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The American Way of Eating: A Conversation With Tracie McMillan

CSRWire • Aug. 20, 2012

Got food? Many of those who are bringing in America’s harvest and serving it to us aren’t paid enough to put good, healthy food reliably on the table. That’s what journalist Tracie McMillan found when she set out to report the story of these workers and what their plight says about the American way of eating.

She did it the old-fashioned way: going undercover to harvest peaches and garlic in the baking hot fields of the central valley in California, to stock shelves in two Wal-mart stores and to serve food at an Applebee’s Restaurant in New York. The result is her acclaimed book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table — a book so powerful, it riled up Rush Limbaugh for its advocacy of food justice.

McMillan talked with CSRwire about The American Way of Eating; I began our conversation by asking her about “the paradox of plenty,” a concept she ascribes to our current situation in the United States.

Here in the U.S., we have an amazingly productive agriculture, but we don’t have healthy diets as a common feature in our lives. So for me the paradox of plenty is about this conundrum that in the U.S. we have a lot of excellent land, we have a lot of food being grown here, we don’t really want for very much, yet people here eat incredibly poor diets and have a lot of health problems as a result.

McMillan’s book begins in the fields of California, where she encountered a “brutal environment” as a farm laborer.

I spent just one day in grapes and then I moved up into peaches where I was sorting. And I lasted just about two weeks in the Central Valley in July of 2009. After about 10 days a heat wave hit, so we were working in 103-105 temperatures and I got heat sick. I started to get confused and listless, really didn’t feel well, and I ended up spending an afternoon when I got home from work projectile vomiting, which was the nail in the coffin. I quit that job.

Then I went on to picking garlic in the Salinas Valley, where I was paid $1.60 for every five gallon bucket I could pick. That translated on my first day into $16 for a 9 hour day. After about five weeks, I had injured my arm so bad — it was tendonitis — that I was forced to stop working.

McMillan had trouble affording enough food for herself on the wages she made as a farmworker. That begs the question: would raising farmworkers’ wages cause food prices to increase so much that food would become even more unaffordable?

Farm wages make up an incredibly tiny portion of what we pay at the store. A dollar of food that we buy at the store includes not only the cost of the farm product but also the cost of distribution, transportation, logistics and refrigeration. So only about 16 percent of every dollar actually goes to the farm itself — and then farm laborer wages are a subset of that 16 percent. (In produce it’s a bit higher, usually 20 to 30 percent.)

Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at UC Davis, has studied this. By his estimate, if you were to raise farmworker wages by 40 percent — that’s going from $10,000 to $14,000 a year, so it’s not a luxurious life — the average grocery bill would go up about $16 for one whole year.

Wal-mart is the biggest grocer in America, 25 percent of food retail, according to McMillan. But that’s just the national figure; in many neighborhoods, Wal-mart holds a far greater share of the grocery retail market, allowing it to raise food prices on some items high enough to give the lie to the company’s famed “low price” pledge.

Wal-mart’s basket of goods beats out the smaller grocer, but when it comes to fresh food — meat and produce — it really doesn’t compete that well at all. I found that the meat and produce were actually cheaper at my neighborhood market.

It’s important to remember that supermarkets were designed to sell industrial food, i.e., processed food that’s not going to rot. So Wal-mart absolutely blows everyone out of the water when it comes to processed food. But when it comes to fresh produce and fresh meat, it’s just not possible to get the same economies of scale with something that will rot. And so Wal-mart’s prices are generally not nearly as competitive when it comes to healthy food as they would have you believe.

The other thing that’s interesting to notice is that if you are in a town where Walmart has yet to get market share, and it’s trying to compete against the other grocers and steal customers away, their prices will be about 11 percent cheaper. If you look at a neighborhood where Wal-mart has established a pretty good market share, so it’s not so worried about competing, its prices are usually within 5 percent of the other retailers in town.

So I would argue that when you get to 5 percent that’s a level of price difference where you start to worry about opportunity cost, because Wal-mart stores are often located on the edge of town, where it takes more time and energy to get to. You might be able to save more by just shopping in house.

McMillan second stint in a Wal-mart was in Detroit. It’s a town that’s home to a burgeoning community urban agriculture movement, which McMillan also reports on in her book.

I’ve always been fascinated by urban agriculture, not because I think it will solve problems with the food system or be a silver bullet solution for food production but because I think its a strong illustration of how much people in communities actually care about eating fresh and healthy food. Detroit hasn’t had a national grocer since the last one closed its doors in 2007 and people just started growing their own food because its affordable, they know what’s in it and they want good quality food.

There’s this narrative you hear from supermarket executives that you can’t possibly make money in Detroit — it’s a desolate empty place; there’s nobody there. But there are 720,000 residents, according to the census. Those folks presumably still need to eat and so I think urban agriculture is really fascinating as a window into the depth and intensity of the demand for fresh food in that city and in others.

One urban agriculture project McMillan visited is the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network. It uses farming methods that require little land, and which are much more productive per square foot. She thinks such urban farms could supply much of the food needed by a city’s residents, significantly complementing supermarkets and the industrialized food system.

Michigan State University tried to estimate what it would take to feed Detroit from farms within city’s borders. They found that by using intensive crop rotation practices and smaller scale farming practices — called agro-ecology, which mimics some of the ways natural ecological systems work while still doing crop production — you could meet significantly more than half of Detroit’s non-tropical fruit and vegetable consumption from farms that, in aggregate, were smaller than Central Park in New York City. I think that’s really stunning.

People say we’re running out of land; that we can’t possibly use organic agriculture or even conventional agriculture to feed the world. It’s important to remember that prediction is based on an industrial agriculture model that, generally speaking, gets a lower yield per plant but has so many plants in each field that, in aggregate, you get more.

So, the tradeoff is if, say, you mechanize tomatoes, you will get, for example, 10 tomatoes per plant in the industrial fields because you don’t pay that much attention to each plant, but if you are doing production on a smaller scale, where there’s a lot more attention paid to each plant, you can get a much higher yield. So you really see that in urban agriculture, people are beginning to figure out the actual protocols and practices for doing that kind of work.

 

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