BERKELEY — On a gorgeous spring morning, Eric Schlosser, investigative journalist and author of "Fast Food Nation" — the expose of the fast-food industry and how it manipulates customers to buy food that isn't good for them — is speaking to his latest audience: preteens and teenagers. Schlosser's new book, "Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food," has just come out, and he and co-author Charles Wilson are testing the waters, giving a presentation to 600 kids at Martin Luther King Middle School.
It may be a case of preaching to the converted. This is, after all, Berkeley, where hope for a better future springs eternal. And Martin Luther King is the flagship, the model for the Edible Schoolyard, activist-chef Alice Waters' revolutionary program to change the nature of public school lunches and the relationship of students to food. Above the basketball courts, in the school's 1-acre garden, eighth-graders learn about pollination and help to build trellises. In the brightly colored kitchen, sixth-graders make chapatis.
"Chew on This" is not a book about what kids should or shouldn't eat. Schlosser and Wilson are smart enough to know that the last thing any 14-year-old wants is someone telling her what to do. Rather, the book tries to help kids make more responsible choices about food, as well as about the corporations their valuable dollars support. The authors want their readers to understand how they are targeted by fast-food companies to buy food that is not only unhealthy (and produced from animals who live in cruel and disgusting conditions) but is also often processed by other teenagers working 16-hour days for low pay without benefits.
The authors are not afraid to play the gross-out card. "Chew on This" contains photos of slaughterhouses, of cattle surrounded by their own feces and urine, of the black teeth of Eskimo children nursed on soda, of human aortas covered in scaly yellow trans-fats and of 350-pound teenagers who undergo gastric bypass surgery. One particularly ominous photo shows a child lying on an MRI table as part of a fast-food industry focus group; Schlosser and Wilson include it to illustrate the neuromarketing techniques used to identify brand-recognition responses in kids and create "loyal" customers.
The facts are alarming: One out of six American children (about 50 million) suffers from obesity. Six to seven million are morbidly obese (more than 100 pounds overweight). Many of these kids eat at least a meal a day in a fast-food restaurant. And if they don't buy it there, they get it for lunch at school. Forty-three percent of our elementary schools, 74% of our middle schools and 98% of our high schools have soda machines or snack bars that serve junk food (last week, the soda industry agreed to end nearly all soda sales in public schools); 19,000 public schools (one out of five in the U.S.) sell brand-name fast foods. Some schools, such as Arroyo High School in San Lorenzo, Calif., sell exclusive cafeteria rights to a single fast-food chain — in this case, Burger King.
In 2005, Americans spent $134 billion on fast food, more than on college education, personal computers or even new cars. That same year, McDonald's changed its menu to include salads and fresh fruit. But Schlosser, a regular correspondent to the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and Atlantic Monthly — and an ex-Big Mac devotee — says this is not enough. "These companies," he tells an adult audience later, "are aggressively targeting poor people with food that is cheap because of government subsidies for the meatpacking industry, corn and other crops, and federal government loans for fast-food franchises. It may be cheap, but it doesn't include the cost of dialysis."
In response to "Chew on This" and the newly released film version of "Fast Food Nation," directed by Richard Linklater and starring Patricia Arquette, Ethan Hawke and Avril Lavigne, McDonald's sent documents, obtained by the Wall Street Journal, to franchisees and restaurant managers outlining plans to mobilize a "truth squad" to "tell the real story" and to "discredit the message and the messenger."
"A truth squad?" Schlosser told the Guardian in an April 15 story. "That sounds like the Taliban or something." Before a recent presentation at a school in West Los Angeles (Schlosser will not say which one), protesters from the Center for Individual Freedom and the Liberty Institute passed out leaflets and sent e-mails to administrators, urging them not to let Schlosser appear. (Schlosser is often accused of underestimating personal responsibility when it comes to health issues.) Though he doesn't know who engineered the protests, Schlosser does acknowledge that the meatpacking and fast-food industries can be tough on detractors. Thin and neat, with the intense attention of someone who believes, despite the odds, that an idea, a conversation, a book can change a country or a corporation, no matter how deeply entrenched the profit motive, he was, early in his writing life, deeply inspired by Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle." "I have a great dedication to truth," he says, "strengthened by the fear of losing everything I own."
Schlosser, who has two kids, a boy 13 and a girl 15, has written almost exclusively about worker safety, food safety, obesity and sustainability. (A new book, about prisons, will be out this fall.) At the same time, he makes a particular effort not to approach the issues in an elitist or judgmental way. "It's not good to be pejorative about these jobs," he says. "People clearly need them."
At the same time, Wilson suggests, it's important to affect the ways individuals think. "We respect the intelligence of children," he says, recalling his own youthful memories of reading about kids who questioned not just authority but received ideas also. "When they get older, they are going to be in a position to change things. For now, we want them to think about their eating habits and have a sustainable life."
In the auditorium at Martin Luther King Middle School, some kids clap and some boo when a picture of Ronald McDonald comes up on the screen. There is roaring laughter at a photo of a hill of excrement behind a feedlot for 100,000 cattle, but silence at the 300-pound teenager.
A boy in a hooded sweatshirt is doubled over and seems to be having trouble staying awake. "I just ate there this morning," he says when the authors run a vintage McDonald's ad designed to make kids think hamburgers grow in patches and apple pies on trees. "I am so angry," says a sixth-grade girl. "I will never eat there again."
After the presentation, Esther Cook, one of six full-time employees who run the school's garden and kitchen, prepares to teach a class. The Edible Schoolyard, which started at Martin Luther King 10 years ago, makes lunch for 350 students a week. It is funded by the Chez Panisse Foundation's Benefit for School Lunch Initiative. Cook radiates health and hope and love of children.
"We try to stress pleasure," she says, tying her apron. "And we try to teach them that they have a voice; they can change things. Kids are really sensual, they love to get their hands dirty. And they work hard; they want to do things themselves. They take what they learn here home. They cook for their families. It's so much more satisfying than using a microwave."
That evening, at a presentation to the parents of Martin Luther King Middle School, Alice Waters introduces Schlosser and Wilson. "We can bring children into a new relationship with food," she says.
After the talk, Waters, a small, fierce, dark-eyed woman, reiterates her belief that children can prevail against the corporate message machine. "We are in a crisis in this country — a health, environment, cultural crisis. Everyone's eating the values along with the food. We can breathe life into these public schools. We've done it right here. We have to bring parents and children back to their senses. We feed our children the worst food. That is so perverse. We have to educate ourselves and our children. We have to teach people how to come around a table and eat again.
"I just came back from New Orleans," Waters continues, "where we are starting up some edible schoolyard gardens and lunch programs. It was like the '60s. There was no bureaucracy, no resistance. We got the funding, we got the principals and the heads of the local farmers markets on board and boom — change."
As a journalist and not an activist, Schlosser is more cautious by temperament, but he is equally hopeful in his own way. "The fundamental role of any society is to protect its children," he says. "I am a great believer in personal responsibility. But I also believe in corporate responsibility. I write these books so people can be informed."