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Reporter digs out truth of food in US

Shanghai Daily • March 20, 2013

To report on food sourcing and access in the US, author Tracie McMillan went undercover, picking garlic in the fields in California and working at a Walmart in Michigan and an Applebee’s in New York. She published a book about what she learned from these experiences called “The American Way of Eating.” Knowledge@Wharton recently spoke with McMillan about what she experienced.

Q: Why did you think going undercover at these places was the best approach?

A: Most low-income families do care about diet, they do care about health. Yet a lot of folks don’t eat well. Why is that happening?

I wanted to look at the structural reasons, but also get into some of the personal elements of that – for example, how individual choice works. That’s really why I wanted to go undercover.

Certainly I wanted to go and see how things worked inside an Applebee’s and at a Walmart, and certainly in the field.

But a big part of why I went undercover – where I went and lived and ate off my wages for two months in each of these jobs – was that I wanted to get a sense of what happened to my internal logic around my food and my diet when I was earning US$2 an hour, US$6 an hour, US$8 an hour, and working these jobs that are a lot less forgiving than work as a freelance journalist.

Q: You talk in the book about how it did change the way you thought about food and the way you ate. Can you explain?

A: I threw out the idea of eating local and organic pretty quickly when I was in the fields. I was earning US$1.60 for every five gallons of garlic I could pick. On my first day, I earned about US$2 an hour.

When you’re dealing with that kind of a budget, you’re at the store and organic is more expensive.

It doesn’t matter if it’s worth it if you don’t have the extra money to spend on it.

When I was working at Walmart, I screwed up my budget by about US$30. All of a sudden, I ended up US$30 short for rent, and I had nothing but oats and some rice and some flour in my cupboard.

When it got down to the fact that I was either going to go hungry, eat raw flour or spend the next two hours baking bread, that made it a lot less fun and less interesting.

Q: In all three of the places you worked, you received little to no food safety training. Did that surprise you? 

A: I was shocked. I didn’t get food safety training until the second job that I took at a Walmart. I’d already gone through working in the fields for two months. I had done nightshift stocking in the Walmart grocery section. Then I had worked in the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s. Then when I finally get to the last job at Walmart, when I’m working in produce, I’m doing this training about food safety.

For me, that was shocking, to realize it’s the Walmart produce job where I learned food safety training. Not in the restaurant, not on the farm. We really do treat food like it’s any other commodity. We treat it like we don’t have to worry about it rotting or going bad.

Q: Was there anything you learned about the way food is handled, the way food is viewed in other cultures, that you think the US could learn from in trying to solve some of these challenges?

A: The biggest difference in treatment of food – and I saw this the most when I was living with farm workers and working the fields of California – is just that most other communities, and a lot of low-income communities, treat food as if it’s valuable. Because it is.

We don’t tend to think about this. You’re taking nutrients out of the soil. Soil is actually a resource, the same way coal or diamonds or anything else is. You can exhaust soil.

Yet, I forget what the statistics are, but we waste an incredible amount of food. It’s something like 40 percent of the food that is taken home by Americans gets thrown out at some point. To really appreciate the importance of food is a big deal.

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