The Fruits of Labor and Awareness
Bestselling author Eric Schlosser talks about berries, health and justice
For Eric Schlosser, author of “Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal” and keynote speaker at this weekend’s Union Delegates Conference, the foray into the underbelly of the fast food industry began, ironically, with a food that is unlikely ever to find its way into the fluorescent lighting of a fast food joint—the humble strawberry.
Schlosser’s love of strawberries led him to look into how the plump berry landed in those little plastic baskets in our supermarkets. The story wasn’t nearly as pretty as the ruby red berries. As Schlosser looked into California’s strawberry farming in the 1990s, he learned that the state’s migrant workers endured back-breaking work and poor conditions and wages. Farm workers were being vilified as illegal immigrants siphoning off California’s financial resources, yet it was on the backs of those migrant workers that California’s agriculture industry gained its biggest profits.
“I was struck that some of the poorest workers had become the foundation of this industry, and instead of being respected, they were demonized,” Schlosser said during a recent phone interview.
Since then, the condition of workers, not only those of migrant farmhands but migrant meatpackers as well, has been Schlosser’s passion. It’s a passion that led him to what he believes is an equally ugly industry—the fast food business and the industrial farms and slaughterhouses that supply them, and fast food’s contribution to the rise in American obesity.
Union Delegates Conference
Schlosser will be speaking at the 2012 Union Delegates Conference in Hollywood on March 24 about fast food as one of the social forces that makes it tough to eat healthily. It’s a fitting presentation for the conference, themed “You Gotta Move,” where some 700 union members and leaders will learn about caring for themselves and becoming role models for KP members and their communities. Participants will fortify their leadership skills as health care providers and as union activists committed to making the partnership a model for the labor movement and health care.
“Health care providers should keep in mind, when taking care of patients and themselves, that there are bigger structural issues in how we got to have this terrible problem,” Schlosser says.
He points out the unhealthy relationship Americans have developed toward food. “We have a mass culture that is promoting absurd body images and a food system that guarantees that we won’t—can’t—achieve those (ideals),” Schlosser explains. “In what should be a source of strength and health in our life, food instead becomes a source of shame.”
Health care workers have an opportunity to change that attitude and to be role models in health.
“It sounds counterintuitive, but one of the great measures of success for health care is how well it keeps people out of it,” Schlosser says. “Aside from being a role model on the job, health care workers need to live a long, healthy life.”
I was struck that some of the poorest workers had become the foundation of this industry, and instead of being respected, they were demonized.
Change starts with knowledge
Of course, changing or simply maintaining a healthy lifestyle is hard. Organic food, or even fresh produce, is more expensive. When both parents work outside the home, as is typical, finding time to cook meals is difficult. To compound that, our eating habits are formed from a very young age—in utero.
“You have to be realistic about the challenge,” he says. “At the same time, people do make change in their lives. And a lot of it is access to education and access to healthy food.”
But Schlosser says there are three steps anyone can take to change their own health and that of their community:
- Educate yourself about the connection between what you eat and how it affects your health.
- Try to make changes that will guarantee as healthy a life as possible.
- Make sure your kids understand the food-health connection and provide opportunities to make good choices.
“When you’re challenging people about their habits, there can be a real pushback and an implied message,” Schlosser says. “And this really isn’t about judging people. It’s about making people healthy and living as long as possible and providing people the opportunity to take care of themselves through various incentives.”
“It’s the right thing to do for the workers, but also for the business,” says Schlosser.
In other words, providing opportunities for employees to take care of themselves does more than show concern for the wellbeing of the people who make an organization function. Healthier workers also mean costs associated for caring for unhealthy employees are lower, and that is good for the bottom line, which in turn makes Kaiser Permanente more affordable for members and patients.
As for the modest strawberry, Schlosser still loves to eat them.
“I still buy strawberries, but I have much more awareness.”
And awareness is the first step.