In many circles, McDonald’s has become shorthand for poor food choices. I regularly see Facebook memes about how the company’s food takes forever to decay, while the 2004 film Super Size Me followed a documentarian who ate McDonalds every meal for a month, to the detriment of his health. Certainly, French fries and soda are not the healthiest foods and contribute to America’s obesity problem.
Like other foodie-inclined hipstery young adults, I went a few years avoiding those ubiquitous golden arches altogether due to a mix of principle, snobbery and preference. McDonald’s came to represent, for me, everything that was wrong with America.
But as with many things, the story of McDonald’s in America is actually more complicated. A recent Guardian article focuses on the way the restaurants serve as gathering places in many communities, especially those where other places may not be available. I certainly have seen groups of retirees drinking coffee and talking on those occasions when I’ve picked up McDonald’s for breakfast (usually on a road trip, so in a variety of locations). I’ve also seen some McDonald’s, especially in communities hit hard by the recession, that have computer terminals available.
What other places where community happens have I been avoiding because of snobbishness?
This led me to wonder: what other places where community and connections happen have I been avoiding because of stereotypes and snobbishness? What could the church do differently to connect better with community where it’s already happening? The Guardian article mentions a Bible study that meets at a McDonald’s. Maybe McDonalds isn’t the right place for every Bible study in every community. But it did make me wonder if there were more places where people connect with each other - live their lives, fill basic needs like food and a clean restroom - and we’re somewhere else wondering why they don’t show up, or scoffing about calories and trans fats without paying attention to what people are really doing.
Maybe this is what Paul was partly after when he talked about being “all things to all people.” Sometimes you need to focus more on meeting other people where they are at than whatever image you are trying to project. I don’t know what this means when we are also called to care for our bodies and our resources, but I also think that McDonald’s has taken the bill for a whole lot of American evils. Rather than serving as a symptom of a larger problem, it has come to stand in as a synecdoche for all of it. We tend to follow the trope and think, “If we just stop eating McDonald’s all our health and labor problems will be solved!” Instead, perhaps we should be generating more thoughtful ways of dealing with nutrition, economics and community.
I’m still ambivalent about McDonald’s because of its outsized role in cultural problems, from low wages to fatty, hyper-palatable foods. But if I’ve learned anything about living in a fallen world, it’s that good things and bad things often come from the same source. I’ve also learned that if I think I’m too good for something, I may actually be missing out on something good that’s going on.