Zsuzsi Gartner of The Globe and Mail reports on the book Chew on This: Everything you don’t want to know about fast food, by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson
Until just a few years ago, this was the monthly fix: Big Mac, Filet o’ Fish, small fries, carton of milk. It was a guilty pleasure I never felt all that guilty about. Then along came Eric Schlosser in 2001, with one of the most important books of the past decade. Fast Food Nation, for the two Globe readers who may not have heard of it, is the 21st century’s The Jungle, the 1906 Upton Sinclair novel that led Teddy Roosevelt to investigate the brutal and unsanitary conditions in Chicago’s meat-packing plants. Fast Food Nation detailed the power that the greed-a-licious players in the fast-food industry have over the way food (mainly potatoes, beef and chicken) is grown, packaged, marketed and sold to North American (and worldwide) consumers.
So here is Fast Food Nation repackaged for the 11- to-13-year-old crowd, with some added kid-relevant material by Schlosser and his fact-checker, Charles Wilson.
“We left out some of the more gruesome and disturbing episodes included in Fast Food Nation, but on the whole we didn’t engage in self-censorship,” Schlosser recently told Publisher’s Weekly. “I think kids need to face some of these harsh realities.”
Probably a good call — although the more disturbing episodes in Fast Food Nation (including a horrifying account by a mother whose child died from the pathogen E. coli 0157:H7, ingested from a tainted hamburger, parts of his brain liquefied by the toxins) are the things that tend to stay with the reader.
Chew on This has info that’s requisitely gross. Red-hued food colorings are made from ground-up bugs. “Natural” flavourings are anything but natural. How the success of Chicken McNuggets helped turn chickens into big-breasted cannibals who routinely keel over from heart attacks. And how a single fast-food hamburger can contain meat from hundreds of different cows, aiding the spread of E. coli O157:H7. Or, as Chew on This puts it: “There is poop in the meat.” (Some people read horror-meister Clive Barker to get a fright; for me it’s enough to read about the possible fecal content of commercially packaged ground beef.) Then there’s the other kind of grotesque — the branding of schools. In one down-at-heels Minnesota school district, teachers received $250 a month from General Mills in exchange for covering their cars with a vinyl wrap advertising Reese’s Puffs cereal.
While Chew on This has no shortage of villains, the book also has its heroes, including: a 12-year-old girl in Bethel, Alaska, who got the Coke machine removed from her school; Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters, who started an innovative food program called the Edible Schoolyard at a run-down Berkeley, Calif., school and reformed the food served in all district schools; and the two Montreal teenagers who tried to unionize a McDonald’s.
The authors could have expended more energy appealing to their target demographic, taking a cue from the marketing wizards on whom they’re yanking the curtain aside. Chapter titles and subtitles and the writing itself are uninspired, as is the (almost non-existent) design. Some sidebars, fun (and gross) factoids et cetera might have gone a long way toward jazzing things up.
And the decision to mirror the order and content of Fast Food Nation results in some chapters that are bound to be eye-glazers to any kid but an earnest young activist. Are 12-year-olds really going to be interested in the family farm going out of business and workers’ rights — not that they shouldn’t be, but the presentation here is classic boring textbook. We don’t actually get to the meat and potatoes until page 71.
Chew on This will no doubt inspire some kids to take on the pop machines in their own schools, stage cafeteria revolts and find other ways to make themselves unpopular with their peers, as kids with minds of their own often tend to be. But the unfortunate thing is that it’s probably going to end up singing to the choir. Will it actually be read by the kids (and parents) who need it most? Which parents and teachers will buy this book for their pre-teen charges?
The working-class and new immigrant parents of the children at my son’s school who think nothing of staging a birthday party at McDonald’s, and whose kids regularly bring McDonald’s toys for show-and-tell? The teacher whose school cafeteria features items from KFC and an exclusive deal to sell only Coca-Cola or Pepsi products? The mothers in my east side Vancouver neighborhood pushing strollers bulging with sumo-wrestler-sized toddlers gnawing on fistfuls of fries, while their school-age siblings, future candidates for gastric bypass surgery, waddle alongside, slurping up large Cokes?
Unlike global warming though, the childhood obesity epidemic is starting to be taken seriously. A voluntary deal to phase out pop sales in U.S. schools over three years, involving the major soft-drink companies and brokered by former president (and former junk-food addict) Bill Clinton, was announced on Wednesday. (Evidently those bathtubs full of pop guzzled per capita each year in the Sultanate of Brunei, not to mention the boom in the bottled water business, will ensure Coca-Cola and friends won’t take a hit.) In Canada, the presence of pop machines in schools varies on a province-to-province basis.
Chew on This introduces us to a 13-year-old Brooklyn girl who usually eats a bag of potato chips for breakfast, buys more chips and fruit roll-ups for lunch, and meets her friends at KFC or Burger King after school. “Our school, it’s mainly fat kids,” she says. “Her eating habits seem typical these days,” Schlosser and Wilson write.
If you don’t want to leave the brainwashing of your kids, not to mention their future health, to the fast-food geniuses, this book, alongside Morgan Spurlock’s usefully revolting documentary film Supersize Me, might be a good place to start their re-education.
Contributing reviewer Zsuzsi Gartner enjoys pizza slices from a neighborhood mom-and-pop outfit, though not the “Mexican” with its rabbit-pellet-like lumps of ground beef.