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Washington Post Book World
Friday, May 19th, 2006
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Chew on This: Everything You Don't Want to Know about Fast Food

by Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson

Greasy Kid Stuff

A review by Abby McGanney Nolan

"I aimed for the public's heart and by accident I hit it in the stomach," Upton Sinclair once said about his muckraking novel, The Jungle. Bringing to light the inhumane working conditions in slaughterhouses, Sinclair made meat-eaters, faced with the filthy process through which cattle were turned into their supper, more queasy than empathetic. One hundred years later, with Chew on This, Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson take the formidable research and rhetoric of Schlosser's bestselling Fast Food Nation (2001) and aim them at teen readers -- at their hearts, stomachs, consciences, vanity and, yes, even their sense that change is possible.

Chew on This, written in a brisk, accessible style, combines digestible nuggets of history, present-day anecdotes about individuals that teens may be able to relate to, and statistics that capture the startling size of the fast-food problem. As one nutritionist puts it, "We've got the fattest, least fit generation of kids, ever."

Schlosser and Wilson endeavor to make readers aware of aspects of the fast-food experience that they may take for granted. They start with the fast-food pioneers, several of whom were inspired by Walt Disney's factory-style production system and child-focused marketing. (Golden-arches visionary Ray Kroc once explained, "A child who loves our TV commercials and brings her grandparents to a McDonald's gives us two more customers.") Turning to the workplace, which thrives on unskilled workers who receive no benefits or insurance, the authors introduce readers to a group of teenagers in West Virginia, one of whom once was asked to work for more than 19 hours with only a 30-minute break.

From there the tour moves to the raw material of all those Happy Meals, most memorably the decidedly unhappy chickens, pigs and cattle who are squeezed together and then killed. In the United States, a widespread method involves shackling chickens to overhead chains that dunk them into water that's charged with electricity, then carrying them through rotating blades that slit their throats, then dunking them into boiling water that removes their feathers. That sounds bad enough, but it's worse for the many chickens who survive the first two steps. Europeans employ a more expensive method by which gas painlessly knocks the birds unconscious at the start of the process. The authors visit Greeley, Colo., where massive feedlots and slaughterhouses lead to pits of waste that stretch for acres and acres. They also explore the appeal of french fries and sodas, examining their quasi-addictive taste and immense profitability as well as the damage they inflict upon teeth and arteries.

Just as crucially, Schlosser and Wilson make clear that it wasn't always like this. There are now about 31,000 McDonald's around the world -- up from 3,000 in 1973 -- and the landscape of small towns has been radically homogenized by them. The means by which animals are raised, slaughtered and processed has been immensely sped up to maximize profits, so much so that workers are less safe than they were 30 years ago and animals' lives are even more nasty, brutal and short. The book also points to places where fast food was introduced relatively recently -- rural Alaska (now fighting a scary cavity epidemic) and Okinawa (now facing Japan's highest obesity rate) -- to illustrate how quickly sodas and burgers can hurt the human body.

With its discussion of alternatives, such as In-N-Out Burger, the restaurant chain that uses fresh ingredients and treats its employees well, and its story about Alice Waters's transformation of a deteriorating Berkeley public school into a model of organic farming and learning, Chew On This puts a nice, empowering spin on the old Burger King jingle, "Have it your way." Along with the all-McDonald's-diet movie, Supersize Me, this should be required fare before the next lunch bell rings.

In their new picture book called Fast Food, Saxton Freymann and Joost Elffers show the younger set that food doesn't need salt, sugar or manmade additives to be appealing. They just need black-eyed peas for eyes and beet-juice coloring for smiles.

As with their previous books, most famously How Are You Peeling? (1999), Freymann and Elffers have photographed a variety of fruits and vegetables that have been transformed, with a little help from an X-Acto knife, into expressive individuals. As ingenious as they are sweetly silly, the staged scenes in these books have explored subjects from wounded emotions to mathematical concepts.

For Fast Food, everything from acorn squash to zucchini gets moving. Featuring a cheerful boy made mostly of mushrooms and a taller pal who's a scallion, the book explores nearly every way of getting from one place to another. String beans become skis, snow peas are the propellers of a pear-shaped helicopter, bananas are turned into planes; there's even a wheelchair crafted from an orange. The playful rhymes keep up the pace ("With skates, a walk becomes a glide./A skateboard can extend your stride), but it is the pictures that will get the most scrutiny -- in one spread, a watermelon ocean liner navigates through red-lettuce waters. After looking at this book, parents may encourage their children to play with their fruits and vegetables -- as long as they eat them afterwards.


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