determined that corporations cannot be held responsible for violations of international law. 

A few things are clear. Chocolate manufacturers have acknowledged publicly that child labor, slavery, and forced adult labor exists in their industry, and in their supply chains. They have not invested the resources to stop these practices in their quest for ever-cheaper cocoa. (The cheapest form of labor is slavery.) 

If the chocolate factories that are in central PA just a few hours from my home were to employ 7 year olds to work the machinery for 12 hours a day, make them live in a slum and deny them education and nutritious food, a public riot would ensue and the factories would be shut down. But our empathy doesn’t extend halfway across the world, especially when it would mean passing up that chocolate bar.

So what do you do, though, if you really like chocolate? Are there any alternatives? Here are a few recommendations.

1. Buy organic chocolate.
Organic chocolate is typically grown in Latin American countries, where there have been no reports or documentation of child labor or slavery in cocoa production. Check the country of origin to be sure, but you are probably fine eating most organic chocolate.

2. Buy Fair Trade.
This is a contentious issue, because no labeling system is perfect, and when you live in Pittsburgh you are trusting that someone halfway across the world is doing in practice what the label promises in theory. Also, fair trade has been accused of taking away the livelihood of small farmers who are not connected with the certification organizations. That’s a fair statement, especially when it comes to industries like coffee and tea where child labor has not historically been an issue. 

But in a situation where your options are chocolate produced by companies who have not been able to create any semblance of a certification system in more than 10 years and who readily acknowledge that there is child labor/slavery in their supply chains and a company that has done the leg work to work toward a fair wage for adult labor and production (NOT children), go with fair trade. There are lots of great fair trade options popping up in grocery stores now – not even just the specialty grocers. One of my absolute favorites is Theo Chocolate, an American chocolatier that produces organic, fair trade chocolate from bean to bar. 

For me, it comes down to this. I look into the face of my beautiful little niece and think, somewhere in Mali there’s a child just like you, who in 6 years will be up in a tree with a machete in the middle of the scorching heat, having not had enough to eat, away from her family. All because in America, we want our mocha lattes. And so, I can’t buy and try not to consume any chocolate that could have been produced with cocoa harvested by slaves – child or adult.


Oxfam: Behind the Brands

Behind the Brands is part of the GROW Campaign from Oxfam. The GROW Campaign “aims to build a better food system: one that sustainably feeds a growing population (estimated to reach nine billion by 2050) and empowers poor people to earn a living, feed their families, and thrive.” 

Behind the Brands is a new initiative that aims to get consumers involved in what large food companies are doing. They rate companies based on their transparency, treatment of women, worker treatment on farms in their supply chains, the farmers, the land, the water and the climate. They then communicate the information to consumers and ask consumers to speak up and hold companies accountable for what happens along their supply chains.

The website has interesting information about which companies own which brands, and it’s great that Oxfam was able to use a ton of publicly available data and organize and distill it down so that it makes clear a larger picture of what’s wrong with our food system. And I’m a firm believer that the food choices we make matter beyond their nutritional makeup – ethical choices are important. 

One of my hesitations behind this initiative is that I feel like it’s indirectly supporting these companies. I know it could be argued that Mars as a company is not going away because I choose not to buy M&Ms, and that many people across the world depend on that company for their livelihood, but I still won’t support the company with my money for making baby steps in one area while completely ignoring others.

This program also cannot score companies based on the actual conditions that exist on their farms and in their supply chains or the actual treatment of workers on a day to day basis because of the companies’ confidentiality. They can only be scored based on their corporate policies. This makes me highly skeptical of what kind of impact this campaign could ever really have on the day to day lives of the people it hopes to impact. I have never worked at a job in my life where the company’s corporate policies were a match for my daily work environment. How about you?

It will be interesting to watch this initiative play out, if it stands the test of time. At the very least, a call for consumers to demand better from the companies that supply our food is something we should all get behind.