This is not the column I started to write. My intention was to write about the contribution farmers make to the fast food industry and about how, as we celebrate National Agriculture Day (March 23), we should help consumers connect the dots between what farmers do and what comes out of the drive thru window at their local fast food restaurant. While doing research on this, I discovered the widespread vilification, misinformation, and fuzzy logic being promulgated by activist groups against farmers and against the fast food industry.
The critics claim that that the fast food industry has corrupted farming, “The industry’s enormous purchasing power and demand for vast amounts of cheap animal products are among the principal driving forces behind factory farming, as well as the massive government subsidies for staple animal feed crops like corn and soy that sustain it.” They also slam farmers for turning out food that leads to obesity and discourages variety and diversity in food choices.
In the past few decades, the fast food industry has seen tremendous growth. The McDonald’s Corporation, for example, operated about a thousand restaurants in 1968. Today the company runs about 28,000 restaurants worldwide, opening nearly two thousand new ones annually. It hires about one million employees each year, more than any other private or public organization in the United States. The reason for this continued growth is that, despite what the food police say, most consumers like what the industry offers: convenience, low cost, and consistent quality food.
Likewise, the impact this growth has had on agriculture has also become significant. McDonald’s is also the nation’s single largest purchaser of beef, pork, and potatoes and is the second largest buyer of chicken. While it is the largest fast food brand, McDonalds is not the only one by far. While the naysayers and handwringers are quick to point out the negative side of the industry, there is a very significant positive story here.
While food snobs call the menu items at fast food restaurants “empty calories,” the reality is that the variety and nutrition of fast food has improved in recent years. This is the result of consumer demands and competitive pressure. Salt and fat content have been reduced, and options like salads, fruits, and fewer sugary drinks have increased. While the many dietitians and nutritionists I have spoken with will readily admit that eating 3 meals a day of fast food is not healthy, they will also say moderate consumption is okay. The industry gets blamed for obesity when science shows that the amount of food you eat is a much bigger contributor than what you eat.
Another positive that does not get talked about a lot is access to food. Fast food outlets are plentiful; grocery stores are not. The pandemic brought this into stark relief. As restaurants and bars closed and as grocery stores ran short of food, the fast food industry kept its drive thru lanes open and safe. The industry was quick to respond and was able to put into practice safe, contact-free food delivery. Taco Bell was among the first to establish a no contact system where customers could order and pay for their food with their phone and grab it as they drove through, with no human contact.
Farmers, large and small, organic and traditional, have a lot at stake in the fast food industry. Like it or not, the fast food industry is a major factor in the demand for what is grown on American farms. As we celebrate Ag Day, let’s not only celebrate the farmers who produce the food but those who deliver that food, even if it is wrapped in paper and delivered thru a drive thru window.