Chipotle and Food Justice

Chipotle Paper by dklimke at Flickr

Hmm… key to the future…

During my sophomore year of college, my resident advisor Nate Tye had an uncanny ability to find leftover Chipotle from catered events on campus. Suitcases of burritos! Few things make a college male happier.

I do love burritos. But as a socially-minded person, there are only so many places a burrito-lover can go to assuage not only the guilt of double-fisting burritos at one in the morning, but of the (more serious) issues of worker and environmental justice. Luckily for me and my sophomore year floor mates, Chipotle was one of those places. Chipotle’s work towards environmentally friendly meats and non-GMO (genetically modified organism) foods is well known, even before their most recent dive into the world of advertising.

Chipotle recently released this intriguing advertisement, which both subtly lauds their efforts for eco-friendly foods while also condemning the rest of the fast food industry. It is by no means their first animated advertisement like this, but with over 6 million views in a few weeks, it has already been quite successful. Take a look:

 

I’ll admit, I’m moved by it. It’s good storytelling and great artwork. But is it asking the right questions?

I greatly appreciate several things Chipotle has recently done: labeling genetically modified foods; a movement away from all GMO ingredients; and ditching McDonald’s as its majority owner. Chipotle portrays several of these aspects in the ad. Crow realizes that he is misinforming people.  As he patches broken walls, he glances inside the barn and metallic cow to see factory farms and mistreated animals.  Nevertheless, he sadly closes the hole and prevents others from observing this tragedy (1:31).  His misinformation causes profits to soar and money to be pumped from cows full of more steroids than Alex Rodriguez (too soon?!). He gets out of the business and quietly offers a sustainable alternative next door to the megacorp. Like Crow, Chipotle has chosen a route that takes environmental stewardship to a higher level. I wonder, though, if we aren’t missing the point.

Chipotle’s self-portrait as Crow the Scarecrow paints them as a company that cares, one that is concerned for the environment and for animal welfare. BI have this sneaking suspicion that this is a moment analogous to the release of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle”.

Why so? Well, I imagine I’m not alone in feeling deeply concerned about the livestock as I watch Chipotle’s ad, about their treatment and wellbeing. But, just like many responses to “The Jungle”, this reaction encouraged me to miss the question of human well being and deprivation (Not that these should be opposed in the end). Still, when I first watched this ad, my concern was for the injected chicken; however, I almost completely overlooked the scarecrows standing on conveyor belts being lifelessly put to mundane tasks. Perhaps I should have paid greater attention to the unhappiness of the protagonist – he dislikes his work, the environmental degradation, the factory farming and the unhealthy outcomes being rapidly doled out to customers. Instead I focused on the sad-eyed cow and the artificially-plumped chicken.

Chipotle Head by Travis S. at Flickr

Aztec Chipotle

The ad shows our Chipotle protagonist solving this dilemma by leaving the corporation (and it’s negative effects on animals and humans both) behind to open his own quaint stand. But Chipotle is not a family-run stand at your local farmers’ market.  It’s an enormous corporation That is trying to sell us something.  Not that Chipotle doesn’t do many things better than other restaurants; it’s that none of those actions makes them the small business they are pretending to be (much less perfect).

Neither, however, is Chipotle the typical fast food restaurant. They’ve worked hard to be better in real ways and ignoring that would also be unfair and unreal. For example, after a several-year-long battle, they agreed to sign a fair price agreement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. They locally source a good share of their produce. They have made commitments to energy efficiency and utilizing post-consumer materials. Genuinely good and impressive steps.

Nevertheless, Chipotle is a fast food restaurant.  All fast food depends on an element of anonymity – workers in the fields to lines chefs frantically chopping in the back.  Immediate satisfaction with little knowledge of the labor that went into the product.  And as a consumer, although I know that Chipotle sources locally, I still have no idea who the farmer is.  I would love to meet the farmer and her/his family.  But I also love being able to quick swing it, get a bite and move on with my day.  So I’m not totally sure of where to stand with Chipotle.  I appreciate many of the things they do, but there’s still plenty to improve.  My dilemma and yours may be similar: does a focus on one element of justice lead me to forget other equally important facets?

Where does this leave us? Praising Chipotle for their actions? Validating the portrait of themselves as the prophets of food-counter culture? Ought we eat at Chipotle at all? What about the rest of our food-related problems here in the US?

We could certainly get into intellectual conversations about material cooperation and personal responsibility.  I don’t think that’s necessary here, though.  I will likely continue to eat Chipotle when I’m in a hurry and need a quick bite.  But when I do so. I ought to remember that I’m responsible for their actions as well as mine.  As one who’s responsible I ought to take responsibility for continuing to spur change – after all, Chipotle only signed the agreement with the Immokalee Workers after a public campaign in which activists protested at store locations and called the CEO with incredible determination.  As far as fast food goes, we can help them continue moving in the right direction of environmental and worker justice.

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Regardless of whether Chipotle is right or wrong, we know, as a relatively recent video by Visual.ly shows, that food waste in the United States is a real problem. The video points out that, due mainly to inefficiencies, we waste massive amounts of food. Some of this inefficiency is delay from farm-to-table; other parts are improper care. Either way, though, we over-produce food.

Perhaps what we as individuals can do is take a new look at our own food-related-inefficiencies. Many of us rarely participate in the food we eat – planting, growing, or harvesting. When we buy fast food, we even give up the preparation. I think one of the best things we can do is to get more involved in what we eat. Trying community gardens or participating in CSAs (community-supported agriculture) is excellent ways to start. Slowing down our food and understanding it may in fact make it more efficient.

For my money, Chipotle’s ad best portrays environmental and human justice between 2:15 and 3:00 when they depict a local farmer seeing his products made in a healthy, just manner and being brought to market.  If they had stopped there, I would have stopped my worrying and applauded Chipotle. It’s their final push, their Chipotle video game, that gives me pause. This game does teach about planting crops, moving cows to open pastures and protecting vegetables.  It does not, however, question the basic presuppositions of fast food—speed, and how that speed effects the human beings (and animals, yes) who produce and consume in response to the demand for speed.

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Author’s Note: for more information, thoughts, and critiques on some of these issues, check out these three links (NB: Not that I completely agree with any of these three, but each is valuable in it’s own right).

  1. The Udder Side‘s open letter from a group of secret agent cows to Chipotle protesting their portrayal of modern agricultural practices.
  2. Corporate Accountability Network, who tries to curb “kid-targeted junk food marketing” and thereby “help healthy children become healthy adults.”
  3. Funny or Die Spoof of Chipotle’s Ad, which is particularly funny in it’s parody of the “Pure Imagination” lyrics that play behind the original. They are rewritten in the parody as: “This is just a way to advertise / Open up your heart and use it / Look at that sad face and feel it / If you want to cry… / here’s where you do it.” Nice work, Funny or Die.

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The cover image of a Chipotle Cup is by Flickr user sun dazed and can be found here

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