ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
American eating habits are going through a huge change when it comes to fast food. Think less McDonald's, more Chipotle. This shift has consequences for farmers, for the environment and, of course, for everyone who eats. In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Michael Specter writes that for the first time since 1970, McDonald's will close more American restaurants than it opens. His article is called "Freedom From Fries." Welcome to the show.
MICHAEL SPECTER: My pleasure to be here.
SHAPIRO: You write that the fastest-growing segment of the restaurant market right now is fast casual. Describe what that means. Define the term for us.
SPECTER: Well, almost none of these terms are well-defined. But it basically means the thing between the group of restaurants like McDonald's that you drive through to get food and the group of restaurants that have tablecloths where you sit down and order from a human being.
SHAPIRO: What is so appealing to people today about these restaurants that they are taking a significant bite, if you will, out of the fast food market share?
SPECTER: They tend to serve nutritious local food with fresh ingredients that are delivered that day. People can watch them make the food, and you walk out of that kind of a restaurant feeling - gee, I just ate something that I like and maybe is even good for the environment.
SHAPIRO: Is it necessarily healthier than fast food? I mean, a Chipotle burrito with sour cream, guacamole, a huge tortilla - not exactly for people on a diet.
SPECTER: I think it is true that you can eat extremely healthy food at McDonald's, and you can eat amazingly badly at Chipotle.
SHAPIRO: And McDonald's, as you chronicle in this article, is trying mightily to straddle this divide. How are they doing?
SPECTER: They just reported a good earnings quarter for the first time in, I think, 17 quarters. They will tell you that's because they're doing what people want them to do. I think it's too soon to say that, and I think, basically - most of the people that I ran across and most of the studies that I saw suggest people don't go to McDonald's to eat healthy food. They go to eat fries and cheeseburgers.
SHAPIRO: But McDonald's is putting vast recourses into trying to offer people health food.
SPECTER: Well, I think McDonald's faces a really difficult position because all the data, all the lifestyle changes suggest that people want this change. They also, once in a while, want to just have fries. And when they once in a while just have fries, they tend to go to McDonald's or a place like it. So McDonald's feels like we should do what people want us to do. Whether that is going to make people have a different view of this totally indelibly iconic place or not is an open question. But they're trying really hard.
SHAPIRO: And you write that in the United States today, you can sell meals for a dollar, or you can sell nutritious meals. Doing both on a large scale is not possible. Explain why fries and cheeseburgers can be a dollar but a big, filling salad cannot.
SPECTER: Because the government of the United States help fries and cheeseburgers be a dollar by subsidizing the things that make them cheap - soybean, corn - so that animals can be fed very cheaply and we can have mass-produced meat. And potatoes can be grown very cheaply, and oil is dirt-cheap. And those things are cheap because we subsidize farmers who grow those things. We do not subsidize farmers who grow asparagus.
SHAPIRO: So if this is a tug-of-war between the unhealthy, for the most part, fast food restaurants and they healthier, for the most part, fast casual restaurants, it sounds like, in this tug-of-war, the government is pulling on the side of the fast food.
SPECTER: Oh, they're not - they're all in on the side of fast food.
SPECTER: And not only that. The government isn't the government because if you look at the Public Health Service and what they say and what they want you to do, it's pretty reasonable. It just happens to be the opposite of what the agricultural department says and wants you to do. So we're really not in a position to live the life that our public health officials tell us to live unless we work really hard at it and want to spend some extra money.
SHAPIRO: This article, of course, doesn't focus on the government, but do you see any signs that the government might be willing to refocus its priorities?
SPECTER: I see signs that many government officials, including even very conservative Republicans, realize that the costs of obesity, which are remarkable and getting more remarkable every year, are somewhat related to the incredibly low cost of cheeseburgers. And as soon as people start realizing that your dollar cheeseburger isn't a dollar if you factor in what it's going to cost in health care, then I think maybe we will have a bit of a difference. But we're not really there yet.
SHAPIRO: Michael Specter's article in the latest issue of The New Yorker is called "Freedom From Fries." Thanks very much for talking with us.
SPECTER: My pleasure.
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