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Giving more food for thought

`Fast Food Nation's' Eric Schlosser hopes his new book helps kids make responsible choices.

May 12, 2006|Susan Salter Reynolds | Times Staff Writer

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday May 24, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 60 words Type of Material: Correction
Childhood obesity: In the May 12, 2006, Calendar section, a profile of Eric Schlosser, author of "Fast Food Nation" and "Chew on This," stated that there are 50 million obese children in the U.S. and that 6 million to 7 million children are morbidly obese. These statistics refer to the total number of obese adults, not children, in the U.S.

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."

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