books,  culture,  food

Can fast food be vindicated?

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I agreed to take part in a blog tour of the book Fast Food Vindication by Lisa Tillinger Johansen. Lisa Tillinger Johansen is a registered dietitian and health educator who teaches a variety of classes on diabetes, pre-diabetes, hypertension, cholesterol, weight management, coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, and healthy eating for adults and teens. She holds a Master of Science degree in nutritional science, Coordinated Dietetics Program, from California State University, Los Angeles.

I can agree with a couple of the main themes in the book Fast Food Vindication by Lisa Tillinger Johansen. She makes the argument very clear that fast food has been singled out and vilified beyond what it deserves. Fast food is not the only source of unhealthy food within our society, with neither sit down restaurants, grocery store food or home-cooked meals are necessarily any healthier. Fast food restaurants are increasingly trying to serve healthier food and will continue to improve as long as people make the demand for healthier food.

Lisa Tillinger Johansen is a dietitian who used to work as a real estate agent for McDonalds. I asked her about her connection and whether she had any employment connections with them now. She wrote:

 I don’t see myself working for McDonald’s again or any other company in a commercial real estate capacity, which is what I did for McDonald’s. I was in commercial real estate for 20 years and I enjoyed it, but as I entered into my forties, I just wanted to do something else for a career. I have had an almost lifelong passion of eating for health, so I left McDonald’s and went back to school to get my masters in nutritional science. I’m currently a health educator at Kaiser Permanente and I absolutely adore it. I don’t see myself leaving there.

As a real estate agent she witnessed both people’s excitement about the iconic fast food chain and their hostility to it. As a dietitian she recognizes that fast food is a part of people’s lives and isn’t going away. Rather than vilify it she wants people to recognize it as a successful business model that brings happiness to many and that people can make choices to enjoy it responsibly.

Lisa Tillinger Johansen argues that a person’s choices at a fast food restaurant are a matter of personal responsibility. If a person wants they can have a bagel without any topping. They can choose to order the healthy options, and if they choose to order instead the oversized burger, fries and sugar-laden soda that’s their choice. I can agree with that, but only to an extent. In some ways I’m more inclined towards the perspective of French philosopher Jacques Ellul, that decisions are made within a context or milieu and cannot be understood outside of that. Given the abundance of advertising in society, given the way in which we structure jobs, and even city planning that results in people spending long hours commuting, can we really say that the choice to eat fast food is done freely? In a CBC radio show Jacques Ellul once spoke thusly about people’s decision to watch televsion:

Naturally, I can decide not to watch a certain movie or program. But am I really sure what I can decide? For I am also a person who spends my day working at a generally technological job that is quite uninteresting, repetative, and anything but absorbing. In the evening, what do I have for relaxing for relieving the buildup of nervous tension that I have experienced all day long? Television. Hence in a sense I watch television as a reward at the end of the day, and this too is caused by my living in this milieu.

The same could very likely be said for fast food. We live in a milieu that offers food as a reward, and a way of treating and treasuring oneself. It is ironic in a way that Ms. Johansen makes the argument that given the way we have ordered society is unrealistic to expect everyone to choose to cook their own healthy food at home, but that she views it as realistic to credit people’s less healthy fast food choices to “personal responsibility.”

The bulk of the book is around the question of fast food’s role in obesity, but she does touch on a few of the other concerns that come up regarding fast food restaurants. She makes tentative  acknowledgement of the issue of employment conditions, rebutting the association of dead end jobs with McDonald’s by quoting the percentage of McDonald’s executives and franchisees that started out as restaurant crew members (40% of the top 50, and 50% respectfully). To me this sounds like saying that because the majority of sports superheroes started out in the little leagues, as an argument that if you go into the little leagues you’ll become a sports superhero. I think the more relevant issue would be the percentage of restaurant crew members who succeed in moving to managerial positions but that percentage would probably confirm the dead end job aspect.

She quotes Alex Goldmark as saying that “Without McDonald’s, America would have lost jobs in May” (2011) as a compliment to McDonalds rather than as the criticism of the American economy that it was. McDonald’s role in job creation that month is only one part of its effect within society at large. There are other questions we need to ask. Are any jobs (like McDonald’s jobs) really better than no job? Are people taking the jobs freely or are government rules around social assistance pushing them to take jobs they would be better off not taking? Are the jobs being paid at wages low enough that governments end up subsidizing the business through providing additional financial aid to the employees? Do the fast food companies donate money to political causes, and if so, what laws and policies do they help advocate, and how do those polices affect society?

She quotes a senior citizen talking about how her McDonald’s job keeps her young and out of the rocking chair, implying that seniors are taking fast food jobs primarily for recreation and a sense of purpose, without looking at the extent to which economic problems are influencing their need for employment.

She talks about the charities that are supported by fast food restaurants, such as Wendy’s promotion of adoption and McDonald’s Ronald McDonald’s House for families dealing with pediatric crisises. She acknowledged that McDonald’s has come under criticism for not being open about the small percentage of money from Happy Meal sales that goes towards the RMHC (one penny per meal) but quotes McDonald’s response that this “translates to millions of dollars raised each year.”

I emailed the author and asked when a company like McDonald’s says that an amount of the money from a product like a Happy Meal will go towards a charity, does the company get a tax break for that money? In effect, is it money they would otherwise be paying to the government going to a charity instead? Her response was as follows:


I don’t know the answer to that question. It was something that I never was really exposed to. What I do know is that McDonald’s was and still is very charitable, both through donations and time. For example, every year on McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc’s birthday, the office where I worked closed its doors and we were given the opportunity to volunteer our time working for a charity of our choice. Our office was also very involved with the HACER charity helping to provide scholarships and we all attended the annual HACER auction, where we both donated and bid on items to raise money for the charity. Locally, my McDonald’s office and McDonald’s Owner/Operators did a lot, from donating food to groups for meetings, providing uniforms or equipment for local baseball teams and much, much more. I’m proud of what they did while I worked for them and they continue to behave in a charitable manner today.

I don’t doubt that many McDonald’s employees contribute greatly towards community causes, and I think it sad the level of defensiveness they probably feel because of the criticism McDonald’s and other fast food restaurants have come under. However the ultimate evaluation of fast food as a model of food delivery, employment creation and charity cannot be evaluated without looking also at the bigger pictures.

What role does the success of RMHC have in shaping how health care and emergency support is distributed? Does it undermine the political will for the government to provide that service instead? Does it undermine the financial ability of the government to do it (by reducing the taxes the corporation pays)? And if the answer to those is yes, then what are the implications of having the service provided by a charity rather than a government? Does it effect the quality or direction of the services? This might not be a big deal coming from McDonald’s, but given the recent question of Chick-o-fil’s political and social affiliations, maybe we need to have discussions about whether fast food services should really be our charity service providers.

Ms. Johansen is rightfully critical of PETA’s attack on fast food, particularly using graphic images in front of children, and she points out that becoming vegetarian is a personal choice. She quotes a PETA spokesperson as saying that they are pushing for pragmatic changes because they recognize that restaurants serving exclusively plant based foods won’t happen overnight.

The word “pragmatic” sticks out for me because I think a lot of the criticism against fast food is pragmatic. Meat from badly run slaughter-houses makes its way into supermarkets too. Tomatoes picked by ill-treated workers are not exclusive to fast food. It is pragmatic to target the fast food restaurants because they are susceptible to public pressure and because a change in how they are run can end up influencing how other corporations run things. Much of her defense of fast food is that they just one aspect of the whole system we have, and why do we pick them out and target them? She has a point, all the questions I ask about fast food could also be asked about so many other things, but I think she also misses over a lot of the power that fast food has held in shaping the whole system.

Ms. Johansen has a chapter about the growth of the fast food industry, sharing the feel-good stories of the fast food founders and she argues that “would it be fair to tell any entrepreneur that they shouldn’t be too successful or grow too big? That wouldn’t exactly be the American dream.” Her history of the fast food industry is much shorter and vaguer than then comparable chapter in Fast Food Nation, which she argues portrays positive things in a negative light. She doesn’t talk about the political lobbying at all, to have subminimum wages for younger employees.

Fast food is one part of our modern environment. It cannot be held responsible for all of the environment around it and yet we need to recognize that it does have an influence on the world.

Ms. Johanson’s book does a reasonable job looking at the question of fast foods role in obesity, showing that fast food is just one of many contributing factors. If your looking for information on how to eat healthy at fast food restaurants or how to respond to that relative that just watched Supersize Me then this is definately the book to turn to. Unfortunately she fails to adequately examine the other aspects of fast foods role in society.

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One Comment

  • Christina Morley

    These are good questions you are asking of her book.

    And what about pink slime? Do the fast food restaurants really have our best interests in mind or their own? I can’t eat fast food burgers like I used to. I think our bodies become conditioned to below best.

    Because of our finances, we were forced to eat at home almost every day of the week and although I found it a grind to cook every day, in the end, I like it better.

    Tina –

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