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Fast Food Confessions

January 15th, 1999

When I was a little girl, my Mom would buy one six-pack of Coke each week. There were six of us in the family (four kids) and each of us got to drink one coke per week. While there was a set limit about how many we could have, there was some freedom in that we could basically drink the one can anytime we wanted. (Maybe not any time — my Mom was so scary we probably never attempted a morning Coke or a just-before-bed coke.)

Until the time I was in my 20’s, a small coke at a fast food restaurant was still, well, small. I am truly amazed at the amount of pop we consume as a people and particularly at the serving size of soft drinks. Big Gulp? What’s that about?

Okay, so I don’t drink a lot of soda, but I am a fast food junkie. This is a fairly difficult confession to make, since so many of my friends are good healthy eaters and/or real food snobs.

Some of my favorite childhood memories involve visits to McDonald’s. When my parents were going out and we had a baby-sitter, we either got TV dinners (another favorite – I loved the meatloaf dinner with green beans, tater tots and brownie) or McDonald’s. It’s funny to think of this now because we would drive all the way downtown to buy the dinner and schlep it all the way home before eating it, all the while the scent of the french fries (which we were sneaking) driving us to distraction. Today I wouldn’t even consider transporting fast food to a faraway more civilized locale. You eat it straight up, hot and steamy right in the car or standing in John Wayne Airport or walking in Penn Station. Fast food is delivered fast and consumed fast.

The long way home from McDonald’s to our house meant that the fries were always cold. This must be why one of my very favorite childhood memories is of Stacy Mason and me riding our bikes downtown expressly to get an order of french fries so hot they would burn the top of our mouths. We would each buy a bag (when a “regular fries” was the size that the “happy meal” fries are today) and savor each one, blowing on it, anxious to cool it enough to eat. The fries are so good that after the little french fry sleeve is empty you always hold out hope that there might be just one more in the bottom of the bag – one that slipped out of the little sleeve and is hiding under the napkin. Does everyone eat fast food fries with the same frenzy that I do? With the impending fear that they are about to run out? I doubt that Stacy still eats McDonald’s fries. I think she eats pretty nutritiously.

Here’s a confession for you: When I first moved to San Francisco I actually looked up fast food restaurants in the phone book. I hunted down Jack in the Box and Kentucky Fried Chicken that way (and got to know neighborhoods I hadn’t yet discovered.) I also, at different times, sought out Denny’s, Sizzler and the International House of Pancakes. (I can’t believe how pathetic this sounds.)

They say that fast food is addictive and I have often heard that McDonald’s puts sugar in their buns and their fries and more in their ketchup than others do and that all that sugar ensures that people will keep coming back. Well, that and the fat. My friend Donna believes that McDonald’s is singly responsible for the amount of heart disease in this country and I think she may be right. (With Burger King and White Castle and In and Out and Jack in the Box and Sizzler and Denny’s.) Think about it. Doesn’t it follow that the increase in fast food and snack consumption coupled with the growth of portion sizes is not only linked to but responsible for the increase in the girth of the American public? I bet the boom in fast food chains in the last thirty years can be directly linked to the boom in the size of our citizens. There is no doubt in my mind. Yes, there are other factors like the fact that we don’t exercise, but the amount of crap we eat is mind boggling. Fast food is cheap, easy to find, high in fat and sugars and low in nutritional value. (And all that soda pop is just empty calories and lots of them.)

Screw the diet centers; the solution to obesity in this country begins with examining our cultural relationship to fast food and the people who spend billions in advertising dollars to get us to want it. How much fast food is included in the average kid’s diet? How many Burger Kings and McDonald’s are now served in school lunchrooms? What is the ratio of fast food restaurants to real grocery stores in low income neighborhoods? In studying heart disease, is the amount of fast food consumed weighed into the equation?

But it’s just food, right? The discussion quickly becomes similar to those about cigarettes or guns. Every person has the choice to eat or not eat fast food just as they have the choice to smoke or not. A gun manufacturer can’t be held responsible for what an individual does with the gun he purchased – or can it? What if McDonald’s and the others never existed. Or better yet, what if they couldn’t advertise?? What would we be eating? Would we perhaps be eating what we used to in generations that preceded mine? Surely we would burn more calories chopping carrots or peeling potatoes than we do sitting in the drive-through.

And what about portion size? It took me a long time to figure out why the Value Meal costs less than ordering smaller items separately. If I order a quarter pounder with cheese with a small fries and a small coke, it costs MORE than ordering the Value Meal which includes a large fries and a medium coke. (Large is now actually called “regular” because the biggest size is the Super Size, another new entry in the big portion bonanza.) When I try to order just what I want (small fries and small drink) they ask “Would you like the Value Meal? It’s cheaper.” Now who can resist that? I mean you don’t have to eat the whole thing, right? I usually turn it down though out of principal. No, I don’t WANT a big fries or a big coke.

So why do they give us more food for less money? Two reasons: It streamlines the operation so that things move more quickly and the labor force doesn’t need to be skilled (or expensive); and so that we become addicted to the food – and the portions -and keep coming back. (Okay, I am not positive of this, but I can only assume that like the tobacco companies, fast food chains know exactly what people crave.) The zillions of dollars spent on advertising and the proximity and ease of fast food chains guarantee that the majority of the American public consume mass quantities. I’d love to have a look at their market research.

Americans are spending billions on fast food and are getting bigger by the second. Then they spend billions more on Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig to (try and) lose the weight. And billions more in eventual health care costs. Not surprisingly some companies produce both snack foods and diet foods. They’re getting us coming and they’re getting us going. I’m thinking maybe we should cut out the middle man.

So, I’ll try to curb my McDonald’s addiction if you try to curb yours. Perhaps a NO FAST FOOD month is in order. But we’ll start after I finish these fries – oh are they gone?! Surely there’s just one more little fry in here somewhere. Just one, maybe hiding under the napkins? Yes, here’s one! A little crunchy and brown, but still…thank god.


Kathy Bruin is the Executive Director of About-Face. She draws the line at Carl’s Jr.s.