Fast Food and Neoliberalism: Response to David Freedman’s Call to Get out of McDonalds’ Way

McDonalds sign and flags(Photo: kenny_lex)In a recent issue of the Atlantic, David Freedman argues that food activists – like Michael Pollan, the best-selling author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma and In Defense of Food – are harming efforts by corporations like McDonald’s to engineer healthier food. The charges he levies against Pollan and others are threefold: first, that much of their dietary advice promotes foods that, while not processed, are excessively high in fat, sugar and salt; second, that the cost-prohibitive nature of farm-fresh produce means that the health benefits that may accrue to (disproportionately white) affluent Americans cannot be merely scaled up to the majority of working Americans; and third, that even if they could be, this latter group of Americans would resist broccoli in favor of fast food because of its taste and convenience (particularly in light of the long working day).

As most of us know, obesity is an epidemic of terrifying proportions, so this is a timely article. Mercifully, Freedman avoids the temptation to extensively recount the statistics, so I won’t recite the litany of gruesome statistics either, aside from one overview from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): “During the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic increase in obesity in the United States and rates remain high. More than one-third of U.S. adults (35.7%) and approximately 17% (or 12.5 million) of children and adolescents aged 2-19 years are obese.” Obesity, of course, dramatically increases the risk for other serious health problems, like diabetes, heart disease and cancer, and it accounts for almost $150 billion a year in health-care costs in the US.

Freedman’s argument, however, is highly pernicious to the public discussion on this topic. Essentially, he asserts, because natural food activists are elitist, we should pay no attention to their critique of processed food and get out of McDonalds’ way. Now, I have no interest in rushing to the defense of Michael Pollan, Mark Bittman or other food activists. So Freedman’s charge that so-called “foodies” are prescribing unhealthy food I will leave to Pollan and Bittman, who I assume can ably defend themselves.

As a labor historian with an interest in social justice, however, I think it is worth exploring the premises of Freedman’s second two assertions. Like much of the material in the highly influential and often thought-provoking magazine, Freedman’s view is one that is skeptical of any efforts to prevent the free market from solving society’s problems. Using the same language conservatives have used since the 1970s to criticize intellectuals as “limousine liberals,” his second two critiques take on food activists for the supposed elitism of their attacks on processed food. Invoking language that has been in our political mainstream since Vice President Spiro Agnew famously attacked liberals as “an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals,” Freedman similarly asserts that “Michael Pollan has no clothes” since there exists ” … no clear, credible evidence that any aspect of food processing or storage makes a food uniquely unhealthy.”

Even if we concede this point (although Freedman himself points to the evidence that those who live on fast food and processed food tend to be less healthy than those who don’t), what is troubling here is the implication the author draws from this notion—that because Pollan and others may not have conclusive evidence that processed food is bad, food activists need to stop publicly besmirching such food so that corporate producers (Freedman uses the term “Big Food”) can be left to produce less calorie-rich versions of junk food. An entire quarter of the article, in fact, in the fashion of much of the techno-topic material in the Atlantic, highlights examples of emerging “high-tech, anti-obesity food engineering.”

By itself, there is nothing wrong with fast food companies attempting to find ways to lower their calorie content (with the caveat that accepting that there is no clear, credible evidence that processed food is inherently bad is not nearly the same thing as saying it is harmless). The problem here is that Freedman has left the reader with an either/or choice. Either food activists like Pollan are right, or, if they are not, then their critiques are helping to hold back the kind of real progress that can be made by Big Food.

Freedman then buttresses the terms of this false choice with the assumption that working Americans would resist anything but fast food because their working hours are too long and their palate too accustomed to salty, fatty (non-vegetable) foods. His evidence: one quotation from an anti-obesity researcher at Stephen F. Austin University who argues that “you try to make even a small change to school lunches, and parents and kids revolt,” and Freedman’s own visit to some bodegas in East LA where many of the customers were only interested in purchasing junk food. He admits that this “is not exactly a scientific study, but then again we really shouldn’t need one to recognize that people aren’t going to change their ingrained, neurobiologically supercharged junk-eating habits just because someone dangles vegetables in front of them, farm-fresh or otherwise.”

The irony of Freedman’s charge is that it rests on the same elitist assumptions about working people of which he accuses Pollan et. al. Freedman rightfully takes Mark Bittman to task, for instance, for arguing in a piece for The New York Times that there is no excuse for poor Americans – even those who live in so-called food deserts—not to cook their own healthy, nonprocessed meals. Bittman’s solution: “Somehow, no-nonsense cooking and eating – roasting a chicken, making a grilled cheese sandwich, scrambling an egg, tossing a salad – must become popular again, and valued not just by hipsters in Brooklyn or locavores in Berkeley.” The problem with Bittman’s view, however, is the exact same problem as that of Freedman’s: both underestimate the challenges to working people in the United States who have steadily seen the erosion of job security, benefits and wages (as Colin Gordon and John Schmitt have recently shown in Dissent, even a $9/hour minimum wage would continue to be woefully inadequate for most working families). Thus, even if we agree with Bittman’s premise that one can purchase and prepare healthy, natural foods on a Spartan budget, expecting overworked parents to circumvent the ubiquitous fast food restaurants to seek out a grocery store and, on top of that, to take the extra time to prepare a meal is pure pie-in-the-sky. The fact that working people make the choice to go to fast food restaurants in such circumstances does not mean that they would make the same choice in all circumstances, as Freedman presumes.

The problem with both of these views is that the political discourse of our nation has shifted so far toward a fatalistic acceptance of the status quo – the increasing wealth gap between rich and poor, the seemingly interminable march of privatization and the unassailable logic that the market will solve every problem (if you’d just make better choices, you could overcome any structural impediment!) – we don’t even consider any major policy interventions to be a valid part of the discussion. We also don’t even consider how the labor practices of fast food companies, where there were massive protests for much of the past spring against poverty-level wages and where fast food workers even in the nation’s Smithsonian museums recently have protested their poor wages, lead to the very living standards that make it difficult for working people to buy and prepare healthy foods.

It is a depressing day, however, when the best we can come up with as a solution to the crippling obesity epidemic in the US is to hand over the car keys to McDonald’s and hope that their interests in short-term profits will happen to coincide with healthier food choices. As a historian, I’m not in the habit of engaging in counterfactuals, but if we had taken this tack with the tobacco companies, my guess is that we’d all still be inhaling second-hand smoke at every bar, restaurant and airplane in the country while hearing how much safer “light” cigarettes are.

Perhaps the biggest take-away from Freedman’s piece is that, in the public interest, we need to do a better job of systematically critiquing the kind of conclusion we’re left with in a piece like Freedman’s. The obesity epidemic is the most important public health issue of our times, and the conclusion here is nothing short of impoverishing. To really challenge the obesity epidemic, we have to challenge this outlook – that we cannot solve public health problems through progressive policy – even from those like Freedman whose starting point most of us agree with. Free-market conservatives have spent much of the past half-century arguing (successfully – at least in the sense that they seem to have persuaded a majority) that New Deal-era liberalism was a failure. If we need evidence of their success in this endeavor, look no farther than the fact that the very notion can be taken seriously in our public discourse that in criticizing food producers like McDonald’s for their monstrously unhealthy products we are preventing a solution to the obesity epidemic that they caused in the first place.