To Learn About Food, Chipotle Takes Gotham Students to the Source

For the past couple of years, Chipotle in New York has been partnering with Wellness in the Schools (WITS) and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture to create a program where New York public school kids get to spend time at the farm.

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Can a burrito change the world? Well, maybe it can.

The good sourcing of Chipotle (naturally raised, growth-hormone-free pigs, chickens, and beef; organic beans; dairy free of rBGH; fry oil with no trans-fats) made big news when owner Steve Ells began making changes to his once-little company in the 1990s, but that wasn’t quite enough.

For the past couple of years, Chipotle in New York has been partnering with Wellness in the Schools (WITS) and Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture to create a program where New York public school kids get to spend time at the farm, making that all-important connection between what they eat in daily life and where it comes from — an invaluable lesson for kids to learn.

With the farmers markets bursting with summer bounty and the new school season right around the corner, it seemed like a good moment to sit down with Chipotle’s NY-based Mariana Cotlear to find out more:

Edible Manhattan: Chipotle is already making a pretty good example for how fast food doesn’t have to be bad food, but this is really going out on limb in a great way. Tell us about the program.
Mariana Cotlear: It’s one of those unique things that I think is so special that Chipotle does and I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work on it. The company’s mission is to change the way people think about and eat food, and we do this primarily by sourcing the highest quality ingredients with respect for the land, farmers and animals. But in addition, we feel we have an important external role in knowing and engaging with how that food is grown, and to support organizations doing ground-breaking work and pursing those initiatives.

At the local level, our restaurants will partner with organizations like this that teach kids about food and nutrition, and support increased access to fresh produce, farmers’ markets, and sustainable farming. We’re so lucky livng in New York with so many wonderful organizations doing this work. Two standouts leading the charge are Stone Barns and WITS. As far as Stone Barns, we’ve had a long-standing partnership with them since ’08. They are an important partner to us on a number of levels.  I work with them to support the young farmer training program and the super-fun fall harvest event where we welcome young families to come to the farm and have activities like planting seeds. We’re currently working on collaborating with them on a project to help fund some of their research on heirloom seeds, too. And that’s in early stages. They have this amazing role they play as an incredible preeminent research center on biodiversity and sustainable farming, and also a mission to educate young farmers of any age, who are new to farming. But they also have an important focus on getting kids engaged in farming at a young age and opening their eyes to where food comes from.

EM: Who are WITS?
MC: We’ve been working with Wellness in the Schools (WITS) for about 3 years and they’re such an amazing organization. They are very small in their core leadership team, but incredibly mighty in their impact. They encompass 50 public schools across New York and their primary focus is working directly in school cafeterias to increase from-scratch cooking using healthy, fresh, local vegetables. They also teach kids in classrooms about food and nutrition about why it’s a great idea to eat, say, whole wheat pasta with broccoli at lunch instead of pizza.

EM: What has Chipotle been doing as far as this partnership goes with these two great organizations?
MC: Stone Barns is well equipped to teach kids to learn about where food comes from, and WITS is all about learning about the food system for kids growing up in the concrete jungle of NYC, who might be less likely to be exposed to where and how food is grown. We thought the collaboration was an opportunity to enrich their learning and set up field trips at different times of year. So the kids learn not only how food actually grows, but also about seasonality — how changes in the weather impact the food system. And that stuff doesn’t grow in winter! The program really encourages critical thinking on where your February cucumber comes from. It’s really been a cool and successful partnership across the board.

EM: Which school is involved?
MC: Third graders from PS 69 in the Bronx — it’s our second year working with them. We do seasonal visits. The idea is that the same class goes to the farm during these periods, so by last visit the kids are already familiar with the farm. They’ve pulled vegetables straight from the ground, harvested kale. It’s given them the opportunity to explore different, unique aspects of the farm and understand whole seasons and how that impacts their access to food.

EM: When do the trips happen?
MC: In the fall in the beginning of the school year. Then in February, which is so cool because it allows Stone Barns to highlight the fact that there are fallow seasons and resting periods where nature needs to regenerate, and that’s why it’s so important to care and store the bounty during harvest. We live in a world where everything seems easy to get, but if you want that February tomato, it becomes clear that it’s grown in different conditions or far away. [This past year], we had an awesome culminating event where all the kids came up to farm to learn about chickens and eggs in May for a full day. They go see the mobile chicken coops where laying hens are rasied and then the kids got to actually harvest eggs. It was so cool to see their reactions! And there were crazy chickens running about which were curious and coming up to everyone. There was a lot of fun action. Then for the kids to grab warm eggs from the coop was pretty awesome.

EM: Is Chipotle getting involved in making partnerships like this anywhere else?
MC: This program is a specific partnership with WITS and Stone Barns, although many of our member of teams around country have partnerships with schools and school gardens, and do things. It’s important on both a local and national level. The communities we’re in are so diverse and have different needs and different organizations — we’re not coming in saying, “Here’s our program; here’s what we want to do; here’s some money.” These are organizations that are already effective and our role is to supports that.

Photo credit: Flickr/szapucki

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Amy Zavatto is the daughter of an old school Italian butcher who used to sell bay scallops alongside steaks, and is also the former Deputy Editor of Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan. She holds her Level III Certification in Wine and Spirits from the WSET, and contributes to Imbibe, Whisky Advocate, SOMMJournal, Liquor.com, and others. She is the author of Forager's Cocktails: Botanical Mixology with Fresh, Natural Ingredients and The Architecture of the Cocktail. She's stomped around vineyards from the Finger Lakes to the Loire Valley and toured distilleries everywhere from Kentucky to Jalisco to the Highlands of Scotland. When not doing all those other things, Amy is the Director of the Long Island Merlot Alliance.