Eric Schlosser Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Eric Schlosser
Photo: Jim Scherer

Eric Schlosser

An interview with Eric Schlosser

A Conversation with Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson (and below suggestions on how children can get involved)

Kids love fast food. Why did you write a book for them about its history and harmful consequences?
An editor came up with the idea not long after the 2002 paperback publication of Fast Food Nation [Eric's best-selling exposé of the fast-food industry, written for adults]. We were drawn to the challenge of recasting the material for a younger readership. It seemed that the people who needed this information most didn't have a way to get it directly. We decided to write a book for young people that wouldn't be condescending, preachy, or hectoring. We hope that Chew on This respects the intelligence of its readers and challenges kids to think for themselves.

The fast-food industry spends billions of dollars every year marketing unhealthy food to children. We felt that kids needed to hear the other side of the story. The eating habits that a person develops as a child are difficult to break later. And if a child is obese by the age of thirteen, he or she is likely to remain obese for life. The nutritional education of American children shouldn't be left to the fast food, junk food, and soda companies.

It's easy to take the fast-food industry for granted. It seems like fast-food restaurants are everywhere and have always been with us. The book tries to show that the growth of this industry wasn't inevitable. It was promoted by government subsidies, deceptive marketing, and individual choices. It can be changed through a different set of choices. We want to help kids think critically about the world around them and believe that a better world is still possible. Although Chew on This is full of disturbing and depressing information, it is grounded in a fundamental optimism.


You include a lot of historical information on the industry.
Chew on This traces the rise of the fast-food industry and its effects on how we work, how we eat, and how we live. It's a book both for and about young people. It begins in 1885 with a fifteen-year-old boy at a Wisconsin fair who invents the hamburger — and it winds up at the recent opening of a Burger King in Baghdad. The book traces the careers of the men who created fast food and describes how Walt Disney and Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald's Corporation, changed how products were marketed to children. It describes how the fast-food culture has transformed the American landscape, making cities and towns look the same, with the same chain restaurants and stores. It explores how the labor policies of the fast-food chains have affected the lives of teenage workers. It takes readers behind the scenes at a flavor factory, where the taste of fast food is manufactured, at a huge industrial French fry factory, at the poultry and beef slaughterhouses that supply the meat for burgers and chicken nuggets. It describes the efforts of the fast food and soda companies to target children in schools. And it looks at the impact that fast-food consumption has had on the health of America's children, telling the story of a young man in suburban Chicago and his struggles with obesity.

The book also offers grounds for hope. It introduces young people who are resisting the fast-food giants. It suggests that the future will bring a whole new attitude toward the production and distribution of food, encouraging sustainable agriculture and healthier diets. The goal of the book isn't to indoctrinate children with any single point of view. Our aim is to make kids think about what they're eating, where it comes from, and the consequences of every bite.


Did you approach the research for Chew on This in a different way than that for Fast Food Nation?
The research process for Chew on This was much the same: a mix of firsthand reporting and a lot of digging through archival and published sources. The fast-food industry is now global in scope, and we hoped to capture a sense of that in the book. Chew on This required a great deal of original research and investigative trips to Colorado, Illinois, New Jersey, West Virginia, Alaska, Great Britain, and Singapore. The only real difference between the books is emphasis. For this book, we focused on how the industry affects the lives of young people. It wasn't hard to find good stories. The real difficulty was deciding which ones to tell. Just about every teen in America has some connection to fast food, for better or worse.


Fast food, in addition to tasting good, is cheap and easily accessible for almost everyone in America. Fresh produce and meats can be expensive and hard to find, making this an economic as well as a health issue. Is it realistically possible for everyone to eat fresh, healthy food?
One of the main points of the book is that fast food isn't cheap at all, once you add up all the social and health costs. Those French fries and shakes may seem inexpensive when you buy them. But if you add the cost of the dialysis when you develop diabetes from eating too much fast food, it's a pretty high price to pay. At the moment, the U.S. government heavily subsidizes the production of unhealthy foods while providing little direct support to ranchers and farmers who are producing the kind of healthy foods we should be eating. The poor are feeling the worst effects of these misguided policies. The food that they can most easily afford, in the long run, will damage their health. We need government policies that support the right kind of foods. And people need to realize that it's worth spending a little more money on what they eat. Americans now spend a smaller proportion of their income on food than any other society in history. There could hardly be a more important purchase, and, as with everything else, you get what you pay for.


Some folks might see the fast-food industry as an example of the success of capitalism.
In many ways the fast-food industry represents a perversion of free market capitalism. The major chains wield extraordinary power not only over the distribution and production of food, but also over the food and labor policy of the U. S. government. That's not what Adam Smith had in mind. The behavior of the industry and its suppliers brings to mind that of the nineteenth-century trusts, which controlled the American economy with an iron fist, setting prices, breaking unions, and ruthlessly eliminating independent businesses.


Are you vegetarians? Do you eat fast food?
Charles is a lifelong vegetarian. But he has tremendous respect for independent ranchers. His uncle used to own a ranch, and whenever Charles visited, he'd help round up the cattle on horseback. Eric still eats meat. His favorite meal is a cheeseburger, fries, and chocolate shake. He won't buy food, however, from any of the major fast-food chains. He simply doesn't want to give them any money. And for the same reason, he won't buy meat produced by the large meatpacking firms.


Fast-food restaurants are opening at a rapid pace around the world. There are protests, but there are also customers. Do you see this trend continuing? Why or why not?
Time will tell if the industry can continue to expand overseas. The major fast-food chains have run out of places to open new restaurants in the United States. The market has been pretty well saturated. And so this massive overseas expansion — which seems like a sign of the industry's strength and popularity — is actually a symptom of some underlying weaknesses. It's much more expensive to enter new countries than to open new restaurants close to home. The industry's growth seems to have run out of steam in Europe. China now offers the best hope of success. McDonald's is aggressively targeting children and teenagers there. But China is beginning to have its own obesity epidemic. It remains to be seen whether China will blindly follow our example when it comes to food, or learn from our mistakes.

 

Want to make a difference? You can!

Has Chew on This inspired you to make some changes in the food you purchase and eat? Here are some suggestions on where to start!

Start your own "Stop the Pop" campaign to remove soda machines from your school.

  • Start a petition to give to your principal.
  • Did you know there is the equivalent of ten teaspoons of sugar in a single twelve-ounce can of soda? Research the effects too much sugar can have on your health, both in the short term and the long term. Make posters showing these effects and hang them in the hallways.
  • Try to stack twenty-two four-pound bags of sugar on top of one another — that's how much sugar the average American teenage boy consumes from soda every year.

Want fresh vegetables in your cafeteria?

  • Invite the person in charge of purchasing food for your school to your classroom. Ask questions about what they buy, and why. Ask whether they have the power to buy from local farmers and dairies. Do they have just one supplier? Or many?
  • Take a field trip to your own school cafeteria and see how food is made behind the scenes. Talk to the cafeteria workers about their jobs — do they make food from scratch or does much of their work involve reheating frozen foods? Do they decide what to serve? Are they involved when the school gives health classes?
  • Grow your own! Talk to your teacher about starting a school garden, or apply for a grant to get you started — visit www.kidsgardening.com to find out how.

Worried you are eating too much junk food?

  • Take some cookbooks out of the library and whip up some healthy meals with your parents. Find a recipe that uses a food you've never eaten before.
  • Visit a farmers' market. Visit www.ams.usda.gov/farmersmarkets/map.htm to find one in your area.
  • When you go to fast-food restaurants with friends, order a salad instead of a burger.
  • Drink water instead of soda at meals and after school.
  • Bring a healthy lunch and snacks to school instead of purchasing food in the cafeteria.
  • Compete with your friends! Count the number of foods in your lunch that haven't been processed. Each unprocessed food gets one point.

Upset by how animals and workers are treated at meatpacking plants?

  • As a class assignment, write letters to your congressperson or senator explaining what you learned in Chew on This and why you think workers and animals deserve better. Give some suggestions on ways to improve things. They will listen! To find your local representatives' contact information, visit www.congress.org.

Support your locally owned restaurants!

  • Work with your teacher to invite local restaurant owners and fast-food franchise owners to your class. Ask them where they purchase their ingredients, and ask about their employee salaries and benefits. After they leave, discuss which restaurants you and your classmates feel comfortable supporting.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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