Jim Tranquada

Low-income communities are increasingly left behind in an unsustainable national food system, and Americans have a responsibility to make the system fair for all, Fast Food Nation author Eric Schlosser told a full house in Occidental College's Thorne Hall on Thursday evening.


"The wealthy will always be well. It's the poor and working-class people in the United States who need a sustainable food system more than anyone else," he said. "They can least afford the health problems that result from a food system based on poverty and exploitation.

"We are all complicit in this," Schlosser continued. "When it comes to food, you are connected to the low-income workers who pick fruits and vegetables and who prepare your food with every bite that you take."

Eric Schlosser lecture: 

A reporter for The Atlantic magazine, Schlosser delivered the College's annual Antoinette and Vincent M. Dungan Lecture on Energy and the Environment. He advocated for the need for a just and sustainable national food system through the intersection of food production, the "amorality" of the marketplace, and workers' rights, which he wrote about in his 2001 best-selling book, Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal. The book, which explains the rise and global dominance of the American fast-food industry, has been compared to Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, a novel about immigrant life and corruption in the meatpacking industry in early 20th-century America.

"Eric Schlosser has emerged as a kind of social justice icon, someone who sought to occupy the food industry before there was an Occupy movement," said Robert Gottlieb, the Henry R. Luce Professor of Urban Environmental Studies and director of Oxy's Urban and Environmental Policy Institute, in his introduction of Schlosser.

Before the lecture began, College President Jonathan Veitch conferred an honorary degree on Schlosser for his work as a professional muckracker. The president noted how the term "muckraker" was originally a pejorative-based on the man in John Bunyan's Christian allegory, Pilgrim's Progress, who was offered a place in heaven but who could only look downward, raking the muck of the streets.

"Your view is not down but up and out, as you document the previously unmapped intersections between food, workplace, industrial agriculture, and immigration," Veitch said in his citation. "Your work is a tribute to the power of a single curious mind."

Schlosser said that he is amazed that Fast Food Nation is still part of the national debate. "But the pride I feel," he said, "is tempered by a bittersweet feeling about the people who have been left behind."

He spoke of the improvements in our food culture over the last 10 years: middle-class Americans are more knowledgeable about healthy food, "green" grocers such as Whole Foods and Trader Joe's are flourishing, organic produce is the fastest-growing segment of agriculture, and an organic garden even grows at the White House.

But over the last 40 years or so, Schlosser said, in part through the influence of the automated- labor, union-busting and low-wage practices of fast-food behemoth McDonald's, the workers who pick fruits and vegetables, harvest grapes, and flip hamburgers have had their wages cut by about 50 percent. The wages of meatpacking workers, who were once paid enough to live a middle-class life in the 1960s, have also been cut by the same percentage.

He noted that a study by UCLA's Institute for Research on Labor and Employment reported that one-third of low-income workers in Los Angeles County were paid less than the minimum wage. In addition, two-thirds of these workers had been short-changed by at least one dollar in their hourly rate, and one-fifth had worked overtime but were not paid overtime wages. Many also worked "off the clock," Schlosser said, and were not paid at all for those hours of work.

"This is a return to The Jungle. The typical low-income worker makes $16,000 a year and they are denied about $2,000 a year," he said. "This is wage theft, pure and simple."

The journalist also touched on rising obesity rates among all Americans, but especially low-income children, and the paucity of healthy food choices in poor neighborhoods.

"Obesity will soon exceed smoking as the single largest cause of preventable death," Schlosser said. "Forty percent of middle-schoolers in low-income communities are overweight or obese. And if you are obese by age 13, the odds are overwhelming that you will be obese for life."

Besides writing about food, Schlosser has also spoken up about legislation that affects our food system. He recently championed a proposal by organic farmer and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) to amend the national Farm Bill to better support local and regional farmers. Schlosser also co-produced the Emmy Award-winning 2008 documentary, Food, Inc., which examines corporate farming in the United States and suggests that such large-scale food production is not only inhumane, but economically and environmentally unsustainable.

The journalist tempered his lecture by emphasizing that the food landscape is not all bleak. There is a new movement to increase the accessibility of healthy food, he said.

Cities such as Los Angeles and New York have created food-policy taskforces, and food co-operatives, community gardens, farmers markets, and the availability of fresh produce in grocery stores that cater to low-income families have increased, making it easier for people to eat local, fresh, healthy food. (More tips by the L.A. Food Policy Council on how to eat locally and sustainable can be found here.

Schlosser ended his talk advocating for a better, sustainable food system by quoting the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh: "Once there is seeing, there must be acting. Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?"

The audience responded by giving him a standing ovation.