We don't have a McDonald's or a Burger King, and DQ didn't make it in Wallowa County. So is "fast food" even an issue here? In his best selling book, "Fast Food Nation," author Eric Schlosser argues that the growth of McDonald's, Burger King, Carl's Jr., KFC, and a legion of lesser fast food franchise chains has profoundly affected the way we live all over this country, and indeed, across the world.
A generation ago a handful of mostly Southern California fast food organizations and upstart copiers and would be competitors from other places were duking it out as they discovered and built the ideas of franchising, and of industrialization, standardizing, and packaging of convenience foods. It has been a heady story of fortunes made and lost (the original McDonald brothers and the original Carl both got left behind), of growing dependence on the automobile, of the conversion of the economy from a manufacturing base to a service base, of exploding technology and the demise of a skilled labor class. The franchise idea, which fast foods catapulted to the economic forefront, now runs from day care to funeral care, cradle to grave. Malls have grown, unions have withered. The gap between rich and poor has widened.
A couple of weeks ago I went to a conference in Portland on "sustainability." There must have been a thousand people there. The agenda was 39 pages long, and speeches, panels, and discussions tied sustainability with everything from fisheries to fine arts, forestry to investment strategies. Sustainability has become such a cliched concept that a panel on media found many writers steering away from the word completely. Nevertheless, as one speaker noted, it would be difficult to promote the concept of an "unsustainable" forestry or agricultural program.
One of the speakers that I enjoyed most was Karl Stauber, head of the Northwest Area Foundation. NAF distributes grants to tribes and communities across the old Northern railway territory in the upper Midwest and West. Stauber is a rural development specialist who spent time with the Department of Agriculture between stints with foundations and private venture capital funds.
He looked out over the sea of faces in the large Hilton Hotel ballroom (there is some irony in talking about sustainability amidst all of the noisy air conditioners and moving panels that make this room home to Avon and Mary K conventions - and will probably make it obsolete in a generation) and asked how many of us lived in rural areas. There was a healthy show of hands - maybe a hundred or two. He then asked about urban residents, and a vast majority of the audience responded. Finally, he wondered if there were any residents of suburbia present. A scattering of hands slowly lifted as Stauber made the point that power in the United States now resides in suburbia. In other words, the earnest efforts of most of us in the room at making agriculture, forestry, fisheries, foods, and lifestyle more sustainable were subject to veto power of the largest voting block and the largest economic engines in our country.
I hadn't read "Fast Food Nation" when I recommended it as a book for the community to read together during this month of June as the local hospital, this newspaper, and others explore the idea of "nutrition." I knew the book by reputation, and, like many of you, had heard and read snippets quoted in magazines and in radio and TV documentaries - french fries cooked in beef tallow; chicken nuggets with more fat than a Big Mac; chemical perfume companies putting the taste in our foods. But I was still poking along in the book when I went to the Portland conference. There, Stauber's speech and the book meshed like bees and honey, and although there is not quite as much straight nutrition information in "Fast Food Nation" as I had imagined, the story of lifestyle and economic directions in this country is fascinating. It is also, or should be, a story of great interest and concern to farmers and ranchers who actually grow the foods we eat.
Schlosser talks about captive markets in the cattle business, explains how "vertical integration" completely changed the poultry business, and explores the suburbanization of agricultural land in the West. I have often thought that agricultural and environmental interests have been in conflict due to their own shortsightedness and the nudging of developers. That suspicion is confirmed by "Fast Food Nation," but it is also shown to be naive. The "development" that I sometimes rail against is really just part of a complex of marketing, sales, and lifestyle trends that are pushing us willy-nilly into whatever comes next.
According to Schlosser, the rancher's share of every retail dollar spent on beef has dropped from 63 cents to 46 cents in the last 20 years. And, again according to Schlosser, beef consumption peaked in the US in 1976 at about 94 pounds per person. Today it is about 68 pounds per person. And of course we hear from all sides that obesity is pandemic. These three trends are suicidal for the cattle industry and for our health. Sustainable cattle growers- and other growers- are trying to connect such dots, but the fast food juggernaut is tough competition.