We Are What We Eat
by Ann Lewinson – May 27, 2004 originally appeared in Valley Advocate
Morgan Spurlock discourses on corporate vs. personal responsibility, rampant obesity, the scourge that is No Child Left Behind, the crap kids are fed in school lunch programs and his documentary film ” Super Size Me”
Three trips to McDonald’s a day is a little boy’s dream-but the reality was a nightmare for Morgan Spurlock, whose film Super Size Me documents his one-month subsistence on Big Macs and Egg McMuffins and its disastrous consequences. (Super Size Me is currently screening at the Academy of Music in Northampton.) Now fully recovered from his dietary misadventure, Spurlock is spinning off his Sundance award-winning first feature into 30 Days, an FX series premiering this fall that will examine other issues such as poverty, religion and sexuality. I visited Spurlock in his SoHo office, where he keeps a set of vintage McDonaldland dolls including the Grimace, the Hamburglar and Mayor McCheese.
Ann Lewinson: Your mother cooked dinner every single night when you were growing up.
Morgan Spurlock: She did.
Lewinson : But you had these toys.
Spurlock: I did. I’m trying to remember when those toys came out. I guess it was ’76, ’77. I got those for Christmas, so I was six or seven years old. They sold them at Kmart. I think Remco made them.
Lewinson: So you did, sometimes, go to McDonald’s.
Spurlock: Actually, I loved Burger Chef when I was a kid, then the McDonald’s came in. We would go once a month. If we went out to get fast food, or if we went out to eat anywhere, it was a treat.
Lewinson: How did you get the idea for this film?
Spurlock: I was really inspired by the lawsuits. I was sitting on my mother’s couch – Thanksgiving, 2002 – and a spokesman from McDonald’s came on TV and said, “You can’t link our food to these girls being obese. Our food is healthy, it’s nutritious, it’s good for you.” The light went on-if it’s good for me, I should be able to eat it breakfast, lunch and dinner for 30 days straight with no side effects, right? I turned to my vegan girlfriend and said, “I’ve got a great idea” and she said, “You are not going to do that.”
Lewinson: You had created an MTV show which dared people to do dumb things.
Spurlock: I Bet You Will. It was the first show that was started on the Web that went to television. We would go out on the street and get people to do silly things for money. We got a Wall Street trader to sell us the clothes off his back, and he ended up being in his underwear and his shoes at eight in the morning.
Lewinson: Was this before Jackass?
Spurlock: When we launched the show on the Web it was before Jackass. We did 53 episodes for the network and then they canceled it. We had this money left over and I said, “Let’s make a movie.” This movie was really cheap, it was something that I knew we could completely execute on our own, and most importantly it was something that I was really passionate about. It started off as a film about fast food and obesity, but the more I started to research, I said it needs to be more about corporate vs. personal responsibility, and that’s the core of the film, I think. Where does corporate responsibility stop and personal responsibility begin?
Lewinson: Where does it begin?
Spurlock: I think that we are very much in control of what we buy. We are bombarded with advertisements from such a young age. Look at countries like Finland, Denmark, Sweden, which ban advertising to kids under the age of 13. At a certain age I think we have a lot of responsibility. And there also has to be a level of responsibility from a corporation. McDonald’s alone feeds 46 million people every day. Do they have no obligation to help educate their consumers? Everyone knows it’s bad for you, but I don’t think everybody knows how bad it is, and I think that really comes across in the movie. As bad as people think a high-fat, high-sugar, super-ber fast food lifestyle is for you, they really don’t know how bad it is.
Lewinson: Your doctors didn’t know.
Spurlock: The doctors had no idea. Here are three physicians who all said, “Yeah, maybe you’ll gain some weight. Your cholesterol will go up a little bit, your triglycerides maybe, but that’s it.” That’s three doctors, so what’s the average guy going to think? Every day most of America overeats and under-exercises. The film is a fast-forward of your life-in 30 days you look at what could happen to you over 20, 30, 40 years of over-consumption. You’re on a path to get heart disease, liver failure, diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, hyperuricemia, gout, kidney stones…
Lewinson: You also had symptoms of addiction.
Spurlock: Addiction, depression, impotence…
Lewinson: But addiction speaks to the issue of personal vs. corporate responsibility. Obviously if you were having mood swings and felt better when you had a Big Mac, then there’s something going on-not that there’s something in the meat. You do make the connection to the tobacco industry.
Spurlock: Look at Joe Camel. They used Joe Camel as a great piece of marketing towards the kids. And here’s this clown. You never see the clown eat the food. Why is that?
Lewinson: Willard Scott was the first Ronald McDonald.
Spurlock: He created the character, and then they fired him because he was overweight.
Lewinson: You also talk about the way McDonald’s markets to kids through Happy Meals and playgrounds in the restaurants. A playground would seem to be a nice contribution to an inner city, but you see it as pernicious.
Spurlock: The playgrounds aren’t there just for kids to come play. Parents bring their kids there, so things get sold. Will they allow you to go into the playground without making a purchase? A lot of places they won’t. You’ve got to buy your ticket to get in, and it’s usually a burger or fries or a Coke.
Lewinson: And if kids drank less Coke, maybe they’d need less Ritalin…
Spurlock: We always talk about how kids can’t pay attention in schools. For me the scariest thing in the whole movie is the school lunch program. We’re supposedly educating their minds, but we’re doing nothing to educate their bodies. We’re eliminating physical education, we’re eliminating health education, and we’re doing nothing to build a platform upon which to have a healthy lifestyle. Our priorities are so out of whack because we continue to cut education, and we’re forcing the boards and state legislatures to find ways to get more money. So they’re making these deals to pay for the band and the football team. And parents have no idea. At some of these schools it’s like these kids are having lunch in a 7-11. One school we shot in, they have a slushie machine in the lunchroom.
Lewinson: The school in Naperville?
Spurlock: Yeah, you can get a cherry or a Coke slushie for lunch, along with pretzels and candy bars and Gatorade and ice cream. They’re saying it’s good for the kids to be able to make choices. You know what? When the bell rings at three o’clock they can walk out those doors and all those choices are right outside. This is the one place where they shouldn’t be able to make a choice.
Lewinson: You also visited a public school for teens with behavior problems where they have a nutritious lunch program.
Spurlock: And these are the bad kids!
Lewinson: It costs the same – so why isn’t this more common?
Spurlock: Because it’s about the contracts. It’s about getting some additional kickbacks to pay for things. We’re selling out kids down a path that’s going to lead to illness and we have blinders on.
Lewinson: New York City recently banned the sale of soda in the schools…
Spurlock: But then they made a contract with Snapple for $167 million. This is happening everywhere. The soda companies are saying, “OK, we’ll take the soda out, here’s the Fruitopias.” It’s 10 percent juice, 90 percent corn syrup. They need to get all the machines out.
Lewinson: How does No Child Left Behind fit in?
Spurlock: No Child Left Behind was one of the worst pieces of legislation ever, and it’s destroying our educational system. The whole idea was to create much more well-rounded students – they are getting more well-rounded, right around here [pats a nonexistent gut].
Lewinson: At this point in the movie you flash a picture of Bush.
Spurlock: Well, No Child Left Behind was his baby. We have this healthy president who talks about how important health is, but we never see anything to back that up. We have no problem buying massive amounts of jets and fighter planes and tanks, but putting money into schools is a problem.
Lewinson: It’s a good thing you didn’t have a distribution deal with Disney.
Lewinson: So after the film premiered at Sundance, McDonald’s said it was phasing out supersizing.
Spurlock: Six weeks after the movie premiered at Sundance.
Lewinson: Was that a coincidence?
Spurlock: What do you think? They said it had nothing to do with the film whatsoever. And then the day before the movie opened, they launched the Go Active Happymeal. Just another amazing coincidence.
Lewinson: Jim Cantalupo, the McDonald’s CEO you tried repeatedly to contact in the film, had a fatal heart attack last month.
Spurlock: It’s a really terrible thing. The guy was 60; he was not an old man.
Lewinson: Did you ever think about just going to his office, standing in the parking lot with a megaphone?
Spurlock: That’s what everybody says: “Why didn’t you storm the doors?” That’s somebody else’s movie.
Lewinson: McDonald’s actually hadn’t been doing well, and in Cantalupo’s 16 months as CEO he really turned the company around. A lot of this was credited to the introduction of the “premium” salads.
Spurlock: They talk about how many salads they’re selling, how that’s what’s turned this company around. I personally believe it’s the McGriddles. I would love to know the number of McGriddles they’ve sold. McDonald’s sold 150 million salads last year, an impressive sounding number until you realize they feed 46 million people a day. That’s almost 17 billion people a year, so less than 1 percent of the people who go to McDonald’s are buying a salad. What are the other 99 percent getting?
Lewinson: What would you like to see happen as a result of this film?
Spurlock: I would love for people to walk out of this movie and say, “Holy shit, I’ve got to take better care of myself. Next time I’m not going to get a giant size. Maybe I’m not going to go there at all. And I’m not going to eat out four to five days a week anymore. I’m going to sit down and eat dinner with my kids, with the TV off, so that we can have a conversation and talk about what we’re eating, actually have a relationship with one another and our food. I’m going to go down to the school and see what my kids are eating.” And it would be great for a corporation to say, “Of our $1.2 billion in advertising we’re going to dedicate $300-400 million to promoting healthy lifestyles.” How great would it be to turn on Saturday morning cartoons and see somebody going, “Apples, they’re the greatest thing ever!” and Justin Timberlake going, “Hey, I love running! You should go for a run!” How great would it be if they asked you to minimize, rather than supersize? How great would it be if rather than having to look around for nutrition information, it’s right there on the big board? Ruby Tuesday is putting it in their menu.
Lewinson: That’s a chain restaurant?
Spurlock: It’s like TGIFridays-it was one of the original “flair” restaurants with people with buttons and sleds on the wall. It’s going to say, “Giant double-fudge chocolate brownie dessert, this many calories, this much fat, this much sugar.” How cool would it be if you walked into McDonald’s and it said, “Double quarter pounder with cheese: 690 calories?” But if you really start to educate your consumers you stand to take a hit on your bottom line. So how much do you educate them?
Lewinson: Do you still eat fast food?
Spurlock: I don’t eat at McDonald’s. If I’m going to eat a burger I’m going to go somewhere that makes really good cheeseburgers. I was just in Los Angeles a couple weeks ago and I ate at one of my favorite burger chains, Tommy Burger. It’s the original Tommy. They’ve been making burgers in this little shack on the corner of Beverly and Rampart Boulevard in East LA for 57 years. All hours of the night there’re people lined up there. It’s one of the few places that the slices of tomato are thicker than the beef, and then they cover it with cheese and chili. It’s a heart attack in a wrapper, but I hadn’t eaten that in a year and a half and it was great. But I do that once a month. I don’t do it every day.
Lewinson: Have you seen the Burger King Subservient Chicken?
Spurlock: Somebody was talking about that but I haven’t seen it.
Lewinson: I first thought it was a hoax because Burger King doesn’t link to it from their site.
Spurlock: You tell the chicken what to do.
Lewinson: It’s a man in a chicken suit wearing a garter belt. You would think that Burger King, like McDonald’s, would be marketing to families, but this seems to be targeted more towards…
Spurlock: … college kids …
Lewinson: … Internet porn fans, I think. Doesn’t a satire of porn webcams have the potential to upset parents?
Spurlock: I think a lot of things have the potential to upset parents. I think that parents just don’t get upset enough. We as a nation have been complacent for so long and we can’t do that anymore. I hope parents get upset when they see some of the things in this film, because we should be getting upset, the way we’re franchising out our lives. Morgan Spurlock faces his nemesis: He subsisted on a McD’s-only diet for a month and lived to make a documentary about it.