Five Minutes With Eric Schlosser
Is obesity the next big American political issue? With one Republican presidential hopeful, Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, gaining national recognition for his personal weight loss and collaboration with former President Clinton to keep sweets out of school, it's possible. One person responsible for raising public awareness of the issue is Eric Schlosser, an award-winning journalist and modern-day Upton Sinclair who penned Fast Food Nation in 2001, a blistering expose of the dark side of the fast food industry: health risks, horrific working conditions and industry efforts to market directly to children.
Now, Schlosser is back with a fast food follow-up, Chew on This, a similar expose written with Charles Wilson; it focuses particularly on the dangers of fast food for children. But Schlosser is now set to reach an even larger audience: In the coming months we'll see a film based on Fast Food Nation, directed by Richard Linklater and featuring big name stars like Patricia Arquette, released across the country. Since we couldn't convince him to sit down with us over a burger, Campus Progress chatted with Schlosser over the phone.
Campus Progress: Fast Food Nation was a dramatic wake-up call for a lot of young people about foods we had all grown up eating. What inspired you to write that book?
Eric Schlosser: Well, I didn't come to it out of any great hatred for fast food, I used to eat it all the time. I did a big investigative piece at The Atlantic Monthly. It was about illegal immigration, it was about farm labor, migrant farm workers, and I told a very complicated story through something simple and concrete: a strawberry. We love strawberries and we eat lots of strawberries, and we eat lots of strawberries without ever thinking that each one of those strawberries has to be picked by hand. So, you want a lot of strawberries, you need a lot of hands. And that article was read at Rolling Stone magazine, and they invited me in to do the same thing for fast food.
Basically, they wanted me to go behind the counter and show all the complex systems that bring you this heavily processed food. I didn't jump at the opportunity because I eat fast food, and I didn't want to write something condescending and elitist putting down the industry, but the more I learned, the more amazed I was, and what was incredible to me was that I would be eating this food all the time without thinking about it, without having any idea where it came from or how it was being made.
Campus Progress: As a writer, I have to tell you the lead to that book is just incredible. You start out in a military base ...
ES: ... Cheyenne Mountain. One of our most top secret military bases, which is inside a hollowed-out mountain in Colorado.
Campus Progress: How do you come up with something like that?
ES: You know, it's not always premeditated. A lot of it comes out of the reporting. I was looking for a place to set Fast Food Nation, and Colorado sounded really interesting to me. It felt like, with the whole conservative religious fundamentalist culture, it was at the cutting edge of change in America. Little did I know how much that culture would take over America.
I decided to set it in Colorado Springs. There are these big military bases, so I applied to visit the base. And while I was there I started talking to them about what they eat there and it just blew my mind that, at that point, and I'm sure its no longer true post 9/11, the Domino's Pizza delivery guy would come right up to the gate at one of the most top-secret, important military installations in the United States. [If] you can get Domino's delivered to the Cheyenne Mountain air station, fast food has really infiltrated every part of American life.
Campus Progress: Tell us a little bit about your new film based on Fast Food Nation and whether you and Morgan Spurlock have a rivalry.
ES: Firstly, Morgan Spurlock: He made a totally disgusting film, but a really funny film. There's no rivalry whatsoever. As a matter of fact, we have a standing agreement that I will testify in his behalf when he gets sued by the industry, and he has promised to testify in mine.
The film that's based on Fast Food Nation is totally different from Super Size Me, and I love Super Size Me. This film is a fictional film, it's an independent film made by a wonderful director, Richard Linklater, who did Slacker and Dazed and Confused. It takes the title of my book and some of the themes but pretty much puts aside the book. There's nobody in the book who's literally in the film. The film is about the lives of some intersecting characters in a small town in Colorado, a lot of the film is in Spanish, some of the crucial characters are illegal immigrants, and in some ways it's an updating of [Upton Sinclair's] The Jungle on the hundredth anniversary of the publishing of that book.
Campus Progress: Why did you write your new book, Chew on This?
ES: Chew on This is aimed at kids, and it's aimed at the people who the fast food industry is heavily targeting with its mass marketing. When I finished Fast Food Nation and the manuscript was all done, I hired a fact-checker from TheNew Yorker, Charles Wilson, and his job was to make sure that every fact was right ... . He came to me with the idea of doing a children's book based on Fast Food Nation, arguing that these kids are being targeted by the fast food industry, they need the same sort of information in Fast Food Nation, and they need an alternate view of the world than the one they're getting from all these ads. So it sounded like a good idea, and I recruited him to help me with it.
Campus Progress: What do you think of the recent announcement of several major soda companies, including Coke and Pepsi, to stop selling their products in elementary and high schools come this fall, and why they might be motivated to do that?
ES: I'd like to think that they were motivated solely by concern for the health of American children. But, whatever their motivations are, I think it's a good thing. The deal was brokered by former President Bill Clinton, a Democrat, and the current governor of Arkansas, Mike Huckabee, a conservative Republican. I think it's a terrific step because it shows bipartisan support for ensuring that kids are eating healthy food in schools. I don't think it's an ideal agreement; it's going to be phased in over a number of years [and] it's a voluntary agreement. But to me it's a sign of the times, a sign that attitudes are really changing and there's a real feeling growing that we can't afford to have these companies marketing unhealthy food to kids in schools. I applaud the move by the soda companies to make voluntary changes, but I also support moves at the state and federal level to put tough restrictions on what kind of food can be sold in schools.
Campus Progress: Fast Food Nation sold extremely well; it raised a lot of awareness. Have you seen any improvement in the issues you talk about, like exploitative labor practices at fast food restaurants and the meatpacking plants that supply them?
ES: In the five years since the book was published, a lot has changed for the better and some things have changed for the worse. I'm not going to claim credit for my book being responsible for all this, but nevertheless things have changed. One of the ways things have changed is there's much more awareness about food. In the last five years there has just been a huge increase in organic production, the sale of organics. Whole Foods is one of the fastest-growing, most profitable food distributors, and they represent a whole different set of values from what McDonald's and KFC do. So you're seeing a big change in eating habits among well-educated people and upper middle class people, and that's good.
There's also a lot more awareness about obesity and the obesity epidemic, which really didn't seem to be discussed much five years ago and now is a huge, huge subject of debate and concern. Cutbacks on soda in schools, Governor Schwarzenegger kicking the junk food and the soda companies out of school, all that is good.
When it comes to worker safety and workers rights in the American meatpacking industry, I think things are much worse than they were five years ago, thanks mainly to the Bush administration, which is very close to the meatpacking industry. I went to Texas after Fast Food Nation was published to interview meatpacking workers there; those are some of the worst conditions I've ever seen. The food safety issues, I think, have gotten much worse, again, because the Bush administration is so close to the meatpacking industry. This isn't a Republican or Democratic issue, ideally, it's a non-partisan issue. Republicans and Democrats both have to eat. Unfortunately, a lot of money flows in Washington from this industry to certain politicians. There's been a real backslide, I think, in food safety measures.
One thing that I also think is worse is the eating habits of the poor and ordinary working people. As the obesity epidemic is growing in this country, it's mainly growing among people at the very bottom. These are the main consumers of fast food. Fast food is increasingly the food of the poor. What I'm hoping to see in the next five years is the same changes in eating habits that have occurred among the well-educated and the upper middle class now need to be extended throughout society, especially for the people at the bottom who are suffering the worst health effects of this food.