Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal tells the story of how the United States—and, increasingly, the world—has become shaped and defined by the fast food industry. From its origins in the new suburbs of California in the 1950s, fast food has spread across every corner of the nation and profoundly altered the way American food is produced, sold, and consumed. The rise of fast food has negatively impacted American life, through manipulative marketing aimed at children, exploitative labor practices, the destruction of American family farms, lax food safety standards, and a national epidemic of obesity. Below are some of the key themes and topics from Fast Food Nation.
Fast food began in the early 1950s in Southern California, which experienced a massive population growth in the years following World War Two. This population growth also occurred at a time when rates of automobile ownership were rising, causing the region to be heavily shaped by the car. LA’s low-density, detached-home model of growth was ideally suited for the burgeoning fast food industry, as motorists could drive through for a quick meal as they passed by the restaurants (conveniently located off the new freeways).
In the 1950s in San Bernardino, the McDonald brothers implemented a standardized system of food preparation that increased speed, lowered prices, and boosted sales. Food preparation was divided into separate jobs done by different workers, eliminating the need for skilled and expensive short-order cooks. This was the importation of assembly line principles into a commercial kitchen. The business model was a runaway success, enabling McDonald’s to save labor costs and undercut their competition.
A businessman named Ray Kroc witnessed the success of the McDonald’s system and saw that it could be replicated on a national scale. He partnered with the McDonald brothers and began opening new franchises across the country, eventually buying them out in 1961. He established the chain’s core values—Quality, Service, Cleanliness, and Value—and understood the need to create a wholesome, clean, All-American image for McDonald’s. Critically, he understood that children would be the chain’s most valuable customers and directed the bulk of its marketing at them.
Because kids exert a strong influence over what adults purchase, marketers know that kids can be powerful surrogate salespeople for their products—and no one has internalized this lesson better than the fast food industry. They aggressively market to children, through television advertisements featuring bright and colorful mascots, on-site playgrounds, and cross-promotional campaigns with toy companies and film studios. The most famous example of the latter is the Happy Meal, within which McDonald’s packages the hottest children’s toys as a “free” promotion. Major toy crazes like Pokemon cards, Beanie Babies, Tamogotchis, and Cabbage Patch Kids have all been boosted by synergistic fast food tie-ins.
Perhaps most insidiously, fast food chains have even brokered deals with school districts, enabling them to promote their high-fat, high-sugar products directly to children through bus and hallway advertisements, endorsement deals, and even direct provision of school lunches.
By minimizing the level of human skill that goes into food preparation, fast food chains have at their disposal a workforce that is cheap, easy to replace, and easily controlled. And they are...
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Most Americans have eaten fast food at some time or another in their lives. As the reach of major fast food chains like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Burger King, and Taco Bell has extended across the planet, the same can increasingly be said of most people around the world. As it has done so, fast food has come to stand as a hallmark of our civilization and our time. Just as we ponder the amphorae and marble ruins of the ancient Romans, so may future scholars study the discarded Big Mac wrappers and golden-arched fast food restaurants of our culture.
For indeed, food is one of the defining traits of a culture—it shows how we live, how our economy functions, how our political institutions operate, and what we value and prioritize as a society. Since its rise in the postwar United States, **fast food has worked its way deep into the fabric of America’s social, economic, educational, and political...
The fast food industry has its roots in the risk-taking, unconventional ideas of a handful of entrepreneurs. A combination of US public policy choices and broader macroeconomic trends fostered an ideal business climate in Southern California for their success and laid the groundwork for an economic transformation of the region—one that would eventually become the prototype for the rest of the country. Taxpayer-funded irrigation projects and publicly subsidized highways were drawing people to California in droves, laying the groundwork for a mass consumer-driven retail economy (powered by the ease and convenience of the automobile) that California would export to the other 49 states.
This population explosion was also driven by another stream of federal investment in Southern California—defense spending. During World War Two and the years immediately following, the US government pumped nearly $20 billion into California, building airplane factories, steel mills, military bases, and naval ports. During the war years alone, federal spending accounted for approximately half of Southern Californians’ personal income.
If the old cities of the East Coast were shaped by the...
The McDonald brothers may have started the company and given it its famous name, but their vision for it was relatively limited. They were content being regionally successful restaurant entrepreneurs, making approximately $100,000 per year (by no means a small sum in the mid-1950s). They did not see the global potential of what they had created—that vision was Ray Kroc’s.
Kroc was an unlikely individual to emerge as one of the leading figures in a new and rising industry that was largely driven by youth culture. When he first visited the McDonald’s Self-Service Restaurant in 1954, he was already in his fifties, with a largely unremarkable career as a travelling salesman behind him.
Seeing the potential of the McDonald’s system and how it could be replicated on a national (and eventually global) scale, Kroc seized the opportunity. He bought from the McDonald brothers the right to franchise McDonald’s nationwide. Taken at face value, this deal was appealing to the brothers—they could stay at home and count their money while Kroc travelled across the country promoting the brand and taking most of the risks. But Kroc would determine the ultimate direction and shape of...
The fast food industry has standardized, commodified, and homogenized the skillset of the country’s labor force. Going back to the early days of the McDonald brothers’ “Speedee Service” system, fast food has employed a low-skill, low-wage system of labor that keeps costs—and therefore, consumer prices—to a minimum. By minimizing the level of human skill that goes into food preparation, fast food leaders have at their disposal a workforce that is cheap, easy to replace, and easily controlled.
And they are always finding new ways to keep their employees from gaining any leverage in the workplace. Automatic condiment dispensers, robotic sensors at drive-throughs, digitized timers for cooking french fries, and other technological innovations ensure that McDonald’s and other fast food giants get maximum efficiency out of their employees, with paychecks as low as possible.
Anyone who’s been inside a fast food restaurant can’t help but notice that the workers behind the counter are disproportionately young—often teenagers.
(Shortform note: According to _[The...
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Think about how fast food’s practices might have impacted your life.
Have you ever felt exploited by an employer? If so, describe the situation in a few sentences.
Because fast food was so successful, its labor practices have been exported throughout the food service industry and up the supply chain to farmers, ranchers, and meatpackers. So much food in America is no longer a product of artisanal craftsmanship, created by a skilled cook—it is a manufactured, mass-produced commodity.
In this chapter, we’re going further up the supply chain. We’re going to explore how the economics of the fast food industry have reshaped American agriculture, examine where your fries really come from, and why they taste the way they do.
It’s hard to tell the story of fast food’s meteoric success without telling the story of the french fry. And it’s hard to do that without telling the story of John Richard Simplot, America’s potato king.
Born in 1909, his family moved to Idaho shortly after he was born to establish a farm (made possible thanks to government-funded irrigation projects and free public land). Leaving the family’s homestead at 15, he went into the potato industry. His business grew throughout the 1920s and 1930s as he forged relationships with commodities brokers and farmers all over the country. By 1941, he was the largest...
In the last chapter, we examined how cattle ranchers are exploited by the demands of the fast food giants and the major meatpackers. In this chapter, we’ll explore how workers (and animals) inside those meatpacking facilities are similarly harmed by the inhumane system of food production that fast food has wrought.
Meatpacking, once a heavily unionized, high-skill, and well-paying profession, has been transformed into a dangerous and low-paying job performed by some of the most vulnerable and easily exploited members of American society.
Modern American meatpacking got its start with a man named Warren Montfort. Montfort realized that there were major advantages to feeding cattle grain instead of grass (which had been the standard up to that point)—the meat was fattier and more tender and could be eaten within days after slaughter. On top of that, New Deal-era agricultural subsidies made grain an inexpensive food for livestock. He became a major figure in the cattle-feeding industry. In 1960, he decided to go into the slaughtering business, opening a small slaughterhouse in the town of Greeley, Colorado. At this time, these were still high-paying...
Think more deeply about what goes into your fast food meal.
Why do you think the major fast food chains have such a powerful economic grip over the nation’s food producers?
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In 1906, Upton Sinclair wrote The Jungle, which shocked the conscience (and turned the stomach) of the nation by exposing audiences to the dangerous and unsanitary conditions in America’s slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants. Scenes that depicted tubercular hogs being led to slaughter and workers being maimed and killed on the job (and then packed into sausages) revolted and outraged readers at the dawn of the 20th century. The novel inspired the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, which was tasked with ensuring nationwide food-safety standards.
If Upton Sinclair were alive today, he would be aghast at conditions in today’s meatpacking industry and marvel at how little has changed. The meat you see at your local supermarket (or in your Big Mac) gives little hint of the gruesome and dangerous process behind how it got there.
Truly disturbing scenes await those who visit a slaughterhouse—or the workers who toil in them. Decapitated cattle carcasses. Organs yanked out of dead animals with bare hands. Ankle-deep pools of blood. Workers severing the carotid arteries of dead cows. All of this is just part of the scenery on a typical...
Beyond its exploitative labor practices at every level of the supply chain, fast food has also proven an ideal vector for the spread of foodborne pathogens into America’s food system. Because of the fast food industry’s demands for highly centralized production and enormous scale, tainted meat (particularly the ground beef used in hamburgers) processed at one meatpacking plant can cause a nationwide epidemic of food poisoning—with tragic and deadly consequences.
Outbreaks of E. coli, a virulent pathogen primarily found in beef, have become far more common since the rise of fast food. One 1997 outbreak was traced to a single plant in Nebraska that had been built to supply ground beef to Burger King, resulting in the nationwide recall of 35 million pounds of meat (25 million of which had already been eaten). Most of the other major foodborne pathogens like Salmonella, Listeria, and Clostridium are caused by animal feces making it into the meat we eat.
Foodborne pathogens cause more than just an upset stomach. They can lead to heart disease, neurological disorders, kidney damage, and even death. And they’re becoming more common and more widespread...
Fast food began in Southern California as a quintessentially American product, boosted by US postwar prosperity and powered by the nation’s growing rates of automobile ownership, highway construction, and suburban sprawl. From these roots, the industry expanded to take over the rest of the country. But it hasn’t stopped there: fast food is now available in almost every country on the planet. Through this global conquest, it has reshaped how the entire world eats and lives.
The collapse of the Soviet Union, beginning with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and ending in the final dissolution of the superpower state in 1991, was a dramatic moment in world history. All across Central and Eastern Europe, people took to the streets, refused to obey the orders of Soviet police and military officers, overthrew puppet Communist governments, and participated in free democratic elections for the first time ever. Little did they know that the fall of the Soviet empire would signal the rise of another: that of fast food.
**Just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, McDonald’s announced that it planned to open a location in...
Think through how the world can push back against the fast food chains.
Do you think fast food chains should be held responsible for the violations committed by the meatpacking plants and slaughterhouses that supply them? Explain why or why not.
It seems like fast food is an unstoppable force as it reshapes communities and cultures, forces workers into exploitative relationships, contributes to global health problems, and despoils the environment. However, there are concrete steps that workers, activists, and elected officials can take to bring the industry to heel.
Explore the main ideas in Fast Food Nation.
Do you eat fast food? If so, will reading this summary change that? Explain why or why not in a few sentences.