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Renee Farris headshot

Chipotle Celebrates World Refugee Day By ... Actually Helping Refugees

By Renee Farris

World Refugee Day is Saturday, and Chipotle is having a two-year celebration. Two years. As in, the company agreed to do amazing things to help refugees for the next two years. This two-year party is more fun than a burrito bowl … or as Chipotle says, a foil-wrapped, hand-crafted, local farm supporting, food culture changing, cylinder of deliciousness. I know, it’s hard to imagine something that could possibly be better.

The Chipotle Cultivate Foundation kicked off the party last November by writing a $500,000 check for an initiative led by the International Rescue Committee (IRC), an organization that helps thousands of refugees resettle in the U.S. Right now, 60 million men, women and children have been forced to leave their homes. They flee from a world of dodging bullets, bombs and machetes.

While waiting in refugee camps, they dream of opportunities: the chance to attend a university and pursue careers. Refugees are resilient, determined, hopeful. But they are also afraid. They're scared that, despite their strength to overcome obstacles, they will end up stranded and jobless.

A small percentage of lucky refugees get the opportunity to leave a refugee camp. Every year, the IRC resettles thousands of refugees in 22 U.S. cities. Upon arrival, it becomes incredibly difficult to get a job and pay the bills. The refugees can’t speak English, and most of them come from a farming background.

Often families can’t afford to buy fruits and vegetables. The Refugee Health Technical Assistance Center reports that refugees in the U.S. have a higher risk of obesity and hypertension, partially because they can only afford cheap, heavily-processed food. Although gaining a lot of weight helps them blend in with Americans, it’s not healthy.

Hungry farmers needed help. Chipotle responded by saying, “Hey, we know a little bit about food.” Then the company jumped on a tractor with the International Rescue Committee. The first thing it did was write the $500,000 check to the IRC’s New Roots MicroProducer Academy.

The New Roots' program teaches refugees about the U.S. food system, farming production, plot preparation, organic and sustainable farming practices, marketing, finance, and food preparation. The initiative also provides access to land where farmers can produce food for their families and cultivate a business.

The food is used to feed the families of refugees and is also sold at farmers markets, community supported agriculture (CSA) programs and restaurants. The program is so cool that even Bill Clinton had to go check it out.

New Roots has eight hubs: in Salt Lake City; New York; Oakland and San Diego, California; Phoenix; Atlanta; Dallas; and Charlottesville, Virginia. And it's opening farms in Sacramento, California, and Seattle this fall.

If you go to a farmer’s market in Salt Lake City and buy carrots, they may have been farmed by a man named Albert who was once a little boy living in Chad and enjoying a life of farming and fishing. But then he grew up and a vicious Civil War overtook his homeland so he grabbed his wife and children and fled two countries over to Burkina Faso.

Once he landed in the U.S., New Roots gave him the opportunity to be a community gardener, but he was business savvy and took on the extra challenge of attending the New Roots Micro-Producer Academy. That still wasn’t enough to satisfy his drive and he excelled to become the highest achieving producer in the Salt Lake City program. Now Albert works on the New Roots farm and harvests produce which he sells at the New Roots stand in the market.

Sometimes he cultivates crops that are unique to his hometown. One such crop is the leafy vegetable called amaranth greens. He sold them at market a Sundanese lady said she hadn’t seen that vegetable since she left her homeland and it made her feel more welcome in the U.S.

This year, thanks to Chipotle’s donation, another new program germinated called the Youth Food Justice Academy. It provides immigrant youth with nutrition education, global cuisine and school gardening programs. The company says 170 youth are now in after-school and summer programs in five cities.

I say tomato, you say nyanya (that’s Swahili for “tomato”)

It’s hard to move to a country with a new language, culture and completely different set of job skills. One amazing aspect of New Roots is that farming is comfortingly familiar; it’s something these refugees excel at, and it gives them confidence that they can prosper in this new country. It also ties them back to their farming family who they left behind in their home country. Often they come from a line of farmers … oftentimes their father and grandfathers were farmers. This program helps these refugees celebrate their heritage and also creates a community bond.

As the New Roots website says, “The food is local. The story is global.”

Chipotle purchases produce from the New Roots program in some markets. The fast-casual chain also has an employment program for some IRC clients. Two brothers and a sister are part of the program. The two brothers are now managers at a Chipotle store. During an interview, one brother, Kodjo, was asked: What are your long-term career goals? Do you see a future [have an interest in] working with Chipotle as a restauranteur?

His answer was, “I would like to work in graphic design but would also like to stay with Chipotle. I would like to have my own Chipotle store." His sister chimed in: “On the first floor of the IRC!” He smiled and agreed.

How can you celebrate World Refugee Day and help refugees?

You can … create world peace or help raise awareness for the need to improve policies and services to help refugees start new lives in the U.S.

June 27 through July 2 is National Refugee Advocacy Week, so now is the perfect time to start advocating for refugees. Here’s a list of things you can do to help. It can be as simple as writing a letter.

Also, if you ate today, thank a farmer -- unless you’re like me a don’t know a farmer. In that case eat a burrito and thank Chipotle for helping farmers.

Image credits: The New Roots MicroProducer Academy

Renee Farris headshotRenee Farris

Renee is a social impact strategist who works with companies to help them focus on key social and environmental opportunities. She loves connecting with people so feel free to contact her at renee.a.farris@gmail.com.

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