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.

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