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Not the Same Old Drive-Thru

It's really cold and windy in Manhattan. The Friday lunch crowds scurry in and out of delis and take-out places. But at one fast-food joint, the customers calmly form a line that spills out onto the sidewalk. This is Chipotle on East 44th Street, and I join the queue accompanied by two fast-food industry experts - my teenaged son and daughter.

Once inside, we decide among a burrito, fajita burrito, burrito bowl or tacos and a filling - chicken, steak, carnitas or barbacoa (spicy shredded beef). At the head of the line, we tell the lady behind the counter what we want, and she and her colleagues move the meals down the line in about a minute, letting us choose among pinto and black beans, roast chili-corn or several types of tomatillo-chili. We pay (about $8 each), then hunt for a table in the crowded dining room. It seems like a fairly typical fast-food experience, but we're tucking into a meal that Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, says embodies a philosophy of "food with integrity." Is he serious?

It's no joke. We knew we were in for a different kind of fast-food experience at Chipotle from the beginning. The customers lined up outside are nice to one another, making eye contact and smiling. The women behind the counter seem older than the typical fast-food worker, and there's something attentive and almost motherly in their manner. But once we unwrap our meals, we're focused on one fact: This food tastes really, really good - nothing at all like the fast food we've tasted before.

Instead of sampling each other's selections (as we originally intended), we greedily eat our own meals - no sharing. I'd never share any food that tasted as good as these carnitas. Fuggedaboutit. This is flavourful, succulent pork, with no hint of greasiness. The tomatillo green-chili salsa is fresh and couldn't have been made more than an hour ago. The subtly spiced pinto beans have a warm, homemade taste, and there's fluffy, soft rice underneath it all.

My attempts to sample my kids' tacos and burritos are rebuffed, but they assure me this is the "best" fast food they've ever tasted. "It's way more satisfying than normal fast food, says my 19-year-old son, who's downed more than enough burgers and fries to know.

Chipotle is just one example of a new brand of green fast-food restaurant springing up across Europe and the U.S. faster than you can say, "Supersize my sprouts and tofu, please." These establishments provide the speed and convenience we've come to expect from conventional fast-food joints, but they're doing it while looking after the quality of the food and the health of the environment.

Much of the food is seasonal, family-farmed, naturally raised, hormone-free and/or organic. The meats and vegetables are sourced locally; the packaging is recyclable; the energy is renewable. In one restaurant, the tables are made from fallen trees rather than felled ones.

For decades, fast food has been seen as emblematic of just about everything that's destroying our bodies and our planet. These fast-food restaurants are proving we can have our burgers - and feel good about them too.

The fast-food industry is blamed for promoting unhealthy food (especially to children), contributing to the obesity epidemic, facilitating a drive-thru lifestyle and contributing to the demise of family farms and ranches. There's at least some evidence to support these claims. A recent study by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania showed people who live in neighbourhoods with a high density of fast-food places are more likely to be obese than people from areas with more full-service restaurants. A 2006 report from Greenpeace fingered McDonald's and similar corporations for the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. According to Greenpeace, the chickens that end up as McNuggets in European branches of McDonald's are fattened on soybeans grown on illegally cleared land in the Amazon rainforest.

In Fast Food Nation, author Eric Schlosser notes that McDonald's is the largest purchaser of beef, potatoes and pork in the U.S. and that the "centralized purchasing decisions of the large restaurant chains and their demand for standardized products have given a handful of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation's food supply." He blames them for "wiping out small businesses, obliterating regional differences and spreading identical stores... like a self-replicating code."

To be fair, chains like McDonald's and Burger King have offered salads and a grilled alternative to fried chicken for years. And the health-food cafe has been a fixture since the 1970s. So is the "new" fast food really all that new?

Well, yes. Menus in these new establishments cater to people who want healthier, tastier food - and want it fast - but who may not be keen on tofu burgers. Others want food that's more authentic than a square hamburger. But other changes in the business, like food delivered in hybrid vehicles and composted waste, are in response to climate change and the imperative to do something about it.

"There's no point in creating a profitable business if it contributes to climate change," says Tim Hall, founder of POD Food in London, England, which specializes in healthed-up classic British fare and exotic Asian offerings. Then again, customers won't come back to even the greenest restaurant if the food isn't terrific. So, how can restaurants like POD and Chipotle satisfy consumer appetites for quick, delicious meals that are good for us and for the planet? Here are the five ingredients for a greater, greener fast-food joint.

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