Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal: Changing the Land, Workforce, And Above All Culture
According to Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All American Meal, the fast food industry has completely and irrevocably changed the American landscape, workforce, and culture. Many of the aspects of fast food culture Schlosser demonizes are also applicable to other forms of American capitalism — for example, Wal-Mart also makes use of poorly paid workers who receive few benefits, and are used as disposable commodities, rather than participants in a company who can look forward to being promoted and share in its profits. The overconsumption of meat and high-fructose corn syrup is endemic to American processed food, as well as fast food. But the eradication of cooking, the idea that food is not food but entertainment, that food is a product for children rather than adults and that it is acceptable to have the family meal in a car are all aspects of modern life for which the fast food industry must accept sole blame.
It is perhaps the automobile that really changed the American landscape and made fast food possible: “The triumph of the automobile encouraged not only a geographic separation between buildings, but also a manmade landscape that was loud and bold” (Schlosser 17). Anonymous roadside ‘pit stops’ replaced lunch counters where everyone knew one another’s name. The demand for cheap beef transformed the cattle industry, and made factory farming king. Sustainable agriculture, always a tenuous proposition in a land with a tendency to over-farm and over-graze the soil, became replaced with industrialized agriculture and factory farming. Today, Schlosser writes, poultry farmers are “trapped by debt,” captives of large processors and the meat industry may be going the same way (Schlosser 139). The patterns of ownership and management on Americans farms today parallels that of 19th century rural England, not that of the independent homesteaders of previous eras (Schlosser 118). Today, America has more prison inmates than full-time farmers (Schlosser 8).
“In the potato fields and processing plants of Idaho, in the ranchlands east of Colorado Springs, in the feedlots and slaughterhouses of the High Plains, you can see the effects of fast food on the nation’s rural life, its environment, its workers, and its health… the hardy, independent farmers whom Thomas Jefferson considered the bedrock of American democracy are a truly vanishing breed” (Schlosser 8). Strip malls, faceless and standardized, dot America’s highways, not unique establishments. As persuasive as Schlosser is regarding the role fast food plays in this development, it should be added that industrialized agriculture and food processing is endemic to the agricultural industry as a whole, not just the fast food industry. Most animals today are raised in an inhumane manner, on an unnatural (corn-fed) diet. Of course, the fast food industry’s appetite for cheaply produced animal carcasses is a component of the shift to industrialized agriculture, but it is important to keep in mind that merely by eschewing Quarter Pounders, one cannot be assured of eating in an ethical fashion.
The analysis of the fast food industry’s attitude towards its labor force is also likely to resonate with many readers. Fast food uses its workers to assemble, not make its food, according to company specifications. Its workers are paid the minimum wage, and receive no training in higher-level cooking skills — only a few are sent to the coveted Hamburger University of the McDonald’s corporation. And even these workers, like most franchise workers, have little opportunities to learn entrepreneurial creativity: “computer programs, training manuals, and the machines in the kitchen” do the thinking for them (Schlosser 73). Most fast food employees are young and receive few benefits. Instead of cultivating a relationship with an employee over time, in the hopes of building up that individual’s career within the company, workers are actively discouraged from working for long periods of time, to keep salaries and benefits at the minimum obligation for the company. “While a handful of workers manage to rise up the corporate ladder, the vast majority lack full-time employment, receive no benefits, learn few skills” (Schlosser 6). The companies actually receive tax credits for hiring low-income workers although “in 1996 an investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor concluded that 92% of these workers would have been hired by the companies anyway” (Schlosser 72).
“While the real value of the wages paid to restaurant workers has declined for the past three decades, the earnings of restaurant company executives have risen considerably” (Schlosser 73). This turns the concept of a company making an investment in its workforce on its head, and may be one reason for the resentful behavior of many fast food employees, as witnessed by the recent scandal of the YouTube video featuring disgruntled Dominos Pizza workers doing unsanitary things to their food. Poor treatment of workers within the industry is manifest at every link of the fast food supply chain — particularly those in the meat packing and processing industry, where the workers are often illegal, and the work is extremely dangerous. Fast food workers run the risk of being held up by robbers when they work late, meat processing plant workers risk losing digits or even their lives.
Schlosser’s portrayal of the life of a fast food employee immediately resonates with anyone who has worked at such an establishment or has a friend who has worked in a fast food franchise, although it could be added that many of his complaints would be true of working for any major American corporation, such as Wal-Mart. The anti-unionization activities he describes, while illegal and abhorrent, are also true of other major corporations. However, the impact upon the American — in, fact the world — diet is what makes the fast food industry so uniquely bad. The cultural logic of McDonald’s might best be summed up as ‘more is better.’ “Workers at the counter are told to increase the size of an order by recommending special promotions, pushing dessert, pointing out the financial logic: (Schlosser 72). Bigger is better — and salty, standardized, and sweet is better yet. Because of the ubiquity of fast food, people seek predictable experiences when it comes to their diet, and the desire for McDonald’s becomes hard-wired into the individual’s brain at childhood, given the corporation’s canny marketing to children. Processed food may have become endemic to American life, but fast food restaurants make such food infinitely easier and more pleasant to consume — there is no need to sit down with the family, even basic social skills are lost along with cooking skills. And while purchasing goods from Wal-Mart, given its labor practices may be ethically dubious, eating fast food robs the consumer of his or her health, through obesity and poor nutrition, as well as dollars.
Schlosser admits as much: “I do not mean to suggest that fast food is solely responsible for every social problem now haunting the United States. In some cases (such as the malling and sprawling of the West) the fast food industry has been a catalyst and a symptom of larger economic trends. In other cases (such as the rise of franchising and the spread of obesity) fast food has played a more central role” (Schlosser 9). Fast food robs the land, numbs the soul to worker abuses, and numbs the palate. Unsanitary and unhealthy food sold with toys is what people crave, rather than fresh produce or even fresh versions of these comfort foods. Thousands of calories can be consumed in minutes, behind the wheel of the car, and obesity makes it difficult for individuals to enjoy life, much less ‘real food.’ The health costs and the psychological costs of obesity, a condition facilitated by the fast food industry, are incalculable.
Schlosser, Eric. Fast Food Nation. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2001.
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