On Thursday, Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill signed an agreement to join the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Fair Food Program. Chipotle joins the ranks of McDonald's, Taco Bell, Whole Foods and Subway as the 11th company to join the program, which improves working conditions for farmworkers in a few major ways. Not only does it provide a wage increase (the famous penny-a-pound) but it also includes a code of conduct that allows workers a voice in matters concerning health and safety, worker-to-worker trainings around the protections included under the code, a complaint resolution procedure that protects workers from retaliation and a third-party audit system to ensure compliance from growers.
The agreement was a long time coming. The company -- which has long staked its reputation on "Food with Integrity" (and to be fair, does much better than most other fast food chains in terms of sourcing regionally and providing mostly sustainably-produced meat and dairy products) had been a soft target of the Fair Food Campaign for years, during which the CIW and partner groups around the country would gently exert pressure in the form of thousands of letters to the management, while they focused more intently on grocery chains like Trader Joe's (which joined the program in February 2012) and Dutch-held Ahold (which has yet to sign).
The situation between Chipotle and the CIW serves as an excellent case study for anyone interested in affecting change in our food systems -- specifically, on labor and sustainability, though many of the lessons learned here could be applied to any social justice issue. Most interesting to me, the grassroots Coalition focuses exclusively on business -- wisely capitalizing on consumers' power in the marketplace, and the corporate sector's role in creating change -- as opposed to government, and makes it easy for any passerby to learn more and get involved.
In 2010, a colleague and I produced a video about the CIW's Trader Joe's campaign, and in the post I wrote to accompany the video, I only mentioned Chipotle in passing, but that mention prompted an Ecocentric reader to contact the chain. What followed was a long and confusing but well-played argument from a member of Chipotle's PR team named Joe, which our reader pasted into the comments section of the post. At that time, Chipotle had gone around the CIW and signed an agreement with East Coast Growers -- which had joined the Fair Food Program -- and insisted that it was a better arrangement. But the setup cut workers from the equation entirely, and it was not long before East Coast was suspended from the Program. A lot of things happened before and after that, some of which is chronicled here. Basically, through a savvy public relations defense, Chipotle managed to convince most people they were already doing right by the farmworkers.
But the Coalition continued to capitalize on the company's sustainability claims, building momentum over the years and finally ramping up their efforts in September, during Chipotle's "Cultivate" festivals in Chicago and Denver. In Chicago, the CIW and partners set up tables nearby, personifying their exclusion from Chipotle's vision of sustainability, illustrating the toil borne by farmworkers with stacks of buckets (so passersby could imagine filling and carrying that many pounds of tomatoes) and finally, giving festival attendees some easy ways to send a message to the company. Attendees who stopped by trickled into the festival carrying red balloons reading "No Farmworkers, No Integrity" and some attendees added a CIW tomato stamp to "passport" documents Chipotle used to entice attendees through a series of "experience" tents (where they learned about the company's sustainability efforts) in exchange for a free burrito. The CIW event culminated with music, actions and speeches. Just Harvest USA has more on the day's actions, and some great photos, here. After the festivals, the Coalition kept up the pressure with an open letter to Chiopotle on behalf of the sustainable food movement, signed by some of its most famous players, including Francis Moore Lappe and her daughter Anna, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser, Stuffed and Starved author Raj Patel and People's Grocery's Nikki Henderson.
It's hard to believe that anyone's vision of sustainable food would not include the people who grow it, but farmworkers -- like slaughterhouse workers and others in the food chain -- are mostly hidden from view, an "externality" in industry's crush to keep prices artificially low. The CIW has given the public a glimpse into the fields, and they've established a strong program to right the wrongs there. On top of that, they've given us all a way to participate in a movement toward farmworker justice and true sustainability.
In the end, neither the Coalition nor Chipotle gave any sign of the years of struggle that led up to this moment on Thursday -- in the press release announcing the agreement, CIW's Gerardo Reyes graciously called it "a turning point in the sustainable food movement as a whole, whereby, thanks to Chipotle's leadership, farmworkers are finally recognized as true partners -- every bit as vital as farmers, chefs and restaurants -- in bringing 'good food' to our tables." In a world where change comes slowly and deals are often made by powerful players behind closed doors, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' successes are a bright shining light, proof that people -- and corporations -- can make real progress toward a more truly sustainable future.
Originally published at Ecocentric.