KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Chew on This, Eric Schlosser & Charles Wilson
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Tuesday, May 09, 2006
Chew on This, Eric Schlosser & Charles Wilson

I was standing at the farmers' market one day talking to a farmer. He was surveying the crowd of people. "You're never going to change the minds of the adults," he said. "The only people whose eating habits you can change on a fundamental level are the kids. They are still moldable. That's why I have them on my farm as often as possible."

While I tend to take a more optimistic view of changing the eating and buying habits of people of all ages, I could see the farmer's point. All else being equal, it is much easier to change the minds of kids than to change the minds of adults.

Eric Schlosser, the author of bestseller Fast Food Nation, has just released a version of the book that is aimed at sixth to eighth graders and co-written with Charles Wilson, a writer for numerous publications including The New York Times. Chew on This is a 258-page book that is subtitled "everything you don't want to know about fast food." Schlosser and Wilson explain, "The only real difference between [Chew on This and Fast Food Nation] is emphasis. For this book, we focused on how the industry affects the lives of young people ... Just about every teen in America has some connection to fast food, for better or worse."

Many of us have heard the facts about kids and fast food. The statistics are staggering:
  • Nine out of ten American children eat at a McDonald's at least once a month.
  • One out of every five public schools in the United States now serves brand name fast food.
  • Children who are obese at 13 have a 90% chance of being overweight at 35 years old.
  • One out of every three toys given to children in the U.S. every year is from a fast food restaurant.
Fast food companies know an important fact and capitalize on it: Building brand-name loyalty at a young age is crucial to continuing brand-name loyalty as an adult. By aiming this book at young teenagers, Schlosser and Wilson are trying to stop that cycle before McNuggets-eating kids become Double Cheesburger-eating adults.

This book follows the same vein of Fast Food Nation, describing the history of the fast food industry, the make-up of food in fast food restaurants, what fast food restaurants do to market to kids, the industrial meat industry, and what it's like to be a child working at a McDonald's. It describes how fast food companies make foods taste sweeter for kids, and how everything from taste to color of food is carefully tested before being sold nationwide. Schlosser and Wilson describe the International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) company, one of the worlds' largest flavor companies.
The IFF plant in Dayton makes the flavor not only of fast food but of many other products that Americans eat or drink every day. The IFF snack and savory lab is responsible for the flavor of potato chips, corn chips, breads, crackers, breakfast cereals and pet food. The confectionary lab devises the flavor for ice cream, cookies, candies, toothpastes, mouthwashes and antacids ... In addition to being one of the world's largest flavor companies IFF ... also makes the smell of household products. The scientific principles behind the smell of your toothpaste are the same as those behind the taste of your TV dinner.
The book successfully gives young readers positive ideas for change. Through the book, we are introduced to Kristina Clark, an Alaskan twelve-year old who began a "Stop the Pop" campaign to successfully remove a soda machine from her school. And The Edible Schoolyard project is described, giving readers ideas for gardens in their schools.

I sent a copy of Chew on This to my friend Jack, an eleven-year old in Long Beach, California. "What did you think of the book?" I asked Jack a couple of weeks later. "I really liked it. And after practice now when everyone wants to go to Burger King, I don't really want to go," he told me. I was really curious about Jack's point of view because he lives in what I believe is a household that eats pretty typically for the average American diet. They eat some meals at home each week, some meals out, and eat a fair amount of fast food after school and practice.

Talking to his mom later, I got a little more information about how the book went over. "It was a little difficult for him to read," his mom told me. "I don't think he told you that part." And his eating habits? "Now that you mention it, he hasn't been wanting to go to Burger King when [his brother] asks to go."

My main question when reading the book is what types of kids will actually pick it up and read it. The kids whose parents buy it for them are kids who probably live in households that eat very little fast food anyway. I am not sure how this book is going to get out to the general population of kids. Fast Food Nation did a great job at crossing many populations. Friends of mine who have never picked up a book about the food industry have read Fast Food Nation. I am going to be curious whether this book makes its way into any mainstream curriculums. As Jack's mom pointed out, the book can be viewed as giving a fairly skewed view of McDonad's unions and management -- something that some parents may have a hard time digesting if it is added to their child's reading list.

I applaud Schlosser and Wilson for this effort. As the farmer implied, the best way to make any inroads toward a slow food nation are to focus on the kids.


Blogger cookiecrumb said...

Why was it hard for him to read? Too difficult, or too gruesome?
I'm wondering if teachers couldn't just assign it as class work.

5/10/2006 4:44 PM

Blogger danceras said...

I'm actually a junior at a South Jersey high school and one of my summer reading assignments was to read Chew on This. I didn't find it very difficult to read at all, since I didn't want to put the book down. It's deffinately influential, but I'm not one to eat much fast food anyway. I think it should be integrated into every high school system as a mandatory read.

8/29/2006 2:49 PM

Blogger Modern Ms. Barrett said...

I'm a public high school teacher where the only choices my students have at lunchtime are fast food. We managed to buy enough copies of Chew On This for the whole ninth grade and they are devouring the book as quickly as they devour Big Macs. I used the original text Fast Food Nation last year and this one is so much more accessible for younger readers and even struggling readers. My students are writing letters to seventh graders to spread the word.

3/30/2007 3:31 PM


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