One of my most indelible memories of working at McDonald's in the mid-'80s is of a meeting with my manager, Steve. I remember Steve's name because he seemed less uptight than some of the other managers who had graduated from Hamburger University—yes, that really exists. He would look the other way if you stood around for a few minutes and chatted with a coworker without constantly wiping a counter or tray.
Nonetheless, after working the 5 a.m.–1 p.m. shift one day, I went in for my six-month job evaluation, where Steve told me I was receiving an hourly raise of only a nickel—taking me to $3.40 an hour, just above minimum wage.
"It doesn't seem like you care," he said.
Truth is, I didn't. McDonald's was a way station, a place to earn a few (very few) bucks while in college and on my way to Something Bigger.
One in eight Americans has worked for McDonald's, according to company estimates. If you add them to those who've done time at Subway (I put in two years there as well), Burger King, Chick-fil-A, Wendy's and the dozens of other major fast food franchises, only the most fortunate have escaped the chains.
And for an increasing number of people, some of them middle-aged, these dirty, greasy, low-wage jobs are not a transfer point to a faster, more meaningful career track, but a final destination.
In two films at Full Frame, The Hand That Feeds and Swallow, food serves not merely as a vehicle for vitamins and calories, but also carries political and emotional weight.
The Hand That Feeds is a timely commentary on the unionization efforts at New York City's Hot & Crusty, a bagel chain where workers, many of them undocumented, earn less than minimum wage and log upward of 60 hours a week without medical insurance. Several health and safety issues—broken meat slicers, for example—imperil worker safety.
Undocumented workers are particularly vulnerable to exploitation. Managers can threaten them with deportation, knowing that plenty more desperate people will take their place.
Through real-time footage, hidden cameras and interviews, the film shows the lengths to which restaurant higher-ups will go to squelch the union. Rather than negotiate with workers and organizers, the restaurant owners would rather close or sic the police on demonstrators.
This narrative is familiar by now, but the disarming aspect of the conflict is that so few bystanders care. In New York City, a union town, of all places, the apathy is appalling.
We would expect such indifference, even hostility, in North Carolina, which ranks last in the nation in union membership at just 3 percent. In the past six months, fast food workers have gone on strike in the Triangle to demand higher wages. Instead, they have received animosity. How dare unskilled laborers ask to be treated fairly? Be grateful you have a job!
Gratitude does not equal servitude. It seems that the more fortunate have forgotten what it feels like to come home exhausted, covered in grease and smelling like old roast beef, pocketing less than $300 for a week's work. The Hand That Feeds will remind us.
I can't blame McDonald's for this—although the timing is coincidental—but within a year of starting that job I found that I had gained 25 pounds, and was then beset by anorexia.
Swallow, a 9-minute experimental film, doesn't delve into eating disorders per se, but it does illustrate how our memories of food and its attendant rituals contain potent psychological associations of security, comfort and love.
The documentary combines old 8mm and 16mm home-movie footage of happy picnics, bustling kitchens and birthday parties with extreme, intentionally unappetizing close-ups of food and mouths. Using voiceovers, all of them female, the film lifts the lid on many explicit and implicit messages we receive.
"Her way of expressing love was through food," says one woman. "Food, for a long time after her death, tasted horrible."
The act of force-feeding relieves anxiety in a woman who has taken to consuming paper. Is she literally eating her emotions, her words? "Feelings come up, and when I eat paper they go down again," she says.
Formative experiences—both uplifting and traumatic—might partially explain why we overeat, under-eat, fast and feel anxious about eating. For me, the dinner table was where punishment was meted out. Being required to eat when I wasn't hungry contributed to issues of control—the root of many of our conflicts with food.
"I would like to be in control of everything I put in my mouth," one woman remarks.
"Clean your plate," another woman recalls her parents saying.
That could be one of the most damaging things you can say to a child.
Even now, I have to leave just a little bit behind.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Watch what you eat"