Eric Schlosser. (2001). Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side
of the All-American Meal. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
Reviewed by Michael W. Apple, University of Wisconsin,
March 25, 2001
decade of the 1970s, critical scholarship on schooling was
strongly influenced by perspectives that saw schools and
other cultural institutions as simply mirror images of
economic forces. This spawned a serious debate about
whether cultural content, form, and processes had a degree
of relative autonomy. This debate ultimately
prefigured a good deal of the emphasis on specificity,
non-determinativeness, the processes of cultural production and
consumption, and similar themes that are found in material
in cultural studies, postmodernisms and poststructuralisms,
and neo-Gramscian analyses. Yet it also led to something
elsea lamentable tendency towards over-theorization.
So much time has been spent on the articulation and then
rearticulation, and then re-rearticulation, of
new theories, that the empirical realities of
schools, curricula, teaching, children, and the connections
between all this and the larger society sometimes get lost.
Finally, it has unfortunately led many people to either
ignore economic realities and class relations or to treat
them as simply textual, as linguistic
constructions that have little empirical basis. If this
wasn't so dangerous, it would be nearly laughable.
it is absolutely crucial that we articulate new theoretical
perspectives. But they become all too arid unless they are
applied to those areas that are of pressing concern to
education and the cultural, economic, and political tensions
and conflicts in which it participates. Further, we need
models of doing this that incorporate such theories, but
that also do the work that demonstrates how we might
actually apply theories from, say, cultural studies to these
concerns. (A fine example of this is the analysis of the
history, economics, and use of the Sony Walkman found in the
book, Doing Cultural Studies: The Story of the Sony
Walkman [Gay, Hall, Janes, Mackay, and Negus, 1997]).
Yet, even without such overtly theorized studies, at the
very least we need analyses that show in rich historical and
empirical detail how the economy, the state, and cultural
forms interact in all their richness and complexityand
that illuminate the effects of these interactions on
educational matters. Enter Eric Schlosser.
books are written that are so compelling that they demand to
be read by large numbers of people no matter what their
disciplinary affiliations. Even more rarely, some of these
books are written in such a way that their concerns cut
across political tendencies and across the divide that
separates popular from academic
books. Fast Food Nation is one of those rare books.
It is a form of critical journalism in the tradition of
Upton Sinclair's The Jungle. It speaks to the growth
of fast food culture that now permeates a large portion of
our daily lives, to our eating habits inside and outside of
our homes and schools, and to the construction of desires
among our children (and ourselves). This is what might be
called its cultural agenda. But like all good cultural
analysis (or at least what good cultural analysis should do
if it is not disconnected from the material realities and
inequalities that pervade our society), it connects these
cultural forms to the hidden lives of the workers and labor
processes that produce fast food commodities, to the
manipulative ways the products are marketed, to the health
costs their consumption creates, and to the environmental
destructiveness that accompanies all this. And it then
offers some suggestions for interrupting the forces that are
creating these negative effects. This is an immensely
ambitious agenda. But, to a considerable extent, Schlosser
pulls it off.
terms, Schlosser engages in what is called relational
analysis. That is, any activity or object is known by
its connections to other activities or objects. In critical
social and cultural accounts, however, the task is to
examine these activities and objects in relation to their
hidden but real ties to the reproduction or subversion of
relations of dominance and subordination. Within the
tradition of critical educational studies, there is now a
long and valued history of such analyses. Perhaps an
example of thinking relationally in our daily lives would be
preparation for writing this essay, I walk into my office,
turn on the lights, turn on my computer, get into my
preferred word-processing program, and begin to type. We
can interpret this as a set of simple physical acts.
Michael Apple goes to his office, turns on the lights, and
then turns on his computer. The lights and the computer go
onand that is the end of the story. But is
that the end of the story? Yes, the lights and the computer
came on. But hidden behind my actions are sets of relations
that connect me deeply to this economy, whether I am aware
of it or not. Since Madison, Wisconsin burns coal to
produce most of its electricity, I have just had an
anonymousbut no less realrelationship with the
miners who dug the coal, many of whom work in dangerous and
exploitative conditions, are badly injured, suffer from
serious health problems, and whose jobs are now under
threat. Thus, even such simple things such as turning on
lights and computers link me in powerful ways to the manner
in which this society organizes paid work, deals with the
people who have and do not have such work, engages in
environmental politics, and so on. If the topic of this
story was not lights and computers but hamburgers and french
fries, then this approach is exactly what one would find in
Fast Food Nation.
The topic of
fast food, the hidden relations that underpin it, and what
this means for education is something on which I've written
before. In Cultural Politics and Education (Apple,
1996), for instance, I use the example of our love of
cheap french fries to critically examine the
connections between the globalizing tendencies of
international capital, the foods we consume, and the
presence or absence of educational possibilities in a number
of nations. Begging the reader's indulgence, I wish to include a
portion of that section of the book in this review, since I
think that it speaks directly to the relations that
Schlosser uncovers so well.
Education and Cheap French Fries
glared off of the hood of the small car as we made our way
along the two lane road. The heat and humidity made me
wonder if I'd have any liquid left in my body at the end of
the trip and led me to appreciate Wisconsin winters a bit
more than one might expect. The idea of winter seemed more
than a little remote in this Asian country for which I have
a good deal of fondness. But the topic at hand was not the
weather; rather, it was the struggles of educators and
social activists to build an education that was considerably
more democratic than what was in place in that country now.
This was a dangerous topic. Discussing it in philosophical
and formalistically academic terms was tolerated there.
Openly calling for it and situating it within a serious
analysis of the economic, political, and military power
structures that now exerted control over so much of this
nation's daily life was another matter.
traveled along that rural road in the midst of one of the
best conversations I had engaged in about the possibilities
of educational transformations and the realities of the
oppressive conditions so many people were facing in that
land, my gaze somehow was drawn to the side of the road. In
one of those nearly accidental happenings that clarify and
crystallize what reality is really like, my gaze fell
upon a seemingly inconsequential object. At regular
intervals, there were small signs planted in the dirt a few
yards from where the road met the fields. The sign was more
than a little familiar. It bore the insignia of one of the
most famous fast food restaurants in the United States. We
drove for miles past seemingly deserted fields along a flat
hot plain, passing sign after sign, each a replica of the
previous one, each less than a foot high. These were not
billboards. Such things hardly existed in this poor rural
region. Rather, they looked exactlyexactlylike the
small signs one finds next to farms in the American mid-west
that signify the kinds of seed corn that each farmer had
planted in her or his fields. This was a good guess it
I asked the
drivera close friend and former student of mine who had
returned to this country to work for the social and
educational reforms that were so necessarywhat turned out
to be a naive but ultimately crucial question in my own
education. "Why are those signs for **** there? Is
there a ***** restaurant nearby?" My friend looked at
me in amazement. "Michael, don't you know what these
signs signify? (Note 1) There's no western restaurants
within fifty miles of where we are. These signs represent
exactly what is wrong with education in this nation. Listen
to this." And I listened.
The story is
one that has left an indelible mark on me, for it condenses
in one powerful set of historical experiences the
connections between our struggles as educators and activists
in so many countries and the ways differential power works
in ordinary life. I cannot match the tensions and passions
in my friend's voice as this story was told; nor can I
convey exactly the almost eerie feelings one gets when
looking at that vast, sometimes beautiful, sometimes
scarred, and increasingly depopulated plain.
story is crucial to hear. Listen to this.
government of the nation has decided that the importation of
foreign capital is critical to its own survival. Bringing
in American, German, British, Japanese, and other investors
and factories will ostensibly create jobs, will create
capital for investment, and will enable the nation to speed
into the 21st. century. (This is of course elite group
talk, but let us assume that all of this is indeed truly
believed by dominant groups.) One of the ways the military-
dominated government has planned to do this is to focus part
of its recruitment efforts on agri-business. In pursuit of
this aim, it has offered vast tracts of land to
international agri-business concerns at very low cost. Of
particular importance to the plain we are driving through is
the fact that much of this land has been given over to a
supplier for a large American fast food restaurant
corporation for the growing of potatoes for the restaurant's
french fries, one the trademarks of its extensive success
throughout the world.
corporation was eager to jump at the opportunity to shift a
good deal of its potato production from the US to Asia.
Since many of the farm workers in the United States were now
unionized and were (correctly) asking for a liveable wage,
and since the government of that Asian nation officially
frowned on unions of any kind, the cost of growing potatoes
would be lower. Further, the land on that plain was perfect
for the use of newly developed technology to plant and
harvest the crop with considerably fewer workers. Machines
would replace living human beings. Finally, the government
was much less concerned about environmental regulations.
All in all, this was a fine bargain for capital.
course, people lived on some of this land and farmed
it for their own food and to sell what might be left over
after their ownrelatively minimalneeds were met. This
deterred neither agri-business nor the government. After
all, people could be moved to make way for
"progress." And after all, the villagers along
that plain did not actually have deeds to the land. (They
had lived there for perhaps hundreds of years, well before
the invention of banks, and mortgages, and deedsno paper,
no ownership). It would not be too hard to move the people
off of the plain to other areas to "free" it for
intensive potato production and to "create jobs"
by taking away the livelihood of thousands upon thousands of
small scale farmers in the region.
with rapt attention as the rest of the story unfolded and as
we passed by the fields with their miniature corporate signs
and the abandoned villages. The people whose land had been
taken for so little moved, of course. As in so many other
similar places throughout what dominant groups call the
Third World, they trekked to the city. They took their
meager possessions and moved into the ever expanding slums
within and surrounding the one place that held out some hope
of finding enough paid work (if everyoneincluding
childrenlabored) so that they could survive.
government and major segments of the business elite
officially discouraged this, sometimes by hiring thugs to
burn the shanty towns, other times by keeping conditions so
horrible that no one would "want" to live there.
But still the dispossessed came, by the tens of thousands.
Poor people are not irrational, after all. The loss of
arable land had to be compensated for somehow and if it took
cramming into places that were deadly at times, well what
were the other choices? There were factories being
built in and around the cities which paid incredibly low
wagessometimes less than enough money to buy sufficient
food to replace the calories expended by workers in the
production processbut at least there might be paid work if
one was lucky.
So the giant
machines harvested the potatoes and the people poured into
the cities and international capital was happy. It's not a
nice story, but what does it have to do with
education? My friend continued my education.
dominated government had given all of these large
international businesses twenty years of tax breaks to
sweeten the conditions for their coming to that country.
Thus, there was now very little money to supply the health
care facilities, housing, running water, electricity, sewage
disposal, and schools for the thousands upon thousands of
people who had sought their future in or had literally been
driven into the city. The mechanism for not building
these necessities was quite clever. Take the lack of any
formal educational institutions as a case in point. In
order for the government to build schools it had to be shown
that there was a "legitimate" need for such
expenditure. Statistics had to be produced in a form that
was officially accepted. This could only be done
through the official determination of numbers of registered
births. Yet, the very process of official registration made
it impossible for thousands of children to be recognized as
In order to
register for school, a parent had to register the birth of
the child at the local hospital or government officefew of
which existed in these slum areas. And even if you could
somehow find such an office, the government officially
discouraged people who had originally come from outside the
region of the city from moving there. It often refused to
recognize the legitimacy of the move as a way of keeping
displaced farmers from coming into the urban areas and
thereby increasing the population. Births from people who
had no "legitimate" right to be there did not
count as births at all. It is a brilliant strategy in which
the state creates categories of legitimacy that define
social problems in quite interesting ways (Fraser, 1989;
Curtis, 1992). Foucault would have been proud, I am
are no schools, no teachers, no hospitals, no
infrastructure. The root causes of this situation rest not
in the immediate situation. They can only be illuminated if
we focus on the chain of capital formation internationally
and nationally, on the contradictory needs of the state, on
the class relations and the relations between country and
city that organize and disorganize that country.
and I had been driving for quite a while now. I had
forgotten about the heat. The ending sentence of the story
pulled no punches. It was said slowly and quietly, said in
a way that made it even more compelling. "Michael,
these fields are the reason there's no schools in my city.
There's no schools because so many folks like cheap french
I tell this
story about the story told to me for a number of reasons.
First, it is simply one of the most powerful ways I know of
reminding myself and all of us of the utter importance of
seeing schooling relationally, of seeing it as
connectedfundamentallyto the relations of domination and
exploitation (and to struggles against them) of the larger
society. Second, and equally as importantly, I tell this
story to make a crucial theoretical and political point.
Relations of power are indeed complex and we do need to take
very seriously the postmodern focus on the local and on the
multiplicity of the forms of struggle that need to be
engaged in. It is important as well to recognize the
changes that are occurring in many societies and to see the
complexity of the "power/knowledge" nexus. Yet in
our attempts to avoid the dangers that accompanied some
aspects of previous "grand narratives," let us
not act as if capitalism has somehow disappeared.
Let us not act as if class relations don't count. Let us
not act as if all of the things we learned about how the
world might be understood politically have been somehow
overthrown because our theories are now more complex.
The World of the Hamburger
exceedingly clear and un-mystified way, Schlosser
demonstrates all of this. He brings the social relations
that stand behind the empty versant plain of my story back
home, forcing us to pay attention to what is happening in
our own backyard. By taking us through the entire circuit
of production of fast food such as hamburgers and french
friesfrom the processes behind the creation of these
commodities from farms, ranches, and meat packing plants, to
their selling and circulation, and then to their consumption
in ubiquitous fast food restaurants (and now even more in
our schools)he is able to show us what the hidden
relations actually are and what their real and determinate
effects also are on our health, on the environment, on
children's lives, on schooling, and on the workers who do
the unseen labor to produce and sell these things.
effects of his well-written and compelling description of
the lives and effects behind our fast food culture can often
be devastating. His discussion of how this culture is now
permeating school lunchesoften in ways that are
dangerous not only to the immediate but also long term
health of our childrenshould make any thoughtful
educator be just as concerned with the food we serve in
schools as with the knowledge that is served up as well.
His summary of what is happening is short but eloquent.
There's shit in your food.
effects of his descriptions on the reader are nothing
compared to the real and material effects of our ever
increasing demand for fast food on the workers in the meat
packing industry. There the laboroften done by
Latinos/as specifically brought in to work in these
factoriesis constantly being intensified.
Workers labor under grim and very dangerous conditions, ones
all too reminiscent of the satanic mills Marx
described in his justly famous accounts of primitive
capitalism. Nor are they anything like what happens to
workers in, say, Macdonalds who wish to unionize, only to
find that the notoriously anti-union company closes that
franchise and opens a new one down the block which refuses
to hire the former workers who sought a union for protection
against their truly awful working condition and salaries.
Nor finally is it anything like what happens to independent
farmers and ranchers who find themselves caught between the
muscle of multinational food processing giants and their own
wish to be autonomous and to make a decent living that is
also respectful of their land. Here, rural America, like
the rural area I described in my own vignette earlier,
becomes simply one more site for profit making, no matter
what the social cost.
isn't pretty, but then much of this nation isn't pretty
either if you reposition yourself to look at it from the
bottom rather than the middle or the top. Yet, Schlosser
also tells a different story, one with rich American themes.
The biographies of the entrepreneurs who began fast food
chains is also the story of working class men (they were
almost all men) who had dropped out of school early on and
who, through hard work and a good deal of luck, became
wealthy. Horatio Alger meets modern mass production
techniques. Indeed, one of the more fascinating parts of
the book is the ways in which Taylorized forms of production
and labor control (ones, by the way, that also led to the
creation of our dominant models of curriculum development
and to the introduction of behavioral objectives in schools
[see, e.g., Kliebard, 1995; Apple 1990]) were introduced
into food production in restaurants and became the signature
of fast food marketing.
also shows that the ultimate goal of most fast food
companies is to create a process in which workers have
absolutely no discretion whatsoever and need only the
very limited skills required to load the machinery that will
do nearly all of the actual cooking and serving. The fact
that fast food restaurants now employ a huge number of
workersin many ways the industry has become the
largest private employer in the United States and in nations
such as Brazilhas important implications for our
educational system. We are repeatedly told by neo-liberals
that we must make closer connections between our school
systems and the (paid) economy. But if the paid labor
market is increasingly structured around Mac-
jobs with their low-wage, part time, non-unionized,
de-skilled laboras much of it iswhat kind of
future are we preparing our children for? The world that
neo-liberal school critiques live in, one in which the
private sector is always better than the public sector and
the common good and social justice will have to look out for
themselves, looks more and more like what Schlosser
describes (Apple, 2001). It amazes me that we can listen to
their unabashed boosterism of the benefits of the
unregulated free market without wondering what
world they live in. Certainly, after reading Fast Food
Nation it will be harder to listen to their claims
without raising some serious questions about who benefits
from the ways this society is currently organized.
Interrupting Fast Food Culture
beginning of this essay, I noted that Fast Food
Nation is also interested in raising challenges to the
ways fast food is consumed, how it regulates our desires,
and how it impacts on our lives and those of our children.
Schlosser's suggestions for interrupting these
things are useful but rather limited. His majorand
justifiablesuggestion is for us simply to just
say no. Don't buy the things that fast food now
markets in our schools and restaurants. Certainly, boycotts
have proven to be effective, in communities and in schools
and universities (see, e.g., Zarni and Apple, 2000).
However, leaving it up to the individual parent, student, or
school seems rather too weak to me. How might one actually
begin to strategically organize such a movement?
There are lessons to be learned from previous actions among
individuals and groups here. As I show elsewhere, sometimes
these movements can actually cut across ideological
boundaries, as in the left and right coalitions to challenge
Channel One in schools that are currently growing nationally
there are many instances across the nation of students
themselves mobilizing against what they see as destructive
environmental and economic policies and against racist,
sexist, and homophobic policies and practices. Can we build
on these tendencies? Do they provide elements that can help
us think more cogently about interrupting dominant economic,
political, and cultural forms? Schlosser is not aware of
these movements. It would have strengthened his analysis
and proposals for action if he had included them. It
certainly would have provided more reason to be hopeful.
asking Schlosser to do all of the heavy lifting of telling
us how to organize against the cultural and economic forms
that have led us to a nation that accepts shit
in our food is a bit unfair. It takes us off the hook.
Just as my friend and student did for me during my trip to
that Asian nation, Schlosser has given us some powerful
pictures of the relations we have with forces that act in
hidden ways. It's now our task to take the realities he's
helped to uncover and to popularize and to do something
about them. I for one haven't eaten shitty food
for many years and am involved in national and international
movements that challenge its dominance. What will you
I have been asked by my colleagues there to keep the names
of the nation and the restaurant chain anonymous because of
their fear of retribution by powerful forces there.
Apple, M.W. (1990). Ideology and curriculum,
2nd ed. New
Apple, M.W. (1996). Cultural politics and education.
New York: Teachers College Press.
Apple, M.W. (2001). Educating the "right" Way:
Markets, standards, God, and inequality. New York:
Curtis, B. (1992). True government by choice men?
Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
du Gay, P., Hall, S., Janes, L., Mackay, H, and Negus, K.
(1997). Doing cultural studies: The story of the Sony
Walkman. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE.
Fraser, N. (1989). Unruly practices. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Kliebard, H. (1995). The struggle for the American
curriculum, 2nd ed. New York:
Zarni and Apple, M.W. (2000). Conquering goliath: The Free
Burma Coalition takes down Pepsico. Campus, inc., G.
White (Ed.). Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, pp.280-290.
About the Reviewer
Michael W. Apple
John Bascom Professor of Curriculum & Instruction and
Educational Policy Studies
University of Wisconsin-Madison
225 N. Mills Street
Madison, Wisconsin 53706
Michael W. Apple is John Bascom Professor of Curriculum and
Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University
of Wisconsin, Madison. A former elementary and secondary
school teacher and past president of a teachers union, he
has worked with governments, dissident groups, unions, and
educators in many countries to democratize educational
research, policy, and practice. He has written extensively
on the relationship between education and power.