In 2001, investigative journalist Eric Schlosser published his bestselling book Fast Food Nation, a groundbreaking analysis of the unprecedented growth – and hidden costs – of the fast-food industry. Since then, Eric has been widely recognized as a leading voice in efforts to reform the nation's food system. While he has consistently drawn attention to food safety and other issues of pressing concern to consumers, Eric has also emerged as a strong advocate for the rights of low-wage workers toiling at the base of the U.S. food industry.
In part, his workers' rights advocacy can be clearly traced through his near-decade of involvement with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers (CIW), the Florida-based farmworker organization spearheading a transformative Campaign for Fair Food. Indeed it is precisely this type of corporate supply chain accountability campaign – one brought about by workers in alliance with consumers – that Eric envisioned in the closing pages of Fast Food Nation.
Since 2003, Eric has spoken at CIW protest rallies; published op-eds in the nation's most respected newspapers; toured Immokalee alongside Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT); and even testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions. His efforts have not only raised the profile of the CIW's struggle for dignity and respect in Florida's tomato fields, but have also reinforced the fundamental importance of labor rights to the sustainable food movement.
I recently had the opportunity to pose a few questions to Eric about the state of the food movement:
When you were researching and writing Fast Food Nation a dozen years ago, did you have a sense that the so-called "food movement" –that is, grassroots activism and organizing around food issues, broadly defined – would make so much headway in the new millennium?
If there was a food movement in the late 1990s, I wasn’t aware of it. In fact, I was remarkably ignorant about food production and industrial agriculture when I began the research for Fast Food Nation in 1997. Had I known better, I would have started by reading the works of Wendell Berry, Francis Moore Lappe, Alice Waters, and Orville Schell, who’d already offered a trenchant critique of this industrial system. The food movement that they helped to launch in the 1970s had become dormant in many respects. I really didn’t know anything about it and, sadly, had never heard of those great pioneers of sustainability. It’s been incredibly gratifying to see their movement not only grow during the past decade, but also enter the mainstream. An organic garden at the White House was inconceivable in the late 1990s. Even President Clinton--whose administration did a lot of good things on the issue of food safety—was proudly and publicly eating at McDonald’s back then.
What are the primary factors driving the growth and victories of this movement?
First and foremost, I think, is the growing awareness of where our food comes from and how it’s being made. For years the industry did an excellent job of keeping that knowledge hidden from us. But once people began to see the consequences of this system, they didn’t want any part of it. Food has also become a useful prism for viewing other issues, such as animal rights, the widening gap between rich and poor, the increase in corporate power, and the obesity epidemic. The huge cost of our current system has encouraged millions of Americans to seek a better one.
What are the primary challenges facing the movement?
The central challenge, at this point, is to broaden the movement far beyond its well-educated, upper middle class base. The biggest victims of the industrial food system – the poor, the poorly educated, ordinary working people – need access to good, healthy affordable food. I have no tolerance for the right-wing argument that the food movement is inherently elitist. The campaigns to end slavery, to give women the right to vote, to protect the environment, all of them largely began among the upper middle class. There’s nothing wrong with that. But it would be wrong if the leaders of today’s food movement fail to reach out and build coalitions with those at the bottom of society. I’m optimistic that will happen, and Michelle Obama deserves enormous credit for her efforts on this issue.
Finally, you've been a longtime observer and supporter of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers' Campaign for Fair Food. What lessons do you think this initiative holds for others interested in reforming the food system?
I have tremendous respect and admiration for the Coalition. What they have achieved is truly remarkable – considering the power of the corporations they face, the racism toward the workers they represent, and the apathy about the labor issues they champion. Much of the Coalition’s success has been due to their discipline and hard work. But even more important has been the simple fact that they have the truth on their side. I hope that others seeking to reform the food system will show the same sort of compassion, dedication to the poor, and faith that the truth can overcome the most skillfully crafted lies.
Open letter to Chipotle CEO Steve Ells from sustainable food leaders, July 15, 2009
Video: “Fast Food Nation author says sustainable food movement should consider labor,” Grist.org, September 9, 2008
“Burger with a side of spies,” New York Times, Op-ed, May 7, 2008
“Penny foolish,” New York Times, Op-ed, November 29, 2007
“A side order of human rights,” New York Times, Op-ed, April 6, 2005
“Human rights are dying on the vine,” Los Angeles Times, Op-ed, March 5, 2004