Photo from WhiteOakPastures.com

 

It should be a rule never to have a Spring-forward, daylight savings time change in the middle of a two-day conference. I was exhausted from both the information packed day on Saturday and the evening gala, and didn’t expect 9:45am to feel so early. I was determined to ignore the tiredness and focus as it was day two of the Edible Institute (“EI” – click here to read Part 1 and Part 2 of this three-part series).

Note: The second day of EI, included several video and film viewings. Rather than include them all in this already too long blog post, we’ll be devoting next week to videos. Visit each day to watch these fabulous food-related video clips.

Telling Sustainable Meat Stories

I have to admit that the title of the first panel, wasn’t rocking my world. I was, however, impressed that the EI staff had managed to secure Chris Arnold, the Director of Communications for Chipotle. Also gracing the panel was Jeff Tripican, CMO & EVP of Sales for Niman Ranch, Will Harris who is president of White Oak Pastures and finally, Whole Foods Markets’ Meat Coordinator, Dave Ruedlinger. Boy was I in for a meaty treat.

The Chipotle story is truly fascinating. Founder Steve Ells essentially threw out the fast food restaurant model and started from scratch when he opened the first Chipotle restaurant in 1993. Over the years, the chain has grown and evolved to include: organic black beans, no dairy (sour cream and cheese) from cows treated with rBGH growth hormones, only antibiotic-free chicken, and are working towards a higher percentage of naturally raised beef and local suppliers. Arnold notes that, “We have the highest food cost of any restaurant [chain] in the industry and the highest profits…while we’re far from perfect, it’s surprising that more restaurant companies haven’t followed our model.” In 2000, Chipotle decided to move to all sustainably-raised pork and this meant a $1 increase to the carnitas for the customers. Arnold explains that many of their customers eat at Chipotle because they like the food, not because of any social message.

Throughout the conference, I used my phone to follow the twitter feed devoted to EI (#edi2012). At one point during Arnold’s talk, Daniel Klein posted this note on Twitter:

For those of you who may not know, The Coalition of Immokalee Workers (“CIW”) is a community-based organization working to increase wages of farm workers in Southwest Florida. They target national restaurant chains and supermarkets pressuring them to pay small incremental costs on produce which in turn goes directly to increase farm worker wages. Companies such as Taco Bell, McDonalds, Burger King, Whole Foods, Subway and most recently Trader Joe’s agreed to abide by Campaign for Fair Food demands. As you may have gathered, Chipotle has yet to sign on with CIW. They have received backlash from activists touting the hypocrisy of Chipotle’s slogan, food made with integrity while simultaneously refusing to sign with CIW. Barry Estabrook was the one who actually stood up and asked the question of the Chipotle’s director. Arnold responded that essentially there is more than one way to do something and they have their own agreements with suppliers. Things got even more heavy when Daniel Klein stood up and said he no longer eats at Chipotle because of this issue. While I believe that Chipotle needs to get on board with CIW or at least be completely transparent about what they ARE doing to ensure fair wages, I give them credit for all the amazing things they are already doing. Also, kudos is due for them showing up at food movement conference like this as our peeps can be a bit scary!

 

“What’s the true cost of food? It’s not what you pay the grocery store. It’s what you pay when it’s all said and done” – Jeff Tripican

Tripican shared a slideshow showcasing the lives of the 700 individual family farms that make up the Niman Ranch cooperative. They went from having 3 distributors 6 years ago to now having 48. One of their greatest challenges is responding to supply and demand and having to use all the animal parts of the cow. An audience question asked if all of Neiman Ranch’s meat gets their highest level rating at Whole Foods. Ruedlinger responded explaining that the rating system is based on the “lowest common denominator.” Every individual farm is issued a rating based on specific criteria and if a batch of beef comes from 30 farms, they use the rating of whichever farm is the lowest rated. “If there is one Step 1, they are all a Step 1.” Tripican added that “Neiman has 550 hog farms. Do we force out small family farms? Segregating them is not practical. No, we’ll accept a Step 1.” While I understand Neiman’s position, I was disappointed that the response didn’t include any sort of commitment to moving Step 1 farms up the chain of sustainability.

 

“You take care of the land and the herd and it will take care of you” – Will Harris’ grandfather

 

Will Harris of White Oak Pastures, photo by Fran Collin

At the beginning of the meat panel, Chipotle showed their very famous, animated commercial, Back to the Start with background music by Willie Nelson. Chipotle’s website describes the film: “…[It] depicts the life of a farmer as he slowly turns his family farm into an industrial animal factory before seeing the errors of his ways and opting for a more sustainable future.” When Harris of White Oak Pastures took the mic, his deep, thick Southern voice bellowed out, “That Chipotle video tells my family farm story.” You see, his grandfather was the one who actually said, “You take care of the land and the herd and it’ll take care of you.” Harris’ family has raised livestock since 1866 and years ago, his grandfather was raising animals in a sustainable, humane and environmentally friendly way. Over the years Harris and his father began changing the farm moving away from this model. They began using pesticides, hormones, fertilizer, and essentially raising the animals in an industrial farming method.” I was making more money, but was less happy. I realized I had to give up the pesticides and chemicals; monoculture was wrong.” So he and his daughter started adding other animals to the mix. He kicked the hormones and pesticides to the curb and built his own onsite slaughter facilities so they could go back to the ways of Harris’ grandfather.

Santa Barbara rancher, Elizabeth Poet of Rancho San Julian stood up to ask what she could be doing to improve her harvesting (slaughtering + processing) as it is the hardest part of her job (they currently use a mobile slaughter unit which, while quite revolutionary, only allows for the slaughter of a few cattle per day). Harris responded that it is always the hardest part and is in part why he built his own facilities. In order to make it work he had to get family and friends to raise cows and use their facilities too.

During the Q&A session, keynote speaker Nikki Henderson asked who should advocate for the meat producing people? One of my favorite moments of the conference was when Harris took the mic and said, “I do. We have 75 employees and I like every one of them. They all have health insurance, no one makes minimum wage [they all make more], we provide lunch every day and there is no turnover.” You could hear the excitment in the room at hearing this sort of response. It is possible to do the right thing and still be successful. It is possible to take care of both the animals and the workers. Harris was granted instant hero status in the eyes of the attendees and Twitter was aflutter with the corresponding love tweets.

Film Extravaganza

The remainder of the day was filled with clips from filmmakers, U. Roberto Romano, Daniel Klein & Mirra Fine, and reality series co-star Brent Ridge. Stay tuned for blog posts throughout next week where we’ll be highlighting one of these fabulous films each day.

Farvel

Have you ever started reading a book and it is so good that you start reading it more slowly because you don’t want it to end? This is kind of how EI is for me. I adored every minute of the experience and can’t believe I have to wait a whole year for the next one. If you made it through my very verbose 3-Part series, thank you for sharing in my journey.

Fran Collin took the beautiful picture of Will Harris above. To see more of his work, visit www.work-for-food.com

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