Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Fast Food Nation

I finished reading Fast Food Nation, by Eric Schlosser, last week. Several of my students last semester told me I should read it. They were reading it for an English class (hooray for their instructors for choosing such an applicable book!) and they knew that the book would get me going. I hadn't bothered to pick it up yet, but while in California last weekend, my friend Suzanne also thought I should read it and gave me her copy. I think the book was originally published back in 2001, and it kind of makes me sick that I didn't read it earlier. Just seeing how my family's buying habits have changed over the past six months, I know that if I had read the book earlier, it would have piqued my interest sooner and changed our family's consumption sooner. In order to maintain some sanity, I'm going to have to stick with the "better late than never" attitude.

Most of the information in Fast Food Nation was a repeat of what I've learned elsewhere -- very little of it was news to me. But, the way it was packaged was much different. The author, Schlosser, looks at the topic of industrialized food from a more political perspective than other books I've read on the same subject. His solution to the industrialization of our food is increased government regulation. If you know much about my political beliefs, you'll know how much that bothered me. I kept reading the book because it seemed like he had to find a better solution than increasing government regulations on slaughterhouses, advertising agencies, and fast food companies. For example, the government strictly regulates slaughterhouses already (although they way they do it is really screwed up) and it hasn't made slaughterhouses a safer place to work or a more humane killing machine for the animals we eat. The only way slaughterhouses have been made better is from McDonald's demanding it. Schlosser acknowledged the problems inherent in government regulation throughout the book, leaving me shouting at the book the same way that I shout at the TV. "Government regulation isn't the answer!!" I would yell. "The people have to rise up and demand change! Long live the free market system!!" Unfortunately, Mr. Schlosser wasn't actually present to engage me in debate. So instead, I looked to my sweet husband who ends up being the target of my ongoing food rants.

Scott's response was this (I've tried to restate it more diplomatically for this public forum): the majority of Americans are either too poor, too uninformed, or too blissfully ignorant to demand changes in the American food system. I tried to find ways to refute his statement, but couldn't really think of any appropriate evidence, even anecdotal, to counter him. Granted, I'm not much of a debater and I know that. Still, it was disappointing to me that I couldn't find a way to tell him that he's wrong.

At the very end of the book, Schlosser agreed that the only way to really change the American food system is through consumer demand. Somewhere in the book, he said something like, "McDonald's has the world's biggest shopping cart, so when they demand a change, their suppliers listen." I shudder when I imagine what positive changes could befall our country, our environment, our health, our medical system, our food industry if Americans suddenly stopped buying meat off of supermarket shelves. Our collective shopping cart is even bigger than McDonald's. I know such a change will never happen -- at least not that way. I know that my vision is a dream, a hope, maybe a hallucination. Still, when I think of how things would change if Americans demanded it, I get all teary-eyed and patriotic. Isn't that a weird thing to be patriotic about? I do think that we're a powerful group of people...when we work together. But then there's the little devil sitting on my shoulder (I mean, the big hunky husband sitting in my kitchen) who tells me that it won't happen.

This defeated attitude is where I was sitting this morning when I got my daily Mercola email. Usually I just skim the headlines of my Mercola email and then delete the email. Today, though, there was this article called The Rise of the Eat Locally Locavore and I couldn't help but open it up and read it. The article is encouraging and brought me a ways out of my husband-induced haze. But, Mercola does get realistic in his comments at the end, saying that although we're making progress toward changing the industrialized food system, we've still got quite a ways to go. He also includes some really helpful links for people looking for a local farmer's market, CSA, and non-factory-farmed meat.

What I've found as I've changed my family's consumer habits is that, in the end, it really isn't that hard to make a change that at first seems daunting. Yes, it took me a while to figure out where I could buy meat and no, we haven't had chicken more than three times in the past six months. But, we're not spending more money on food than we did before -- although we were already buying premium (but still mostly factory farmed) meat. We're paying the same for our meat as we used to, but we're eating less of it because it isn't as convenient to get grass-fed, pastured meat. We are spending significantly more on dairy than we did before, but we're also drinking significantly less milk. We are spending less on eating out than we used to because there just aren't a lot of places where we can eat and feel good about it. We still go to Chipotle (I think it's the only chain we visit and we only eat the veggie option and the carnitas) and we eat at a few local restaurants where we have vegetarian options or seafood, plus one local burger joint that uses local ground beef from a small slaughterhouse, fresh potatoes, and buns from a local bakery.

Six months into some pretty big consumer changes, I'm feeling really optimistic about the inroads that we've made. We're only giving our money to organizations and families that we feel good about. The majority of our food budget goes to small, local farms, ranches, and restaurants. We still buy a few products from ginormous companies like P&G (I can't give up Charmin), Kraft (we accidentally bought some chocolate made by Kraft Foods Belgium), and General Mills (can't avoid Cheerios) but for the most part, we've taken our money (and our power) elsewhere. I know that we're only one family, but I hope that as we make these changes, other families are making similar changes, too. Alone, our little family can't cause much of a difference. Together, and over time, we can accomplish change.


Kate (Pikes Peak Parent) said...

Out of curiosity, why do you only eat the veggie and carnitas options at Chipotle? All of their meat is humanely raised with no antibiotics and vegetarian feed. Is there something I don't know?

Hillary Dickman said...

Hi, Kate!

We don't eat the chicken or beef at Chipotle for a few reasons. The first is that we just think the pork is spectacular -- both in taste and in how it is raised. The second is because the beef and chicken are both feedlot-raised, whereas the pork is pastured when weather allows or raised in large barns with lots of space for foraging when the weather is bad. The chickens, on the other hand, are indoors eating chicken feed for their whole lives (instead of scratching in the dust and eating worms, bugs, and grass like chickens are supposed to) and the cows are "grain finished" on feedlots. We try to only eat pastured, grass-fed beef, pastured chicken, and pastured pork.

Conway's Red Top is the only restaurant we make an exception for, since the beef is from a small, local operation that is more likely to maintain high standards of animal care and cleanliness. My husband and I both take the view that if cows are being fed grain, it's nearly impossible to raise them humanely, since cows are rumens and were not designed to digest grain. Grain in a rumen can cause bloating, pain, even death, in addition to fostering the spread of e. coli, especially in modern feedlot operations.

I actually had a long email conversation with a guy at Chipotle's hq's about this issue. He said that their ideal is to offer grass-fed beef, but the supply is not currently available and he thinks it will take at least 25 years before they could supply all of their stores with grass-fed beef. Chicken is nearly impossible to raise on pasture for any large operation like Chipotle. It's labor-intensive, subject to weather and predators, and difficult to maintain.

I think that Chipotle's beef and chicken options are the best available at a chain anywhere in this country, but their pork is held to an even higher standard than their beef or chicken Plus, it tastes DElicious! For us, it's mostly about choosing the best possible option.

Thanks for asking!