You are what you eat

Eric Schlosser giving speech

Eric Schlosser, the award-winning author of “Fast Food Nation,” delivered a provocative commencement speech that earned him a standing ovation.

By Edward Weinman

Whitman Magazine: Of all the colleges in the U.S., why deliver Whitman’s 2012 Commencement Speech?

Eric Schlosser: I was honored to be invited. I’ve been to Whitman a few times. I first passed through in January 2002 to attend a union meeting in Pasco for workers at the Tyson slaughterhouse … I came back a few years later to attend a rally in support of Maria Martinez, the courageous union leader at the meatpacking plant. The rally was held on Whitman’s campus … In my involvement to help meatpacking workers I got to know some Whitman students and professors. I was impressed that at Whitman there’s an effort to engage with the local community.

How did the union meetings turn out?

I’d like to tell you that the story had a happy ending. But it didn’t. Tyson Foods pushed the union out of the plant, and Maria lost her job. And during the same period that Tyson was cutting the wages of meatpacking workers and reducing their benefits, the company was almost tripling the salary of its chief executive. In 2004, while claiming that money was too tight to pay workers anything more, John Tyson got paid $20.9 million.

In “Fast Food Nation,” you write that the mistreatment of workers is a symptom of a broken food system. The book was a New York Times best-seller for more than two years. Why was it so popular?

“Fast Food Nation” had all this information people were being denied. Consumers didn’t know where their food was coming from. I was one of those people. It’s amazing how alienated we’ve become from our food system, due to the centralized control of it. We’ve been turned into passive consumers of this manufactured product rather than being engaged, active and aware.

How do we fix this problem?

We need to have a food system that is much more decentralized, and treats workers, livestock and consumers with much more respect. We need to move from uniform and heavily processed standardized food to much more local and sustainable food that is better for us to eat.

If we are what we eat, then what are we in this country?

Unhealthy. The obesity rate connected to our diet, and the epidemic of diabetes, are evidence that we are doing something really wrong.

Why are we addicted to fast food?

The industry spends billions of dollars in marketing each year. If you spent billions of dollars convincing people to eat cardboard, I’m sure some would, especially if you make it sweet. Fast food is designed to make you want to eat it, and eat it again. It’s cheap, convenient and tastes good. Most of the fast food I ate while researching the book tasted really good. Of course, it tasted weird an hour later.

How can we avoid eating cardboard?

It’s impossible to be perfect. I’m certainly not. Start by surrendering the possibility of being pure. Then ask, “How can you be effective?” to the degree that you can spend money on food that’s produced the right way, supporting companies and farmers and chefs trying to do things the right way. People have to get involved in the political system, and in the community working with other people for change. That’s how problems are solved. Ultimately, I’m wary to spell out a blueprint for what people should do, but my mantra is that, at the bare minimum, you need to be aware. That’s why I write what I write.

You studied American history at Princeton and earned a graduate degree in British imperial history from Oxford. Yet you became an investigative reporter and an author of best-selling books. Speak to college graduates’ anxiety about finding jobs related to their degrees.

I thought about teaching history, and then my degrees would have been practical. But when you step away from the notion of what’s “useful,” my degrees were amazingly important to my writing. Everything you study about the world around you is going to be useful whatever career you choose. It’s good to be aware and not live in a state of ignorance and denial.

To read speeches from the 2012 Commencement and Baccalaureate, along with a story on the ceremonies, click here.

So, you are a product of a liberal arts education. How does this type of education equip Whitman students and alumni to fix the problems you write about?

A liberal arts education gives you a deeper understanding of the world and how it works – it gives you awareness. Graduating from someplace like Whitman gives you access to power in this society. Having a college degree makes you a privileged member of society. You are better equipped than most to do something about these problems. It’s not about having a selfish life, but recognizing how you’re connected to these other selves around you. It’s very old-fashioned stuff, but it’s stuff that’s been forgotten as selfishness and greed have been promoted as being noble.

What project are you working on now?

It’s a book about our relationship to nuclear weapons. It’s a technology we invented and perfected and a technology that threatens us profoundly. There’s an entire generation that’s reached maturity without knowing about nuclear weapons. Most people in their 30s or younger don’t have memories of the Cold War and the risks we faced. The book will be a profound reminder of what most people are now living in denial about.

The danger of nuclear proliferation is some depressing stuff, no?

It scares the hell out of me. But I’m just one of those people who would rather know about the threats we face. The work I’ve done gives me an appreciation for the simple pleasures of life: I love my family and like to go hiking in the hills.