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Fast-Food Nation Part One: The True Cost of America's Diet

After four decades, our obsession with fast, cheap food has transformed our towns and farms and flooded the labor market with low-paying, dead-end jobs. Is this a healthy menu?

A fast food meal of french fries and a burger.
Carmen Martínez Banús/Getty Images
September 3, 1998

Cheyenne Mountain sits on the eastern slope of Colorado's front range, rising steeply from the prairie and overlooking the city of Colorado Springs. From a distance, the mountain looks beautiful and serene, dotted with rocky outcroppings, scrub oak and ponderosa pine. And yet Cheyenne Mountain is hardly pristine. One of the nation's most important military installations is located deep within it, housing operational units of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, the United States Space Command and the Air Force Space Command. In the mid-1950s, high-level officials at the Pentagon worried that America's air defenses were vulnerable to sabotage and attack. Cheyenne Mountain was chosen as the site for a top-secret underground combat-operations center. The mountain was hollowed out, and about 700,000 tons of rock were removed. Fifteen buildings, most of them three stories high, were erected amid a maze of tunnels and passageways extending for miles. The four-and-a-half-acre underground complex was designed to survive a direct hit by a ten-kiloton atomic bomb. Now officially called the Cheyenne Mountain Operations Center, the facility is entered through massive steel blast doors that are three feet thick and weigh twenty tons each. Pressurized air within the complex prevents contamination by radioactive fallout or biological weapons. A heavily armed quick-response team guards against intruders. The place feels like the set of an early James Bond movie, with men in jumpsuits driving little electric vans from one brightly lighted cavern to another.

Fifteen hundred people work inside the mountain every day, maintaining the facility and collecting information from a worldwide network of radars, spy satellites, ground-based sensors, airplanes and blimps. The Operations Center tracks every man-made object that enters North American air-space or that orbits the earth. It provides early warning of missile attacks. It detects the firing of a long-range missile, anywhere in the world, before that missile has left the launch pad. Much of the work performed at the center is top-secret. The hallways of its inner sanctum are painted slate gray, the ceilings are low and there are combination locks on every door. The complex was built to be self-sustaining for one month. Its generators can produce enough electricity to power a medium-size city. Its underground reservoirs hold 6 million gallons of water; workers sometimes traverse them in rowboats. Inside the mountain there is a fitness center, a chapel, a hospital, a dentist's office, a barber shop and a cafeteria. When men and women stationed at Cheyenne Mountain are tired of the food in the cafeteria, they often send somebody over to the Burger King at Fort Carson, a nearby Army base. Or they call the Domino's on South Academy Boulevard in Colorado Springs.

Almost every night of the week, a Domino's deliveryman winds his way up the lonely Cheyenne Mountain Road, past the stern No Trespassing signs, past the security checkpoint at the entrance to the base, driving all the way up to the fortified North Portal, tucked behind chain-link and barbed wire. At the spot where the road heads into the mountainside, the deliveryman drops off his pizzas and collects his tip. And should Armageddon come, should a foreign enemy someday shower the United States with nuclear warheads, laying waste to the continent, entombed within Cheyenne Mountain, along with the high tech marvels, the pale-blue uniforms, comic books and Bibles, future archeologists may find other clues to the nature of our civilization – Big King wrappers, hardened crusts of Cheesy Bread, Barbecue Wing bones, and the red, white and blue of a Domino's pizza box.

During the last four decades, fast food has infiltrated every nook and cranny of American society. An industry that began with a handful of modest hot dog and hamburger stands in Southern California has spread to every corner of the nation, selling a broad range of foods wherever paying customers may be found. Fast food is now served not only at restaurants and drive-thrus but also at stadiums, airports, college campuses and elementary schools, on cruise ships, trains and airplanes, at Kmarts, Wal-Marts, gas stations and even hospital cafeterias. In 1970, Americans spent about $6 billion on fast food. Last year they spent more than $100 billion on fast food. Americans now spend more money on fast food than they do on higher education, personal computers, software or new cars. They spend more on fast food than on movies, books, magazines, newspapers, videos and recorded music – combined.

The rapid growth of the fast-food industry has been driven by fundamental changes in the U.S. economy. The hourly wage of the average American worker peaked in 1973 and then steadily declined until last year. Women entered the work force in record numbers, often motivated less by feminism than by a need to help pay the bills. In 1975, about a third of American mothers with young children worked outside the home; today about two-thirds of such mothers are employed. As the sociologists Cameron Lynne Macdonald and Carmen Sirianni have noted, the entry of women into the nation's work force has greatly increased demand for the types of services that housewives traditionally performed: cooking, cleaning and child care. The fast-food industry has benefited from these demographic changes, supplying at low cost the meals no longer prepared in the home and hiring at low wages millions of young women in need of extra income.

The McDonald's Corp. has become a powerful symbol of America's service economy, the sector now responsible for ninety percent of the country's new jobs. In 1968, McDonald's operated about 1,000 restaurants. Today it has about 23,000 restaurants world-wide and opens roughly 2,000 new ones each year. An estimated one of every eight Americans has worked at McDonald's. The company annually trains more new workers than the U.S. Army. McDonald's is the nation's largest purchaser of beef and potatoes. It is the second-largest purchaser of poultry. A whole new breed of chicken was developed to facilitate the production of McNuggets. The McDonald's Corp. is the largest owner of retail property in the world. Indeed, the company earns the majority of its profits not from selling food but from collecting rent. McDonald's spends more money on advertising and marketing than does any other brand, much of it targeted at children. A survey of American schoolchildren found that ninety-six percent could identify Ronald McDonald. The only fictional character with a higher degree of recognition was Santa Claus. The impact of McDonald's on the nation's culture, economy and diet is hard to overstate. Its corporate symbol – the Golden Arches – is now more widely recognized than the Christian cross.

Almost twenty-five years ago, the farm activist Jim Hightower warned of "the McDonaldization of America." He viewed the emerging fast-food trade as a threat to independent businesses, as a step toward a food economy dominated by giant corporations and as a homogenizing influence on American life. Much of what he feared has come to pass. The rise of the fast-food industry has been accompanied by important changes in how America's food is produced. The centralized purchasing decisions of large restaurant chains and their need for standardized products have given a small number of corporations an unprecedented degree of power over the nation's food supply. Moreover, the success of the fast-food industry has encouraged other industries to adopt its business methods, filling America's main streets and malls with Gaps and Coconuts, Maid Brigades, Pawn Marts and Hobby-Town USAs. Franchises and chain stores have in the last twenty-five years gained a forty percent share of all retail spending in the United States. Almost every facet of American life has now been franchised. From the maternity ward at a Columbia/HCA hospital to an embalming room owned by the Houston-based Service Corporation International – "the world's largest provider of death-care services," which since 1968 has grown to include 3,012 funeral homes, 365 cemeteries and 156 crematoriums, and which today handles the final remains of one of every nine Americans – a person can now go from the cradle to the grave without spending a nickel at an independently owned business.

The key to a successful franchise, according to many texts on the subject, can be expressed in a single word: uniformity. Franchises and chain stores must reliably offer the same product or service at numerous locations. Customers are drawn to familiar brands by an instinct to avoid the unknown. A brand offers a feeling of reassurance when its products are always and everywhere the same. "We have found out. . . that we cannot trust some people who are nonconformists," declared Ray Kroc, one of the founders of McDonald's, angered by some of his franchisees. "We will make conformists out of them in a hurry. . . The organization cannot trust the individual; the individual must trust the organization..."

One of the ironies of America's fast-food industry is that a business so dedicated to conformity was founded by iconoclasts and self-made men, by entrepreneurs willing to defy conventional opinion. Few of the people who built fast-food empires ever attended college, let alone business school. In many respects, the fast-food industry embodies the best and the worst of American capitalism at century's end – its constant stream of new products, its innovative technology, its sophisticated mass-marketing techniques, its widening gulf between rich and poor. While a handful of fast-food workers manage to rise up the corporate ladder, the vast majority lack full-time employment, receive no benefits and constantly float from job to job. The only Americans who earn lower wages today than fast-food workers are migrant farm workers.

In the fast-food restaurants of Colorado Springs, behind the counters, amid the plastic seats, in the changing landscape outside their windows, you can see all the virtues and destructiveness of our fast-food nation. The recent growth of Colorado Springs parallels that of the fast-food industry; during the last three decades, the city's population has more than doubled. Subdivisions, malls and chain restaurants are appearing in the foothills of Cheyenne Mountain and in the plains rolling to the east. The Rocky Mountain region as a whole has the fastest-growing economy in the United States, mixing high-tech and service industries in a way that may define America's work force in the century to come. And new restaurants are opening there at a faster rate than anywhere else in the country, an onslaught of new Subways, Schlotzky's, Waffle Houses, Popeye's and Taco John's.

The sociologist George Ritzer has attacked the fast-food industry for celebrating efficiency ahead of every other human value, calling the triumph of McDonald's "the irrationality of rationality." Others consider the industry proof of the nation's continued economic vitality, a quintessentially American institution that appeals worldwide to millions who admire our way of life. As McDonald's loses market share to competitors like Wendy's, Carl's Jr. and Jack in the Box, more is at stake than stock options and dividends. Perhaps no other industry offers, both literally and figuratively, so much insight into the nature of mass consumption. The typical American consumes about three hamburgers and four orders of French fries every week. Roughly a quarter of the nation's population buys fast food every day – and yet few people give the slightest thought to who makes it or where it comes from.

The changes prompted by fast food have occurred so quickly and have been so all encompassing that it is now hard to conceive of a world without hamburgers served in brightly colored paper boxes, without drive-thru windows, without the same restaurants making the same food the same way in almost every American city and town. The basic thinking behind fast food has become the operating system of today's service economy, spreading identical retail environments throughout the country like a self-replicating code. The value meals, two-for-one deals and low prices on the menu disguise the real costs of fast food. As the old saying goes: You are what you eat.

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