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Eight Forty-Eight

Responsible Eats

The current outrage over bail-outs and corporate bonuses is making the phrase “responsible capitalism” seem like an oxymoron. But there's one industry that's beginning to understand how you can do good by others while bringing in the dough. Eight Forty-Eight food contributor David Hammond has brings us the story.

There used to be a time when fast food meant burgers and fries and, oh, you know…

audio from McDonald's commercial

Though fast food restaurants now serve apples, yogurt and lots of other healthy options, they still take a lot of heat for dishing up high calorie, high fat selections. Consider Dairy Queen's Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Blizzard (1,300 calories) and Hardee's Monster Thickburger (over 1,400 calories) – and that's before shake and fries. Healthier options are out there, but there's still lots of fast food that's far from healthy, and Hank Cardello says too many of us are still eating it all up. Cardello is the author of Stuffed: An Insider's Look at Who's (Really) Making America Fat.

HANK CARDELLO: It's time for the industry to take responsibility of, custodianship over, their customer's health. I mean, that is the change in the model right now. While McDonald's is typically vilified for a lot of their policies, they're actually doing much better than others. They are offering these Asian chicken salads, and I've spoken to executives who tell me they wish they'd sell more chicken salads than they do cheese burgers because their profit margins are higher.

In 2008, Health magazine named Chipotle one of “America's Healthiest Restaurants,” and it's been good for business: Chipotle revenues increased almost 23 percent last year. The Health magazine article also argues that when it comes to giving consumers the opportunity to consciously choose what's best for them, fast-food chains are much more progressive than their sit-down counterparts. Spokesperson Chris Arnold explains how Chipotle's service model makes it possible for customers to make conscious decisions about what they eat.

CHRIS ARNOLD: So, customers come to Chipotle and your lunch or your dinner is made exactly the way you want it. So customers have the ability to pick and choose what goes into their entrée and how much of things go into their entrée so we can accommodate anyone with any kind of dietary restriction or preferences.

At the Chipotle in Oak Park, I sit down with Carla, a young mom who's lunching with her newborn. Carla usually selects healthier, low cal options.

CARLA: I try to go for the chicken instead of the beef. You know, try to get your food without sour cream. Depending upon how healthy I want to be that day, I'll get the chicken burrito bowl with the rice and you ask them to get the vegetables in there. Honestly, a lot of my other choices in the area are burgers, things that are not really as healthy.

But giving consumers lower calorie choices isn't the only way food providers can be responsible to their customers. They can also exercise responsible capitalism by, ironically, delivering more calories to those in need. Chris Arnold explains how Chipotle is helping feed the hungry.

ARNOLD: The Harvest Program is something that we've recently begun in the Chicago area and under this program what we're doing is saving some of the food that we've prepared during the day and not used. Things like white rice, black and pinto beans, grilled chicken and steak, fresh tomato salsa, roasted corn salsa, and we package that food up in safety-sealed containers, provided by the Good Harvest Program, and then it's picked up at our restaurants and taken to shelters in the area.

As part of the Harvest Program, local restaurants contribute food to organizations like Chicago's Pacific Garden Mission, where Laura Stemberg directs food services.

LAURA STEMBERG: We have many restaurants that are participating. Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut, Olive Garden, Red Lobster, each one has several stores that are participating in donations. Cheese Cake Factory, we all like that one very much. And now 18 Chipotle restaurants are donating to us. This is a tremendous source of food.

At the mission, Chef Floyd Turnbull serves over 2,000 meals every day. I ask him if his guests are at all concerned about the calories they take in.

STEMBERG: No, I don't think calories are an issue with these guys. These guys are looking for something to eat, a nice place to sleep, a nice meal, and some place safe and we offer that here.

Responsible capitalism in the food industry may be all about redistribution, not of wealth…but of calories. And it all seems to come down to each person's conscious decision to eat in the way they feel is best. I ask Bennie Allen, a guest at Pacific Garden Mission, if food is really that important to him and the others who were eating all around us in the cafeteria.

BENNIE ALLEN: To some, it's real important, because a lot of guys come here from addictions.

According to Allen, the food provided in part by Chipotle and others in the Harvest Program fills a void, and it helps those in need set themselves straight and take control and responsibility for their own lives.

ALLEN: What I believe is we're becoming more conscious…

Being a responsible food provider is good for the customer and the community – and it makes solid business sense for the food industry, as Cardello explains:

CARDELLO: As long as they can see that they're making a profit, while doing good things, then it's a win-win. It's in their best interests. It will help with their profitability. I don't anticipate that many will change for altruism so let's now look at the bottom line Obesity leads to diabetes, leads to heart attack leads to stroke, and the evidence is pretty hard that those folks will suffer a loss of 3-6 years in life expectancy, so being real crass about it, you have people coming back 3-6 years less, over a lifetime as a customer, you lose business, so quite frankly it's foolhardy to not be taking care of your customer. And that's what I believe the entire country is moving toward: responsible capitalism.

audio from McDonald's commercial

David Hammond writes about food for the Chicago Reader, TimeOut Chicago, and co-moderates the Chicago-based culinary chat site LTHForum.

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