After staging its own comeback in recent months, Chipotle Mexican Grill wants to help lead another resurgence.
The fast-casual restaurant chain is making a new financial commitment to help tackle the nation’s farming crisis and the plight of struggling young farmers, officials shared exclusively with USA TODAY.
“We need to do more than just say we’re committed to ‘food with integrity,’ we actually have to help the whole system,” Chipotle CEO Brian Niccol told USA TODAY, speaking of the company’s food standards. “It’s not going to just be enough for us to buy ingredients. I think we have to go a step further.”
Niccol, who moved from the top job at Taco Bell to Chipotle in early 2018 when the brand was still reeling from a slew of food-safety issues including outbreaks of E. coli and norovirus, said to do that, more young farmers are needed.
This week, the company will hold its first Farmer Friday to support the National Young Farmers Coalition nonprofit. For every entree purchased on the restaurant’s website or app on Friday, $1 will go toward seed grants, up to $250,000.
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America’s farming crisis
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 census, the average age of farmers is about 58. The data released in April 2019 shows farmers over 65 outnumber young farmers under 35 by a ratio of 6.41 to one.
Sophie Ackoff, co-executive director of the National Young Farmers Coalition, which formed 10 years ago to provide a voice for young people in agriculture, said the dwindling of farming youth has been an ongoing trend since the 1980s.
“If farmers aren’t succeeding now and the industry is aging out and retiring, who is going to grow the food?” Ackoff said. “Chipotle making this kind of move sends a real signal and sets a precedence that I hope other companies will see and hopefully respond to.”
Challenges for young farmers include getting financing and access to land, Ackoff said.
Over the last five years, the agriculture industry has lost 40 times more farmers than it gained and more than half of farms lost money in 2018, said Chris Brandt, Chipotle chief marketing officer.
“Real food needs real farms and what we discovered was that real farms need real help,” Brandt said. “We think that the family farm is the backbone of America and it’s really critical for all the local ingredients that we’re trying to buy across the country as well.”
Chipotle stresses fresh ingredients
Chipotle’s commitment to getting fresh and local ingredients isn’t new. Last year, 29 million pounds of all produce purchased last year was grown locally, according to the 2018 Sustainability Report.
Wednesday’s announcement is an extension of the support for farmers and the company is also committing to increase its local sourcing across the country in 2020, Brandt said.
“We’re trying to raise attention to this problem a little more and we’re stepping up our financial commitment to help these young farmers get started,” Brandt said. “When you support locally, everybody feels good about that local support and it keeps the money locally and it keeps those businesses and towns viable.”
Another part of Chipotle’s commitment is inking three-year contracts with farmers, which should help them get financing.
The move is expected to harvest some goodwill with consumers who are increasingly turning more to whole foods.
David Portalatin, vice president and food industry adviser of The NPD Group, said young consumers including Generation Z are pursuing what he called a “path to purity.”
“They want foods that are perceived as natural and minimally processed,” Portalatin said. “Long gone are the days when healthy food was defined as low fat, low sugar or ‘free from.’ Today, healthy food is more likely to be defined as just natural, authentic wholesome food.”
In October, Chipotle reported 11% comparable restaurant sales growth including 7.5% transaction growth. Digital sales grew 88% year-over-year and since the March debut of the company’s new rewards program, it has amassed 7 million members.
At a time when stores and other restaurants are closing locations, Chipotle is expanding from the 2,500 restaurants it has. The company plans to open 140 to 155 in the current fiscal year and then 150 to 165 new restaurants in its next fiscal year with many openings in 2020.
The quarterly earnings led many analysts to call the growth, a comeback.
But to Niccol, who has been at Chipotle for 21 months, it’s about getting back to the company’s core values.
“We’re just getting started on what Chipotle can be in three, five, 10 years from now,” he said. “We’re going to be much bigger than we are today and the thing I love about that is with our growth comes our ability to do more on our purpose of cultivating a better world.”
How Chipotle is helping farmers
Along with working with the National Young Farmers Coalition, Chipotle is working with its Chipotle Cultivate Foundation to raise money to fund seed grants. It’s also calling on consumers to take action.
This Friday is the first Farmer Friday and $1 from every entrée purchased on the restaurant’s website or app will go towards grants, up to $250,000.
On Jan. 1, Chipotle will have a “Cultivate the Future of Farming” float in the Rose Parade and will donate $1, up to $250,000, to the coalition for every post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter using #farmers.
The chain also is granting three-year contracts for farmers under 40 who meet its food standards starting with beef, pork and dairy.
Chipotle leaders hope other restaurants will join the cause.
“We don’t just want this to be a Chipotle initiative,” Brandt said. “We hope others follow and would invite any company to join us.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Kelly Tyko on Twitter: @KellyTyko