Integrity and Justice: Tell Chipotle to Go Deeper Than Just a Slogan

What's in a slogan? Is it merely a carefully designed marketing hook or is it a statement of core values, distilled down to its essence?

This week, on Shabbat, the Jewish community begins its annual recitation of the book of Deuteronomy in synagogues. Reading parts of Deuteronomy can often feel like reading the Torah's code of justice, grounded in the often repeated admonition to love and protect the most vulnerable members of society (the widow, the orphan, the stranger) because we were strangers in the land of Egypt. Deuteronomy's "slogan" is one that has become the hallmark of the modern Jewish social justice movement: "Justice, justice, shall you pursue" (Deuteronomy 16:20). But this is backed up with clear directions for confronting the structural imbalances of society, such as protections for indentured servants, debt relief and injunctions against refusing to lend, or ensuring the right of day laborers to their wages immediately, among other laws. A more equitable society cannot simply be a marketing scheme.

The companies that produce our food today understand that food justice is a hot commodity. Walk into a grocery store or restaurant, and the worlds "local," "sustainable," "organic," "green" and "fair trade" blast at us from labels and signs. While we as consumers may have a hard time figuring out which of these terms are just slogans and which have real teeth, for the companies, the truth is more clear: if it looks more ethical, we'll probably buy it in our pursuit of a meal that makes us feel more virtuous about what we've purchased.

Chipotle's Mexican Grill is one national restaurant chain that is trying to meld the ideals of sustainable with the principles of fast food: affordable, accessible meals for the public. Their slogan is "Food with integrity," and they have a reputation with hungry consumers as being a more ethical place to buy a burrito or a sandwich. Chipotle's website states that their slogan is not mere marketing, but a commitment to understanding how their vegetables are grown and the animals that become their meat are raised.

What is missing from that vision of sustainability is justice and a living wage for farmworkers that includes the voices of farmworkers in crafting that conversation. If you eat a tomato in Chipotle that comes from Florida, it has not been grown with integrity. Ninety percent of the tomatoes we eat between November and May come from Florida, and workers who pick them have long faced extremely difficult conditions.

The situation for farmworkers in Florida is so bad that one federal prosecutor called the Florida agricultural sector "ground zero" for human trafficking in American. As Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation," said at last year's Slow Food Nation conference: "Does it matter whether an heirloom tomato is local and organic if it was harvested with slave labor?" Forced labor and slavery in Florida is just the extreme end of a continuum of worker exploitation that includes sexual harassment, dangerous exposure to pesticides, wage theft and violence. The average wage paid to farmworkers for picking tomatoes in Florida has not risen in more than 30 years, preventing the very hands who pick the food each of us depends on from earning a living wage on which to feed their families.

There is a solution: an amazing, worker-led organization in Florida called the Coalition of Immokalee Workers is bringing transformation and justice to the tomato fields. Their Fair Food Program is grounded in human rights and dignity for farmworkers. Under the Program, retailers commit to paying an extra "penny a pound" premium for tomatoes directly to the farmworkers (raising their wages without raising costs form farmers) and to only buying from farmers that have instituted a strict human rights code of conduct in the fields. (You can read more about the CIW's work here, here and here).

But Chipotle is not part of this transformation. Over the years, the company has steadfastly resisted joining together with the CIW, even going so far as to insist that signing a Fair Food Agreement would have no impact on the lives of workers. But in the growing season that just ended, there was real change in the lives of workers, which I learned about first hand when I visited Immokalee in February. Guaranteed an hourly rate, they did not have to leave for the fields many hours before their children woke up. Educated about their rights, they knew where to turn when they faced violence or sexual harassment. The Fair Food Program was making a difference.

Chipotle's refusal to sign a Fair Food Agreement is especially frustrating because the CIW's Fair Food Program shows us that there is a better way to do business with true integrity. Ten major food retailers (including grocery stores Whole Foods and Trader Joe's and fast food restaurants like Burger King and Subway) have signed these agreements.

Chipotle, meanwhile, wants to have their cake and eat it to. They want to go at it alone -- promising to pay the extra wage to workers and only buy from the right growers -- without the transparency and accountability that would come from signing a Fair Food Agreement and agreeing to on-the-ground, third party monitoring. As a human rights activist, this is deeply troubling, because best practice for industry on human rights is a system of independent, outside monitoring of a supply chain. A constant on-the-ground enforcement mechanism is needed, as is the commitment to partner with empowered workers who know their rights and report violations.

Chipotle's slogan has little value if there is no justice for farmworkers. As the CIW has said, "Food with Integrity" is either a holistic vision that respects the men and women who harvest tomatoes for Chipotle's restaurants, or it's just another marketing ploy designed to cash in on a fad. It cannot be both." Chipotle, too, must pursue justice.

This week, activists across the country are holding actions at Chipotle's to demand that the company's values run deeper than just a slogan. If you eat at Chipotle's, you should join them, or take action as an individual by taking a letter to the manager of your local franchise. To find an action near you and to learn more, please visit: