Food Nation is the kind of book that you hope young people read because it demonstrates far better than any social studies class the need for government regulation, the unchecked power of multinational corporations and the importance of our everyday decisions.
Despite international concerns with the Cold War and Senator McCarthy's accusations, the 1950s were an exciting change for many Americans. A large number headed out to the suburbs to newly designed housing. National roads started sweeping across the cities and towns. Soon, another change came about on these roads: the arrival of fast-food restaurants, which have epitomized America ever since. People just have to is drive up to the window and order their meals; within minutes they are fed and content. Yet, there are always two sides to an issue, especially when big money is involved. According to the book Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser, fast-food chains have caused as much damage as they have added to American culture.
In Fast-Food Nation, Schlosser raises several of the major problems with fast-food restaurants: taking advantage of poor and unskilled workers in factories and restaurants, questionable preparation of meat, loss of small private farms/ranges, and increases in obesity. Since the book's publication in 2002, a number of restaurants have begun to offer "more healthy" (less fat/carbohydrates) choices, and Western countries are starting to recognize the problem of obesity. However, most of the problems noted by the author persist.
According to Schlosser, fast service is only one of several marketing ideas that McDonald's has introduced over the years that have become basics for advertising 101. One is the use of the logo or brand. Just looking at the yellow arches, instills cravings of greasy fries and hamburgers in fast-food junkies. Another marketing ploy is using toys as giveaways in the Happy Meals. The concept of "synergy" is when two companies -- McDonald's and Disney" for example -- team together and promote the latest movie character in commercials. Today, marketers start this synergistic process a step earlier: The toys and giveaways come out even before the movie is aired. Boys and girls are begging for the products months ahead of the film.
Marketing to children has indeed become big business, with parent and government groups fighting an endless battle of reducing the amount of commercialism. Companies will reach youth any way they can. Some businesses, for example, put their product name on free educational programs, giveaways to top students and sports equipment for schools. The school systems get much-needed materials, but at what cost? Does such support also encourage the consumption of unhealthy food and beverages, discourage individuality and significantly bias children's buying decisions?
It is true that fast-food restaurants have made it easy to get a quick bite to eat. However, there are tradeoffs. Franchises have multiplied so much over the past several decades that is difficult to find any major city without a strip of these establishments along the main drag. As Fast Food Nation states: "The fast food chains feed off the sprawl of Colorado Springs, accelerate it and help set its visual tone. They build large signs to attract motorists and look at cars the way predators view prey." St. Louis exemplifies this problem. Sprawl is rapidly devouring choice farmland and open space. According to the American Farmland Trust, the five counties around St. Louis lost over 170,000 acres between 1981 and 1996, which comprised nearly one-third of developed farmland lost statewide during that period.
As its name implies, another concept of the fast-food arena is speed. American manufacturers follow an idea conceived during the early 20th century for mass-production. "Throughput," is the speed and volume of flow. It is the ability to increase the speed of assembly: In other words, making more products by making things move faster. It is a more crucial measurement than the number of workers employed or the value of machinery.
Fast-food restaurants epitomize throughput. At fast-food restaurants across the U.S., adolescents and young adults work in the early hours before school and then again after classes in exchange for low wages and little or no benefits. While on the job, they are expected to serve the customers quickly and efficiently. Coffee breaks and downtime are nearly nonexistent.
Young people are not the only employees exploited: Other individuals in the lower socio-economic class, such as immigrants, the chronically unemployed and seniors, will gladly accept minimum wage. These workers are the first to bear the brunt of bad situations. Yet, they are normally the last to fight in favor of better conditions and against unethical practices because they have so much to lose.
Fast-food restaurants often attract the worst type of employees because of the low wages and mistreatment, and of patrons due to the inexpensive food and 24/7 service. They are also magnets for criminals, who find it easy to rob a store that has few employees and is easily accessible. In each town, police know where the majority of violence occurs. Convenience stores and quick-bite restaurants are high on the list.
Schlosser states that although fast-food chains spend enormous sums on R&D to increase automation and reduce the number of employees, they accept hundreds of millions of dollars in government subsidies for "training" their workers. They receive tax credits for each low-income individual hired, yet do not normally use these funds to improve their employees' expertise or well-being.
Since the 1950s, there have been many people who have latched on to the fast-food industry whose motives have been anything but positive: Executives in the potato industry are noted as an example in Fast Food Nation. Since 1980, the tonnage of potatoes produced by Idaho has doubled. In 1960, the average American ate 81 pounds of fresh potatoes and four pounds of frozen fries. Today those numbers are 49 pounds of fresh potatoes and 30 pounds of frozen fries! Ninety percent of these fries are purchased at fast-food restaurants.
The changes in the potato industry and the ability to grow more product have not helped the typical Idaho farmer. Although the tonnage of potatoes grown and consumed continues to increase, the farmers have barely seen the monetary rewards. It is typical of the dairy industry and other similar agricultural products where the larger firms get larger and the smaller ones either are gobbled up or remain small. Out of $1.50 for an order of fries, only 2 cents goes to the farmer.
Similarly, in other Western states, the number of ranches continues to decline at a dramatic rate. Private ranchers are being taken over by large conglomerates. Two types of ranchers now exist out West -- the smaller rancher who wants to keep things as they were and does not favor expansion and the larger "gentleman" ranchers who earn huge amounts of money from sources such as the major meat processing companies that supply restaurants including the fast-food variety. It is very difficult for the smaller rancher to remain successful, and many of the sons and daughters are leaving the business. In addition, a number of individuals who do not give up become despondent. They often turn to drugs, alcohol and suicide because of their failures. It may not be long before the West will really be won.
However, the situation in the West pales in comparison to that of the chicken factories in the South and Midwest. The conditions in the chicken slaughterhouses are abominably dark and dirty. Migrant workers are paid dismal salaries and nearly no benefits. Even worse, as described in Fast-Food Nation, is the set of statistics concerning cuts, chronic injuries, and even amputations that are suffered by low-wage chicken workers. The situation in the meatpacking industry is comparable. For example, one nonunion plant in Greeley, Colorado, mostly employs recent immigrants who cannot speak English and live on poverty-level wages. Although the turnover rate is close to 100%, the needs of the fast-food industry always bring other workers to fill the employment void. In addition, the high turnover keeps unions from being formed.
According to Schlosser, the obesity epidemic that started in the U.S. due to miserable eating habits is now spreading worldwide with the global reach of fast-food restaurants. Recently, Great Britain declared obesity as a leading problem. In fact, between 1984 and 1993, the number of fast-food franchises in Great Britain nearly doubled -- as did adult obesity. The British now eat more fast food than another any Western Europeans. In China, the proportion of overweight teenagers has roughly tripled. In Japan, hamburgers and french-fries have made a large number of youth fatter and unhealthy.
Politically, it does not appear to me that much has been done to remedy the problems associated with the fast-food industry. In many cases, corporate lobbies and campaign donations keep the status quo. Also, disenfranchised individuals such as the poor do not get politically involved or have a means for making change.
The author particularly targets the Republican administrations: "It is a sad but undeniable fact that for…