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Fast Food Nation by Eric Schlosser

Note to teachers

We are what we eat.

In 2000, Americans spent more than $110 billion on fast food. Americans now spend more money on fast food than on higher education, personal computers, computer software, or new cars. We spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, videos, and recorded music-combined. The story of fast food is the story of postwar America. It is a main ingredient of your students’ lives.

Though created by a handful of mavericks, the fast food industry has

  • triggered the homogenization of our culture
  • hastened the malling of our landscape
  • widened the gap between rich and poor
  • fueled an epidemic of obesity
  • propelled the juggernaut of American cultural imperialism abroad

Through careful research and first-rate reasoning, Eric Schlosser makes these charges stick. Schlosser’s myth-shattering survey takes students to the California subdivisions where the business was born to the industrial corridor along the New Jersey Turnpike where many of fast food’s flavors are concocted. Your students will hang out with the teenagers who make the restaurants run and commune with those unlucky enough to hold America’s most dangerous job-meatpacker. They will travel to Las Vegas where Mikhail Gorbachev delivers a keynote address. With Schlosser as their guide, they will venture to England and Germany to clock the rate at which those countries are becoming fast food nations.

Along the way, Schlosser unearths a trove of fascinating, unsettling truths, from the unholy alliance between fast food and Hollywood to the seismic changes the industry has wrought on food production, popular culture, and real estate. He also uncovers the fast food chains efforts to reel in the youngest, most susceptible consumers and hone the institutionalized exploitation of teenagers and minorities. Schlosser then turns a critical eye toward the hot topic of globalization, a phenomenon launched by fast food. Fast Food Nation is a groundbreaking work of investigation that will show your students how one industry has changed the face of America—and the world.


Questions for Class Discussion

  1. In what ways have centralized purchasing decisions, demand for standardized products, and regimented operating systems—characteristic components of the large fast-food chains—affected the nation’s food supply, its producers and distributors, and our buying and eating habits?
  2. Schlosser quotes Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald’s, as having declared, “We have found out . . . that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists. . . . The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization.” (5) What might be some of the social, economic, political, and personal implications of that attitude?
  3. One of Schlosser’s primary concerns is with the impact of fast food on children and adolescents. What details of that impact does he present? How does the fast-food industry “both feed and feed off the young”? (9) In what ways do the major fast-food chains appeal to, and market to, children? (47f) In what ways have other companies and brands targeted children and young people as a distinct market? What have been some of the consequences of that marketing focus, for the chains themselves and for young people in the United States and in other countries?
  4. Schlosser points out that major corporations financed or sponsored the construction of various Disneyland rides and attractions, maintaining that “the future heralded at Disneyland was one in which every aspect of American life had a corporate sponsor.” (39) Furthermore, he foresees that “the twenty-first [century] will no doubt be marked by a struggle to curtail excessive corporate power.” (261) What examples do you find today of corporations sponsoring or attaching their names to distinctly noncorporate sites and activities? What might be the effect of such sponsorship on our lives and on the attitudes of Americans toward corporations and their activities? How might excessive corporate power be defined or measured, and how might it imperil democratic and personal rights and values?
  5. “In 1993 District 11 in Colorado Springs started a nationwide trend,” writes Schlosser, “becoming the first public school district in the United States to place ads for Burger King in is hallways and on the sides of its school buses.” (51) What are the reasons for and possible consequences of fast-food and popular beverage companies’ placing their ads and their products in schools and on school properties? What arguments might be presented in defense of and in opposition to such practices?
  6. Schlosser tells us that “no other industry in the United States has a workforce so dominated by adolescents” as does the fast-food industry. (68) What are the advantages and disadvantages of this situation for the fast-food companies and for the teenagers who work for them? In what ways are “the immediate needs of the chains and the long-term needs of teenagers . . . fundamentally at odds”? (78) How might those needs be brought into closer agreement?
  7. What are some of the more important implications of the fact that “the fast food industry now employs some of the most disadvantaged members of American society”—that is, recent immigrants, the elderly, the handicapped, and others? What are the advantages to the industry of employing people from these groups? What part in the growth and success of the fast-food chains and America’s food-production companies has been played by the hiring of illegal immigrants in particular? Does employing these people amount to a serious disservice to the nation? Why do you think that the Immigration and Naturalization Service and other government agencies do not take action against the employing companies? What hidden monetary and other costs—to individuals, communities, and American society in general—can you link to the fast-food chains’ hiring and labor practices?
  8. Of John Richard Simplot, “America’s great potato baron,” Schlosser writes that he “displays the contradictory traits that have guided the economic development of the American West, the odd mixture of rugged individualism and a dependence upon public land and resources.” (111) To what extent has that “odd mixture” guided the development of the fast-food industry? What specific examples of rugged individualism wedded to reliance upon public (i.e., government) resources can you identify in the book?
  9. What forces have resulted in the rapid decline of independent American cattlemen, making of them, in Schlosser’s view, “an endangered species”? How has that decline been exacerbated by the fast-food industry? How have political and economic trends and developments over the past twenty years favored the large meatpacking companies to the detriment of independent ranchers? How might the status and stability of independent cattlemen be improved? How would you describe or characterize the greatest threat or competition to these independent ranchers and farmers?
  10. What has been the flavor industry’s role in the growth and popularity of the fast-food chains? Why are the leading flavor manufacturers so important to the fast-food industry? What is the significance of the phrases “natural flavor” and “artificial flavor,” and what are the differences—and similarities—between these two “kinds” of flavor? How do flavor and color additives contribute to the attractions and success of fast-food restaurants? How have you changed your eating habits—or how should you change them—as a result of what you have learned about additives?
  11. In chapter 5, “Why the Fries Taste Good,” Scholsser discusses the various components and processes of “food product design.” What are those components and processes and how to they contribute to the success and failure of specific food products? What food products with which you are familiar have easily identifiable “design” components? Why do you think those components are particularly important?
  12. How significant is it that “a person’s food preferences, like his or her personality, are formed during the first few years of life”? (122) How might this fact be related to the eating habits, food selections, and eating-related problems among America’s children, teenagers, and adults? What do the fast-food chains do to promote the pleasures and reassurances associated with childhood favorites and comforts? Why is it so critically important to instill good eating habits in very young children, including infants?
  13. Schlosser contends that “the industrialization of cattle-raising and meatpacking over the past two decades has completely altered how beef is produced—and the towns that produce it.” (149) How has the “new meatpacking regime” changed beef production, the towns where beef is produced, and the lives of those who work and live in those towns? What economic, social, and political realities have resulted from the meatpacking industry’s efforts to increase productivity, efficiencies, and profits?
  14. What was your reaction to Schlosser’s accounts of the workers at IBP’s Lexington, Nebraska, slaughterhouse and of workers in other slaughterhouses? What factors permit the continuation of the conditions in which these people live and work? What specifics of Schlosser’s characterization of meatpacking as “the most dangerous job in the United States”? (172) give his account immediacy and reality? What might federal and state governments and individuals do to alleviate or eliminate the dangers associated with the industry?
  15. In what ways has “the meatpacking system that arose to supply the nation’s fast food chains . . . proved to be an extremely efficient system for spreading disease”? (196) What aspects of the meatpacking industry have facilitated its capacity for spreading E. coli O157:H7 and other pathogens? What might be the implications of the Centers for Disease Control’s estimate “that more than three-quarters of the food-related illnesses and deaths in the United States are caused by infectious agents that have not yet been identified”? (196) What have the large packinghouses done to prevent the spread of these pathogens? To what extent has Schlosser’s account changed your and your family’s attitude toward and consumption of beef and poultry purchased from supermarkets and fast-food restaurants?
  16. Schlosser contends that throughout the twentieth century the meatpacking industry “has repeatedly denied that problems exist, impugned the motives of its critics, fought vehemently against federal oversight, sought to avoid any responsibility for outbreaks of food poisoning, and worked hard to shift the costs of food safety efforts onto the general public.” (205) What evidence does he present in support of each component of this charge? What ethical questions are raised by the industry’s actions in relation to each component of the charge?
  17. What are the main pluses and minuses of introducing McDonald’s, Burger King, KFC, and other fast-food restaurants—along with “the values, tastes, and industrial practices of the American fast food industry”—in countries around the world? What interpretations might we bring to the McDonald Corporation’s plan for “global realization”? (229)
  18. “No other nation in history has gotten so fat so fast,” Schlosser exclaims. (240) How successful is he in presenting the incidence and seriousness of obesity among American adults and, in particular, among American children? (240f) What links does he present between the dramatic rise of obesity in America and the dramatic increase in the consumption of fast foods, including carbonated soft drinks? What other contributory factors may be involved? What actions taken to combat the rising rate of obesity have you observed? What might each of us do to try to correct what is reported to be an increasingly serious national health menace?
  19. What hopes are held out by ranchers like Dale Lasater and by his successful cattle ranch near Matheson, Colorado? What lessons might his attitude, practices, and working philosophy—“Nature is smart as hell.”—(255) teach us and other food producers and distributors? Why does he find it “hard to justify feeding millions of tons of precious grain to American cattle”? (257) How do the Conways of Colorado Springs’ Red Top Restaurants and the In-N-Out chain offer an alternatives to the food, service standards, and labor practices of the fast-food chains?
  20. What actions by individuals, organizations, communities, and other groups—including the United States Congress and government agencies—does Schlosser call for? (262f) What effects would each likely have on individual consumers, our society, and the fast-food industry?
  21. “Whatever replaces the fast food industry,” the optimistic Schlosser concludes, “should be regional diverse, authentic, unpredictable, sustainable, profitable—and humble.” (288) What indications of this blend do you find in your community? What moderately priced restaurants other than those owned or franchised by fast-food chains are established in your community and how do they prepare and serve food? What can we do to encourage the kinds of restaurants and the quality of food that Schlosser calls for?

Classroom Activities

  1. Construct and maintain a list of the benefits and drawbacks—social, economic, environmental, medical, etc.—that class members associate with fast food and its suppliers. (For example: they might include convenience and cost under benefits, and low pay and health issues under drawbacks.) Determine and discuss which benefits and drawbacks are the most important. Also list possible means of correcting or alleviating the negative aspects of the industry.
  2. What type of employment opportunities are available in your community? Bring in a copy of the local newspaper’s HELP WANTED section. What is the percentage of full- to part-time work? What percentage of the jobs listed provide benefits? Ask the students in the class who work in fast food restaurants what the ratio of non-benefit part-timers is to full-time with benefits employees at his or her restaurant. Does the restaurant provide any benefits to part-timers? Are there opportunities for part-timers to become managers or gain full-time employment with benefits?
  3. Examine the websites of the leading fast-food chains. Prepare reports on how those sites further sales and customer loyalty, especially among children and young people. Include information or analysis of how the sites reflect the philosophy and goals of the companies.
  4. Prepare a display or booklet of examples of fast-food and soda marketing and advertising to young people “through playgrounds, toys, cartoons, movies, videos, charities, and amusement parks, through contests, sweepstakes, games, and clubs, via television, radio, magazines, and the Internet,” (51) and via other advertising venues, including school buses, school cafeterias, classroom teaching materials, and even baby bottles. Wherever possible, include captions and legends indicating the costs and effects of these marketing efforts. Present the display in a location where it may be seen by as many people as possible, or distribute the booklet to as many school and community offices and businesses as possible.
  5. If your school is near a cattle ranch or poultry farm, a food processor (for example: potatoes, beef, poultry), a flavor manufacturer, a food-distribution warehouse, or a fast-food chain headquarters, arrange for a class tour. Lead a class discussion of the results and findings of that tour and/or have each student submit a written report on what she or he learned or discovered during the tour.
  6. Have class members contact the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Department of Labor, the Department of Agricultural, the Justice Department, state and local government officials and agencies, individual fast-food chains, meatpacking and other food-production companies, and/or other relevant government agencies with requests for information on specific aspects of the fast food industry—for example, illegal and migrant workers, enforcement of safety and other regulations, instances and charges of corruption and other illegal activities, environmental violations. As a class, prepare a report (perhaps with sections assigned to individual students or small groups) on the findings.
  7. Prepare a petition, to be presented to your state and federal legislators, including specific instances in which the fast-food industry should be held to greater accountability. Class members should obtain as many signatures as possible—within your school, your community, and your parents’ places of work. Mail or present the petition with appended signatures to the appropriate legislators and other government officials; and follow up with letters, emails, and/or phone calls requesting a response.
  8. Schlosser insists that “the right pressure applied to the fast food industry in the right way could produce change faster than any act of Congress.” (267) Through class discussion, determine what “the right pressure” might be and, individually and as a group, take appropriate action; and encourage other classes in your school and groups in your community to do the same.

Assignments

  1. Read another book or trade journal having to do with the American diet, the fast-food industry, farming practices, food production and preparation practices, or a topic relevant to or bearing upon Eric Schlosser’s arguments in Fast Food Nation. (The book or journal need not be one in the “Additional Reading” list included in this guide or one included in Schlosser’s bibliography.) Prepare a brief report comparing the two books in terms of primary arguments, themes, and concerns.
  2. Schlosser notes that “the values, the culture, and the industrial arrangements of our fast food nation are now being exported to the rest of the world.” (10) Research in newspapers, magazines, and broadcast transcripts and videos instances of the appearance of fast-food suppliers in other countries, the impact on, and reactions within, those countries, and the values and cultural components that seem prominent.
  3. Monitor several hours of Saturday-morning children’s programs, on several channels, and record the instances in which fast food is mentioned, shown, associated with characters, and associated with programs (either as content or advertiser). As a class, compile the findings and prepare an overall report on the impact of fast food on children’s entertainment.
  4. Write an account of a visit to a fast-food restaurant and a description of a meal there using only the correct technical/scientific terms for the ingredients in the items included in that meal. For example, rather than saying, “I had a Big Mac,” describe each component of the Big Mac in terms of its ingredients (including flavors and aromas).
  5. Research and report on the operations of ConAgra Foods, IBP (now Tyson Fresh Meats), Tyson Foods, or one of the other vegetable or meat suppliers mentioned by Schlosser. Include in the report a list of the brands produced and distributed by the company you choose. Also include a statement of what you learned from your research concerning the production and distribution of foods we eat every day.
  6. Research and report on the use of illegal immigrants as low-paid workers in fast-food restaurants and/or in the food production and distribution industries.
  7. Research and report on the history of United States government regulations concerning meatpacking, worker safety, health issues, or another aspect of fast-food production, distribution, or quality. Pay particular attention to industry efforts to avoid, control, negate, or disregard regulations and the consequences.
  8. Request information from, and report on, your state and federal legislators regarding their positions and actions in regard to the regulatory, labor, health, and other key issues raised in Fast Food Nation.

Additional Reading

Among the numerous appropriate and applicable books available having to do with the issues that Schlosser raises, the following will perhaps be particularly interesting or important for junior and senior high-school students.

Beyond Beef: The Rise and Fall of the Cattle Culture. Jeremy Rifkin. Penguin Books, 1993
Captive Kids: A Report on Commercial Pressures on Kids at School. Consumers Union Education Services. Consumers Union, 1998
Big Mac: The Unauthorized Story of McDonald’s. Max Boas & Steve Chain. Dutton, 1976
Coming Home to Eat: The Pleasures and Politics of Local Foods. Gary Paul Nabhan. Norton, 2001
Eat Your Heart Out: Food Profiteering in America. Jim Hightower. Crown Publishers, 1975
Ensuring Safe Food: From Production to Consumption. National Academy Press, 1998
Fast Food: Roadside Restaurants in the Automobile Age. John A Jackle & Keith A Sculle. University of California Press, 2002
Fast Food Facts: The Original Guide for Fitting Fast Food into a Healthy Lifestyle, 5th Edition. Marion J Franz. International Diabetes Center, 1997
Fatland: How Americans Became the Fattest People in the World. Greg Critser. Houghton Mifflin, 2004
Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health. Marion Nestle. University of California Press, 2003
It Was Probably Something You Ate: A Practical Guide to Avoiding and Surviving Foodborne Illness. Penguin Books, 1999
The Jungle. (1906) Uptown Sinclair. Bantam Books, 1981
McDonald’s: Behind the Arches. John F Love, 1995
Protecting Youth at Work: Health, Safety, and Development of Working Children and Adolescents in the United States. National Academy of Sciences. National Academy Press, 1998
Report on the Youth Labor Force. U.S. Department of Labor, June 2000
Restaurant Confidential. Michael F Jacobson & Jayne Hurley. Center for Science in the Public Interest/Workman Publishing, 2002
Roadside Empires: How the Chains Franchised America. Stan Luxenberg. Viking, 1985
Sacrificing America’s Youth: The Problem of Child Labor and the Response of Government. National Safe Workplace Institute, 1992
Slaughterhouse: The Shocking Story of Greed, Neglect, and Inhuman Treatment Inside the U.S. Meat Industry. Gail A Eisnitz. Prometheus Books, 1997
What Kids Buy and Why. by Dan S. Acuff. Free Press, 1997
The World Is Not for Sale: Farmers against Junk Food José Bové & François Dufour. Verso Books, 2002


Online Resources
While numerous organizations and Websites are sources for information regarding pros and cons of fast food and fast-food restaurants, the following may be of particular interest or importance. The Websites of the various fast-food chains, meat and poultry companies, and other business may, of course, be accessed via search-engine searches on their names.

  • American Academy of Pediatrics. www.aap.org “The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and its member pediatricians dedicate their efforts and resources to the health, safety and well-being of infants, children, adolescents and young adults.”
  • American Forum: Fast-Food History. www.globaled.org/curriculum/ffood.html Seven class activities, complete with objectives and procedures, related to the history, production, ingredients, and effects of fast food.
  • American Meat Institute. www.meatami.org “. . . the nation’s oldest and largest meat and poultry trade association . AMI is dedicated to increasing the efficiency, profitability and safety of meat and poultry trade worldwide.”
  • Beef Industry Food Safety Council. www.bifsco.org “Brings together representatives from all segments of the beef industry to develop industry-wide, science-based strategies to solve the problem of E. coli O157:H7 and other food borne pathogens in beef.”
  • Beverage Industry. www.bevindustry.com “Up-to-date information on current business and marketing initiatives, distribution, production, ingredients, packaging and technology. . . . addresses critical issues and opportunities facing the beverage marketplace, and provides solutions about how to ensure future growth and profitability.”
  • Bureau of Labor Statistics. www.bls.gov “. . . the principal fact-finding agency for the Federal Government in the broad field of labor economics and statistics. . . . With the strongest commitment to integrity and objectivity, the BLS will be premier among statistical agencies, producing impartial, timely, and accurate data relevant to the needs of our users and to the social and economic conditions of our Nation, its workers, its workplaces, and the workers’ families.”
  • Center for Science in the Public Interest . www.cspinet.org “… a consumer advocacy organization whose twin missions are to conduct innovative research and advocacy programs in health and nutrition, and to provide consumers with current, useful information about their health and well-being.”
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. www.cdc.gov “The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is recognized as the lead federal agency for protecting the health and safety of people – at home and abroad, providing credible information to enhance health decisions, and promoting health through strong partnerships.”
  • National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. www.cdc.gov/niosh/homepage.html