Fast food? It’s what other people eat

A sunny Monday in Almere, earlier in the summer. It’s break time at Akhnaten, a vocational high school in Almere-Stad. Groups of students stroll towards the mall. First, they pass a number of shawarma and grill restaurants that are still closed. Then the snack bar Lekker & Co, the vegetarian Turkish chain Çigköftem and Schep Taart en Gebak.

KFC is 500 meters from the school. There they go into conclave. Next door is Burger King. And they can also go to the Five Guys hamburger restaurant. Or McDonald’s, a little further down the road. Or Frites Affairs leading the way with ‘Pssst, are you giving in to your wishes?’

The group splits. A couple of guys go to Burger King, Jaïr chooses a 2.75 euro snack box at KFC after much hesitation. He comes here “not often,” he says. “Twice a week or so.”

There is plenty of fast food available in the area. What do they think about it? “It’s my own money, right?” says a schoolboy with a black cap. “I can decide for myself what to do with it, can’t I?” Incidentally, he is not going to KFC today. They must eat something healthy, a friend tells him: croissants from the bakery.

A Wednesday evening, earlier this month. Opposite KFC is a restaurant, the Volkskantinen. Not for profit, with the purpose: good food at an affordable price as the basic purpose. The place is an experiment from the knowledge institute Flevo Campus, which focuses on food issues. Tonight, Flevo Campus organized a debate here: should the government take action against fast food?

But what is fast food really, and it’s not so bad to eat fries or a croquette sandwich every now and then, asks VVD councilor Koen Brokhorst. A teacher in the audience thinks Bronkhorst is putting up “smoke screens”. A fifth of the children in Almere are overweight. So don’t pretend that fast food isn’t unhealthy and that people can choose wisely.

The first McDonald’s

What most participants think: there is now a lot of unhealthy food on offer in the city. Councilors in other big cities also think so. They want government action to stop the further advance of unhealthy food. State Secretary Maarten van Ooijen (Public Health, ChristenUnie) is now investigating the possibilities.

How did it come to this? Getting a quick bite was possible long before the first McDonald’s opened in 1971 in a new residential area in Zaandam. Director Lenno Munnikes from Flevocampus shows a photo from the fifties: People are eating on the street in Amsterdam, there is rubbish everywhere. Fast food, he says, is not new, although it used to be called something else. The first croquet machines appeared in the 1960s. “The snack bar was booming at the time,” says Munnikes, “especially in Amsterdam.”

With McDonald’s, the American version of fast food came to the Netherlands. “An American diner,” called NRC Handelsblad that “where ready-to-eat foods were packaged in such a way that they could be consumed on the spot, but could also be taken home for consumption.”

From the 1980s fast food really took off. After the advent of the burger, pizza became big in the 1990s. Fast food is now available from kitchens all over the world, from Korea to Mexico.

Supply continued to grow, except for a dip during the financial crisis. Over the past ten years, the number of fast food restaurants – from large chains to the corner snack bar – has increased by 12 percent to 6,781 locations. This is evident from data provided by the market research agency Locatus, which maps all retail and hotel properties in the Netherlands. NRC shared.

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The number of places for takeaway and delivery grew even faster: doubling in ten years, from more than 2,000 to 4,122 this year. The same applies to the lunchrooms, which Subway belongs to: That branch has also almost doubled to just under 4,000 locations. And then there are newcomers: donut and waffle shops, whose most familiar face is the American Dunkin’ Donuts (now called Dunkin’). In 2012 Locatus didn’t have one, now just under a hundred. Coffee shops, including Starbucks, also grew explosively (now nearly 600). One can argue about whether coffee, donuts and sandwiches are fast food. It is clear that a large Cookie & Cream Frappuccino from Starbucks with 426 kilocalories already comes close to a Big Mac (525 kilocalories).

The growth in the fast food offer is not over yet. With the largest supply per capita, Amsterdam seems saturated, but there is still room in cities such as The Hague and Ede. There is potential in locations with “many school children, students and lower-income households,” market researcher RetailSonar concluded in June. In the big cities, fast food is available at 77 percent of schools within a five-minute walk, according to research carried out by Locatus commissioned by the municipal project ‘Jongeren op GezondGezond’ (Young people with a healthy weight).

No finished definition

If there are new rules, the question must first be answered, what is fast food. How do you determine what unhealthy food is? One would instinctively say: the pizza chains, the hamburger restaurants. But things quickly get slippery: Because if Burger King is fast food, isn’t Burgermeester, a more expensive burger restaurant, as well? And what to do with the sushi, falafel and wok restaurants?

There are no ready definitions. Institutions such as CBS and the Chamber of Commerce classify fast food as fast food that is prepared and served quickly and is relatively cheap. But that says nothing about the nutritional value of the offer. In addition to speed, Locatus talks about ‘mostly fried products’, but for example also includes wok restaurants as fast food.

Even the Nutrition Center struggles with the definition issue. “Of course everyone knows we usually mean snack bars and big hamburger chains,” a spokesman said. “Healthy food, such as from salad bar SLA, can also be ‘fast’, but that’s not what we usually mean when we talk about fast food.”

The big chains disagree. They say: there is enough healthy choice with us, what we sell can’t really be called fast food. “We have done everything we can to make pizzas as healthy as possible for over ten years,” says Philippe Vorst, co-founder of New York Pizza, the largest pizza chain in the Netherlands after Domino’s with more than 250 locations. “We actually sell a sandwich with cheese and tomato sauce. What you put on it determines how healthy that sandwich is.” And McDonald’s offers ‘freedom of choice’, says spokesperson Eunice Koekkoek: The guest can, for example, choose between a burger with fries or salad, cola without or with sugar, a Happy Meal with carrots or small fries. In her eyes, McDonald’s does not offer fast food. “This is how we see it: We are a family restaurant. In my view, fast food is fast, with few choices that you cannot enjoy inside, for example.”

Higher educated people’s resistance to culture

It is also important: How do citizens view this? The debate – fast food or not? – is not value-free. Consciously or unconsciously, the expression often already contains a judgment. A visitor will not easily say that he is going to eat fast food: he will take a bucket or go to the Mac. And while McDonald’s is a place for one person to enjoy a good meal with friends or family for not too much money, the other would not want to be found dead. Then there are the concerned, highly educated health experts and politicians who label it ‘unhealthy’.

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There is a risk in all these negative views. Distinguishing between fast food and healthy food can be counterproductive, says sociology professor Jeroen van der Waal. At Erasmus University, he researches why people with less education eat unhealthy food more often. Less money and knowledge about healthy food is only part of the explanation, there is also a sociological side to it. “Low-educated people find that they are looked down upon, including their lifestyle.” This creates resistance to what he calls the ‘legitimate culture’ of the higher educated. “Quinoa and avocado are ridiculed. Salad is rabbit food.”

If you don’t connect very well with people’s perceptions, it becomes difficult to motivate them to eat healthier, says Van der Waal. Soccer player Ronaldo removing bottles of Coca-Cola at a press conference and saying “drink water” is much more effective for some audiences than a hundred government campaigns. “Eating fast food is also a way of rebelling against the elite.”

They are aware of this at Flevo Campus. In the Volkskantinen, less fortunate residents of Almere can eat plant-based food for little money. “But young people are more likely to choose something that matches their expectations and then go to KFC.” It fits with their “food identity”, as Munnikes calls it. When he wants muscular guys inside, he doesn’t start with the importance of a healthy diet, but with increasing muscle strength with vegetable proteins. And even then it is difficult to get them over the threshold.

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