July 29, 2016

A century ago, nearly a third of Americans lived on a farm. Many Americans ate from the crops and kitchen gardens they cultivated and the animals they raised.

But the Industrial Revolution eventually changed all of that. Most Americans moved away from farms and into jobs in factories and offices in cities and suburbs. But the newly minted urban and suburban-dwellers needed to eat. And since they didn’t have much time on their hands, they’d need something quick… and appetizing.

Fast food was created to fill that need. It was designed to be efficient, says Andrew Smith, a professor of food studies at the New School University in New York and author of the book, Fast Food: The Good, The Bad, and The Hungry.

But the quick service with a smile wasn’t the only attraction. Fast food meals had three things people instinctively crave: loads of salt, fat, and sugar.

The Golden Arches

Ray Kroc knew the McDonald brothers were on to something. Their burger joint in San Bernardino, California, was packed with people every day.

“They were served quickly and inexpensively and it was a tremendous success story from [Kroc’s] standpoint,” Smith says.

Kroc envisioned McDonald’s restaurants across the entire United States. So he bought the business for $2.7 million in 1961.

His first target was the burgeoning suburbs of the 1950s. Kroc would fly over cities, spot where suburbs were being developed, and mark those areas to build a McDonald’s. His plan worked.

The Future of Fast Food

Today, hundreds of thousands of fast food restaurants dot America’s roadways. About one in three kids in America will eat a fast food meal today, which worries some public health researchers.

But, Smith says fast food restaurants have begun to try to change the perception that they’re only bastions of heart-stopping, diabetes-inducing meals.

“They’re offering salads now,” he says. “Not a lot of people order them but they at least have them on the menu and they can point to them.”

The trend toward healthier offerings is also in line with a trend toward more diverse cuisine options. Smith envisions fast food vegetarian restaurants.

“There’s no reason why you can’t have some of the same principles and serve organic, local, fresh food,” he says.

That hasn’t happened yet. But, you can see the beginnings of just such a movement at places like Chipotle and Sweetgreen.

Some have wondered whether a more health-conscious public could spell trouble for the fast food industry. But, Smith has no doubt fast food will weather the storm.

“By far, [fast food] is the most significant culinary trend of the last 50 years and is certainly going to continue well into the next several decades,” he says.

innovation hub, WGBH, pri, Kara Miller, Andrew Smith

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