The Global Siren Call of Fast Food

This post was originally published on this site

DAKAR, Senegal — We were leaving the beach the first time we spotted it, my kids and I tired and hungry. There, right across from Dakar’s Plage de Virage, a sign and a big, bright red and white bucket promised a taste from home: KFC.

But wait. As we pulled the car closer we realized it was a knockoff. The sign actually said AFC, for Africa Fried Chicken. The restaurant opened here last year, around the same time a set of golden arches popped up outside a nearby establishment, McDrive.

I’ve been The New York Times’s West and Central Africa bureau chief for two years, covering the two dozen or so countries in the region. Exploring the spread of fast food on the continent resonated with me. For starters, I love American fast food. As it turns out, I’m not the only one.

The influence of fast food has crept into the farthest reaches of the world, as my colleague Matt Richtel and I report in today’s story in collaboration with the health and science desk. Big name fast food chains have spread rapidly across many parts of Africa, and even in areas where the chains themselves haven’t ventured, knockoffs have broken ground.

The enthusiasm for fast food is unbridled. I was in Nigeria’s capital preparing to head north to report on the war against the Islamist militant group Boko Haram when I discovered a weekend hot spot: Domino’s Pizza. Date night in Abuja, where teenagers can linger over a MeatZZa Pizza, isn’t so different from in an American city.

This summer, the photographer Ashley Gilbertson and I went to KFC restaurants across Accra, Ghana, over the course of a week, talking to enthusiastic customers. (We also sampled the fare — out of commitment to the story.)

Fast food arrived in Ghana in recent years, and some people I talked with inside KFCs and other restaurants hadn’t stopped to consider that what they were eating might not be good for their health if consumed too often.

I’ve seen the impact of changing diets as I’ve worked throughout the region. A surprising number of friends and colleagues here have high blood pressure or diabetes. These health issues technically are manageable, but in places where medical care is expensive and less available than in the West, chronic diseases can quickly get out of control.

Local fare where I live in Dakar is healthy — fish, tomatoes, onions, okra, juicy mangoes with peach-like flesh and a grain similar to quinoa called fonio. Popular dishes around here include thiebou djeun, a fish dish served with rice, and mafe, a meat stew cooked with peanut butter and tomato sauce.

Our three kids, who all were in elementary school when we arrived, thankfully never have been particularly picky eaters and tried the new food with gusto. But they are happiest eating food familiar to them: pasta, salads, hummus, chicken and the like. They stay healthy playing soccer and swimming. My husband and I try to keep up with the local cult of exercise in Dakar that sends masses of people running and doing push-ups along beaches and roads. But even here in a city where so many value exercise, noncommunicable diseases are on the rise.

Lately, more shacks selling burgers and fries have been popping up around town. And a lot of food prepared in homes and restaurants has two key ingredients: fatty palm oil and high-sodium flavor cubes.

At home, we’re trying to eat healthy and even flirting with vegetarianism. We don’t use palm oil or flavor cubes in our cooking. We try to load up on as many local fruits and vegetables as we can. So far we’ve resisted the siren call of Africa Fried Chicken.

But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that deep down we crave the American food — packaged, processed, sugary and fast food — that we tried to limit in our daily lives when we were living in the United States: McDonald’s French fries, Dairy Queen sundaes, hot dogs, Milk Duds, Cheetos and so on.

My husband recently asked our kids what present they’d like him to bring back from a work trip to New York. Their top request: Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.