Monday, October 22, 2007

Fast Food Revisited

We vegetarians tend to ignore fast-food restaurants. Oh, we know they're around, of course. Who could miss the tacky architecture, the cheap building materials, the garish colors, the plastic, and the acres of free parking? But there are so many of them that they all tend to meld into the entropy of the suburban landscape. No self-respecting vegetarian would patronize these places, and it's only when the wind blows in the right (wrong?) direction, giving us a whiff of air thick with rancid grease, that we say to ourselves, "Oh my god, there's a KFC over there!"

I have been pretty successful in ignoring fast-food restaurants for the past 25 years. I do, though, admit to having dined at the Wendy's salad bar a few times when dragged there by others. (My parents were big Wendy's fans). It was always an experience.

When your only knowledge of fast food comes from what you see on television, it's quite a shock to actually walk into one of those restaurants. The first thing I always notice is that everything is covered with a sticky film that I guess comes from being repeatedly coated with grease and wiped down by wash rags. Tasty. And the high school kids behind the counter don't look anything like their counterparts (that's a pun) on television. Where are the fit bodies, the tailored uniforms and the perky smiles? Why doesn't anyone at the real restaurants seem to care about their jobs or their customers? And how come the manager, a young man with bad acne in a short-sleeved, lime-green "dress" shirt, can't string two coherent sentences together when he's yelling at his employees? Television makes working in a fast-food restaurant seem like valuable training for bright young people on their way to Congress. In real life one can see that this is where our society warehouses the undereducated and the less fortunate—condemning them to a life of struggle on a minimum wage.

Then, of course, there is the food. Television makes fast-food burgers seem the size of Mount Olympus, sizzling off the grill and topped with a mound of carefully-placed condiments. The real thing—haphazardly thrown together, mushed into a paper wrapper or Styrofoam box, and then left to rot on a warming tray—is quite a different story. Is this what people come in here for, I always wonder? Or are they on a never-ending search for that perfect burger they see on the television screen?

It's been so long since I've visited Wendy or Ronald or the Colonel that I thought it might be time to reeducate myself on the fast-food industry. No, I'm not going to try out any of the food, but I thought a little research might be in order. Here are some of the things I found:

  • For his marvelously entertaining documentary Super Size Me, director Morgan Spurlock ate nothing but McDonald's' food for thirty days. The result? He gained more than 20 pounds and stressed his liver to the brink of failure.
  • A lot of people seem to be just like Morgan. Seven percent of the US population visits McDonald's each day, and 20 to 25 percent eat in some kind of fast-food restaurant.
  • Research has shown that children consume an average of 126 more calories on days when they eat at a fast-food restaurant. That difference would translate into a weight gain of 13 pounds in one year.
  • In 2003, the CDC declared obesity the most important public-health issue in the United States. Two-thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese. Obesity increases the risk for type 2 diabetes, and children and teenagers are contracting this "adult-onset" diabetes at a rapidly increasing pace. In Texas, we may have the first generation in which the parents will have longer life expectancies than their kids, as obese children who develop diabetes before 14 years of age can expect their lifespan to be reduced by 17 to 29 years.
  • McDonald's likes children as customers very much. So much so that it has become the largest private operator of playgrounds in the U.S. In some urban areas McDonald's may be the only safe place in the neighborhood for children to play.
  • Fast-food companies do have their good side. McDonald's corporation contributed $5 million to the victims of hurricane Katrina. While that seems very generous, the gift amounts to less than 0.13% of the $3.9 billion in cash the company generated from its operations last year.
  • Money buys influence, and occasionally makes for strange bedfellows. Among the people making pitches on the McDonald's website are Bob Greene, Oprah Winfrey's personal trainer (Hey, wasn't it Oprah who swore on national television she'd never eat another hamburger?), and Dean Ornish, MD (Isn't he the same guy who's been preaching a near-vegan diet to eliminate heart attacks?!). Go figure.
  • One of the main reasons people flock to fast food, of course, is that it is an inexpensive way to get lots of calories. If I were so inclined (I'm not) I could satisfy my daily caloric needs with McDonald's hamburgers for $21.06 a day. To get that same number of calories from organic greens (let's say kale) at my local farmers' market I'd have to pay about $61.00!

    How come hamburgers bought at a new restaurant with a 2-story built-in playground are only about 1/3 the price of greens bought off the back of an old truck in a parking lot? Lower materials costs, less overhead, easier production, lower advertising budget? Nah. Subsidies, cheap wages, massive scale of production, and even more subsidies? Yup.

In this case, though, you get what you pay for. The relatively expensive kale would have hugely less saturated fat, more protein, and less than half the sodium of the hamburgers. It would also have 45 times the calcium, 191 times the vitamin C and a whopping 34,739 times the vitamin A!

The world of fast food is indeed fascinating. But if you don't mind, I think I'll continue to study it from afar. I'll be in the parking lot, eating my kale.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Expecting Too Much

When I woke up this morning Jack was sitting on my pillow. Jack is the tiny guy with the green hair and chartreuse pants who lives in the back of my head. He tries his best to keep me going in the right direction, but as you can imagine, it's often a losing cause.

"You have a column due," Jack said bluntly. "And I bet you have no idea what to write about, do you?"

I pulled the sheet over my head and moaned. "I never know what to write about. My best years of writing are behind me."

"You never had any 'best years'," he said cryptically. "But don't worry—I can help."

"Swell. In that case I'm brushing my teeth."

Jack followed me into the bathroom, suddenly excited with new ideas. "Hey, why don't you write about that long-term vegan friend of yours who took advantage of you and now isn't your friend anymore."

I shook my head. "That's a sad story about a troubled person. Nobody wants to read about that."

"But it teaches an important lesson," Jack said.

"What? That I'm an idiot?"

"More than that, it shows how we vegetarians tend to give one another the benefit of the doubt, the way the public trusts and idolizes sports heroes. But just because we're good in one thing doesn't make us perfect. Vegetarians can have big faults just like anyone else—look at you for example—and maybe we need to stop expecting too much from one another. I think that would make a fine column."

"That might make a paragraph," I countered. "What else do you have?"

"Well, speaking of expecting too much, you could write about that 'health food' grocery store that's promoting veal sales."

"I'd get sued."

"You wouldn't name them. You could just call them Wh*le F**ds, and no one would ever guess their true identity. You could talk about how, just because they sell tofu and organic lettuce, people expect them to be perfect in other ways too. People expect them to have a conscience and behave in a moral fashion, but of course they're only a big corporation and their morality is no greater or less than that of their customers. Then you could talk about how we expect too much from all of our public and governmental institutions. We expect them to lead us, rather than vice versa."

I glared at Jack. He was being way too heavy-handed for 7:00 in the morning. "What else?" I asked as I turned on the shower. "Remember, people don't like it when I get serious."

Jack thought for a moment, and then held up his miniature finger. "You could write about what your friend Sharon was telling you last week—that even as people become more health-conscious and the selection of 'healthy' foods expands rapidly, it's getting harder and harder for true vegetarians, and especially vegans, to find something to eat. People are expecting too much from the foods they buy—relying on magic words like 'organic' and 'healthy' to protect them. It's almost like 'organic' has displaced 'vegetarian'. And when people expect too much from food processors the quality of our food choices is dictated by marketing concerns and gets reduced to the lowest common denominator. 'Organic chicken' and 'organic beef' are replacing vegetarian foods in the diet, and dairy products—as long as they're 'lowfat'—are used with abandon in just about everything. You could write about what a cop-out this is, and how people need to take responsibility for their own diets, rather than expecting that anything they buy from Wh*le F**ds will be good for them."

"I don't know…" I climbed into the hot shower. "If I used the term 'cop-out' in a column, people would laugh at me."

"They laugh at you anyway." Jack bounded into the shower beside me, his tiny legs straddling the drain and the green food color dripping from his hair down into his face. "Listen," he said, hands on his hips. "I've given you three good ideas, and you don't want to use any of them? Don't you think you could string them together and come up with something that could meet your readers' usual low expectations of you?"

I thought about the idea for a second and rejected it. "Nah," I told him. "There's not a column in any of that material."

I put my face under the hot water. It felt great. Maybe if I stayed in the shower long enough a really good idea for a column would hit me. Then again, maybe I was expecting too much.