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Former McDonald’s cook confesses

McDonald’s got me to college. I don’t just mean that I saved money by consuming tons of their cheap hamburgers and fries and gallons of milkshakes, which I did. I also worked there for three years, beginning at about $1 an hour, during the middle of the 20th century—even before Elvis Presley and rock ‘n roll. Back then a buck bought something substantial. I could eat as many burgers as I wanted for free, so rampant, unconscious consumption is what I did.

I worked my way up to becoming a cook, flipping burgers rapidly. I also happily sold thousands of them as an eager high school student in the heartland of Omaha, Nebraska, formerly the slaughterhouse capital of America. I made enough money to launch a college career. My (fading) memory of gasoline prices back then is that they were somewhere around 35 cents a gallon. Can you imagine? They are already ten times that and going up, up, and away.

What do you think the main ingredients of a hamburger are? Beef is the most visible, but oil is essential to modern factory farming, which is what supplies fast food. The “End of Cheap Oil” cover article in the June, 2004, National Geographic has a full page photo of a cow with the following caption: “The price of steak: a pound of beef takes three-quarters of a gallon of oil to produce.” So what will happen to McDonald’s, other fast food joints, and the people who frequent them as Peak Oil gradually unfolds and there is less oil, which will be more in demand and more expensive? But I’m getting ahead of my story, so lets go back into the middle of the last century.

I figure that I ate at least four burgers a day for five days a week. That’s about a thousand burgers a year. Like the guy in the highly successful documentary film on McDonald’s, “Super-Size Me,” I bloated up to 185 pounds, which pleased my football coach. When I began better eating habits, after college, I came down to 155, where I still am. But more than 40 years later I am still processing my youthful indiscretions.

I consumed those burgers and fries innocently—as have millions around the world--and cooked and sold them for years without a sense of the degradation that my consumption was doing to humans and to the Earth. Now I want to make amends for some of my youthful errors by revealing the damage McDonald’s does. McDonald’s food hurts people in many ways, including by promoting obesity and heart attacks. It is often grown in ways that are harmful to the land and water.

I did my part to contribute to the billions of burgers sold under the Golden Arches. The Arches are apparently a more recognized symbol in the world than the Christian Cross. Imagine that—Jesus being displaced by a corporation. It makes you wonder what people hold sacred in this 21st century with its globalized economy. The old loaves and fish multiplying story doesn’t seem to compete well with advertising such as “McDonald’s Happy Meal.” Who doesn’t want to be happy?

Ronald McDonald’s materialism prevails more than the Sermon on the Mount’s spirituality. Ronald’s clown face sits by the check-out counter in the public library in the small town of Keaau, Hawaii, near where I live. McDonald’s seems to be everywhere, having successfully permeated and penetrated our culture with the goal of selling its products. To do so, it consumes tons of oil, water, and other natural resources to grow food, truck, advertise, package, and sell it around the world. This one multinational corporation probably consumes more fossil fuels and other natural resources than many entire countries, so working to transform it through one’s personal choices could have a big impact.

Taking Personal Responsibility for What One Eats

So why am I telling you all this? The reason for my self-disclosure and this ramble is that I think there are things that you and I can do to improve our consuming patterns. We are all in this together. Most of us are part of the problem, and can be part of the solution. We each make daily eating choices that impact the Earth and its capacity to continue feeding us and other creatures.

It is too easy to just blame McDonald’s, Exxon, Enron and the other corporations for the damage they do to the environment and our health. Sure, they mold our consuming patterns and financially benefit from them. But we need to look in mirrors and take individual responsibility to make changes. If enough of us demand healthier food, and are willing to pay for it, we could get it.

McDonald’s is the world’s hugest restaurant chain. Along with other fast food behemoths like Burger King and KFC, they displace local Mom and Pop restaurants, food, and culture wherever they go with their one-food-feeds-all diet. They serve unhealthy fried food that is part of an agribusiness system of monocrops and monopolies. Standardized foods destroy biological, cultural and agricultural heritages and diversity. McDonald’s homogenizes us with its sameness.

McDonald’s and its ilk open the way for China, India, and many countries to abandon their traditional agriculture and foods in favor of standardized American fast food. It brings not only bad food, but it Americanizes different cultures with its burgers. Europeans, with their rich culinary traditions, have been more effective at resisting McDonald’s. French farmer Jose Bove rallied people against McDonald’s, as did the McLibel trial in England. In Italy a Slow Food Movement started as a protest against McDonald’s and has grown into an international movement with thousands of members committed to supporting slowly growing, preparing, and enjoying food.

The extensively footnoted book “Fast Food Nation” by Eric Schlosser notes the following facts about McDonald’s:

• Each hamburger includes fecal matter, antibiotics and anabolic steroids.
• The vast majority of its workers are part-time, lack benefits, and quit after a few months.
• The average American now consumes three burgers and four orders of French fries a week.
• The industrialization of agriculture by the fast-food industry means that the U.S. now has more prisoners than farmers, who have been replaced by machines.
• McDonald’s is the largest purchaser of beef in the world. It buys from five large meatpackers. Over the past 20 years, 500,000 cattle ranchers have gone out of business and a rancher’s share of every beef dollar has fallen from 63 cents to 46 cents.

“Fast Food Nation” has been made into a major Hollywood film staring Ethan Hawke and directed by Richard Linklater, whose credits include “Slacker,” “Dazed and Confused,” and “School of Rock.” It is scheduled to debut at Cannes later this month. Such full-length features based on non-fiction books and documentaries, including “Super-Size Me,” are growing in popularity. They offer alternatives to the mainstream media with their interlocking directorates with other multinational corporations, compromising their capacity to serve the public as much as they serve the global economy.

The food industry is viciously attacking Schlosser’s new book “Chew on This,” designed for teen-agers. The executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, John Stauber, reports that “corporate food bullies” have set up a front group called Best Food Nation that is funded by eighteen food lobbies. It seeks to “demonize Schlosser and tar him with bad press and publicity.” Stauber is concerned with “how the mainstream media (will) respond to their food advertisers’ bullying attempts to silence and smear Schlosser.”

In an interview in the May 16 business trade publication Forbes Schlosser notes that “the industries they represent make over $300 billion a year in revenues, and they’ve gone to the expense and trouble to attack my book. I don’t even have my own Web site.”

When asked by Forbes “Aren’t fast-food chains just supplying what American appetites demand?” Schlosser responded as follows: “The American people were not demanding chicken nuggets. The industry has done a lot to create that demand.” McDonald’s spends more money on advertising than any other brand in the world.

Another best-selling recent book, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” describes the unhealthy food that McDonald’s serves. Michael Pollan details four different meals, starting with McDonald’s. He dissects a McDonald’s meal, discovering that it leads back to corn in an Iowa field. Pollan counts 13 ways that corn is present in a typical McDonald’s meal.

Corn sounds harmless enough, but once milled, refined and re-compounded it can become a number of things, including the sweetener called high fructose corn syrup. Corn products are present in ketchup, soda pop, milkshakes, margarine, relishes, sauces, and many other fast foods. Corn fructose, in turns out, makes us fat, which leads to diabetes. A recent U.S. study revealed that one if three Americans born in 2000 will develop diabetes, a life-threatening disease. High fructose also can worsen a number of other health threats.

Well beneath the Earth’s surface is a fabulous source of energy, which goes by various names—ancient sunlight, black gold, petroleum, and oil. Humans lived without its multiple benefits for centuries, during which they used other energy sources and other kinds of oil, including from animals like whales and plants like coconuts, especially here in the Pacific Ocean. But during the last century or so we have become dependent upon and over-consumed the finite resource of petroleum, leading to an over-population by humans that now threatens the planet itself. The market has been flooded, so to say, with people, who become objects to over-consume various energy sources, natural resources, and products. Humanity is on a collision course with geology and other natural limits to growth.

At, below, and above the Earth’s surface are other kinds of energy sources without which humans could not survive—the plants and animals that make up the food chain. Petroleum is not necessary to grow food, though it has become the single most important ingredient in modern industrial agriculture. As the demand for petroleum goes up and its supply diminishes, our food supply will be one of the first and hardest hit elements of modern life. Those now dependent upon fast food and industrial agriculture will be hard hit by the gradual unfolding of Peak Oil. But, once again, I am ahead of my rambling story, so lets go back to my childhood again.

The Small Family Farm Alternative

While I was working at McDonalds in Nebraska, my Uncle Dale and Auntie Elva were tending our small, diversified family farm nearby in Iowa. I helped them as a pre-teen--the happiest years of my youth. I got to drive a tractor, even after I ran into the chicken coop, stack hay and see far, gather warm eggs, fish, play with barnyard animals, have rotten egg fights and hear stories at night during a time before we had electricity in rural Iowa. Small-scale family farms can provide more than good food to the families that live there and the small towns that grow up around them, like my beloved Sebastopol in Northern California.

I eventually faced the choice of continuing on the McDonald’s path that I had been pursuing or follow my Uncle and Aunt’s role model. It took me nearly 25 years to leave the college and city life that McDonald’s paved for me to return to the farm and country living with bumpy sometimes unpaved roads. In 1991 I moved to an abandoned farm on less than two acres in Sonoma County. I worked it almost daily for a dozen years. Kokopelli Farm is plant-based, though I keep chickens for their eggs, manure, beauty, and companionship.

My neighbor’s dairy cows consume far more of the world’s limited resources of water and grain than their fair share. Cows could be described as slave animals for the growing, bloated human population. Years after consuming hundreds of McDonald’s milkshakes, I discovered that I am lactose intolerant. I am allergic to cow milk, as are many humans, especially those with African genes. After switching to soy and rice milk, I have had far fewer colds and sniffles. Drinking coconut milk during my nearly three years in Hawai’i has been great.

No more red meat for me. The studies that eating red meat can be harmful have convinced me. OK. OK. I do make a few exceptions for local Hawaiian food, which is just too tasty to pass up, especially when cooked in an imu beneath the ground. Soul food may not always be so healthy, but it sure can lift the spirits.

Giving up ice cream has been hard. I never, never, never buy it. Well, almost never, only for special occasions. But as a guest in someone’s home, when it is offered, what’s a guy to do? I eat it of course, and suffer, but that is usually the next day. Being a good guest is more important than a little suffering. Right?

I accepted a temporary teaching job in Hawai’i. I’ve been living on a red cinder road in an ‘ohi’a forest in Hawaiian Paradise Park, where I have come to appreciate the potholes that slow people down. When I moved here I planted noni and kava, “canoe crops” that arrived with the original Polynesian settlers. I set up a little noni processing operation. Noni has helped my health and I am glad to grow, process, and sell this local medicinal juice from my market garden.

I’ve been responsible for the cutting of many trees to make books, newspapers, magazines, houses, etc. I made a vow about 15 years ago when I returned to the farm—plant more trees than I have been responsible for consuming. Each of us can plant trees or support someone else to plant them, as responsible companies do, such as New Society Publishers. We can be accountable and give back, as well as take.

I protect the trees and some other plants that grow where I live. They mainly need protection from me and the power tools that I sometimes use to eliminate weeds, tools that also destroy baby trees and shrubs. So I try to mow as often as possible with a hand-held scythe, keeping on eye out for ‘ohi’a trees that may be pushing through the lava. I also let the blue verbena grow wild. My place looks a little weedy, compared to conventional farms. It evokes the rainforest in Panama where I spent part of my childhood.

So I’m OK with not eating at McDonalds—even better. I wince whenever I pass the Golden Arches in Kea’au near my HPP home or in Hilo. I have not eaten there for nearly 40 years now. I don’t miss it. I am learning to replace what I consume with better choices. I still have a long ways to go to reduce my own multiple negative impacts upon the environment. Some of my neighbors help me. They bring their food throw-aways to my place, some of which I feed to the chickens. The rest goes into the compost pile, which feeds my various crops.

We had an outhouse at my Uncle and Auntie’s. We composted our droppings thoroughly for over two years, heating it up to eliminate human pathogens, and then spread it out on the land. Though I do have a flush toilet, I use it only once a day to poop. I have taken to the old European habit of peeing in a bottle and harvesting my urine—a great source of the nitrogen necessary for plants to grow. Some people spend lots of money to buy chemical fertilizer to get nitrogen. Human urine is sterile and I add it to the ground around my plants.

Every year I place tons of newspapers, burlap coffee bags, and cardboard boxes around my plants to limit weed growth and promote helpful activity in the soil. Instead of a neighbor’s dairy cow manure polluting a nearby stream, it ends up composting on my farm and fertilizing my organic berries, apples, mushrooms, and other produce.

In contrast, the social and environmental costs—called externalities—of corporations like McDonald’s are huge. They are not counted in annual reports, but they are borne by places and other people and carried down through the generations. Fortunately, the people in a few small towns in America have prevented McDonald’s, Wal-Mart and other dangerous corporations from preying on their citizens.

I broke my connection to McDonald’s when I realized how hazardous it was. I restored my connection to the healthier small-scale family farm legacy within which I was raised. It was a choice that has enhanced my life. Most of us can make healthier eating, living, and consuming choices, even if a family farm is not in our legacy or available.

I still take more that is beneficial from the Earth than I return. But I work to balance what I take with what I leave. You can also do your own balancing. We can each, in our own way, move from a life of unconscious over-consumption to informed attempts to live more sustainably—as well as with joy—on this miraculous Earth.

(Dr. Shepherd Bliss, [email protected], has been teaching college and writing for the Hawai’i Island Journal for the last three years. He is currently in the process of moving back to Kokopelli Farm in Sonoma County, Northern California, mainly to be with long-time friends as Peak Oil unfolds.)

Editorial Notes: Related: More articles by Shepherd Bliss Pollan's new book on the U.S. food chain - the "oil diet" Cheap Eats (by Emily Lambert in May 22 Forbes):
But what would happen if Americans did become healthier-minded and stopped ordering off the McDonald's (nyse: MCD - news - people ) Dollar Menu? What if a drop in demand trickled down through the economy? What would happen if factory farms and meatpacking plants cleaned up their acts, or if fast food chains reformulated their offerings with fresher ingredients and compensated their teenage workers with higher wages and benefits? How much would it really cost to eat the Schlosser way?

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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