By Sarah Henry
KQED Bay Area Bites • March 14, 2012
Tracie McMillan, who went undercover and worked with low-paid food and farm workers to pen The American Way of Eating, has had perhaps the wildest of rollercoaster rides since her book came out a few short weeks ago.
First came a less-than favorable review in the San Francisco Chronicle, which didn’t do much to calm those new author jitters. Then, mercifully, a glowing critique of the book, which documents her days embedded in a Detroit Walmart stocking produce, a New York Applebee’s restaurant prepping food, and California farms picking grapes, sorting peaches, and cutting garlic. Think hard, poorly-paid work and–ironically–no access to good food.
In the New York Times Dwight Garner called her “a voice the food world needs.” Other critics complimented her prose. “The best thing about this engagingly written tract is its excellent and sometimes moving first-person narrative of the author’s experiences sharing, albeit briefly and under false colors, the daily grind of workers at the bottom of the Great American Food Chain,” wrote Aram Bakshian Jr. in the Wall Street Journal. Not too shabby.
But there was no time to sit back and watch her book, which makes the case that everyone should have access to affordable, healthy grub, climb up the bestseller list. Because Rush Limbaugh decided to have a go at McMillan, who comes from a blue-collar background in Michael Moore territory near Flint, Michigan. The attack came hot on the heels of Limbaugh’s slagging off Georgetown University law student Sandra Fluke as a slut because of her testimony, intended for Congress, about the cost of birth control.
The controversial, conservative radio host with a huge following ranted that McMillan, who grew up eating unfancy food like Tuna Helper, was an overeducated authorette — young, white, and single too, as if these were shortcomings on the part of this gutsy reporter, simply because she asks in her book, which focuses on food and class: What would it take for everyone in America to eat well?
“It would never have occurred to me that Rush Limbaugh would go after me,” said McMillan, following a panel appearance last weekend at the Edible Institute in Santa Barbara. “Nobody would have paid any attention if he’d only talked about the book, but he just couldn’t help himself from saying something else really offensive and dismissive about women.”
Along with Nikki Henderson of People’s Grocery, McMillan was invited to discuss food justice concerns at the conference, a meeting of the publishers of the Edible Communities magazines which celebrate regional eats (locally these quarterly magazines include Edible San Francisco, Edible East Bay, and Edible Marin & Wine Country).
“Walmart controls 25% of the nation’s food supply,” McMillan told the conference. “In some parts it’s 50% or more,” she added, and explained that stocking food is a loss-leader for the corporation, but also a way to get folks into their stores. “I think it’s dangerous to trust something that’s as vital as our food supply to one massive institution. And particularly, to a private corporation whose only accountability is to its shareholders.”
Throughout it all, the 35-year-old investigative journalist with a penchant for covering poor people, has stayed on message, as she did in a rebuttal to Rush Limbaugh on The Rachel Maddow Show and in a first-person piece for The Atlantic, where she attempted to make sense of it all.
“As a reporter, I take it as a point of pride that Limbaugh apparently found little he could challenge in my reporting; he does nothing to discredit the facts I found in my work,” she wrote. “And that likely explains why Limbaugh turned his critique away from my book, and aimed fire instead at me.”
As McMillan explained it, Limbaugh seemed to take umbrage at the central political point of her polemic: That both private enterprise and government have failed Americans when it comes to providing all of us with good, healthy food. “Food is not like the other things we buy. It’s not like sneakers,” she said. Everyone needs to eat, but as McMillan makes clear, many of the people who are feeding us can’t afford to.
An award-winning poverty and welfare reporter, McMillan is a current darling of the progressive food press. In the past couple of weeks she’s been featured on Civil Eats, Grist, and Salon, and her book has also caught the eye of online food sites such as Bon Appetit. (Find excerpts over at Slate, Gilt Taste, and Edible San Francisco.)
It’s also clear she’s committed to covering a subject area on the edible beat that frequently gets overlooked: The plight of the people who grow, sell, and serve our food.
“We need to make it easier for people who want to get good food, who don’t identify with the food movement, to have that option,” said McMillan. “It’s hard to eat well when you’re earning less than minimum wage and your life is stressful.”
And she takes issue with the common assumption that people of little means are content to eat crap in this fast-food nation.
McMillan, who lived on food stamps while writing the book, which took three years from woe to go, knows firsthand just how exhausting — and demoralizing — low-paid food work can be. She wanted to nap, she said, after a long shift, not go home and tend a pot of beans on the stove. Work in the fields was back-breaking stuff, her Walmart gig included handling fruits and vegetables of questionable quality, and at Applebee’s little real cooking takes place in the kitchen. It’s enough, she implies, to make anyone lose their appetite for a nourishing meal. And it’s that hopelessness that McMillan believes needs attention. Lectures from the food elite to the food insecure to “eat more greens” just aren’t going to make a difference.
But McMillan doesn’t just lay out the problems, she also offers a framework for how our food system challenges might be solved. Enforce labor laws to protect workers, and pay them minimum wage, for starters. Address the lack of public infrastructure for food distribution. Offer adults and children access to cooking training; since kitchen literacy is a basic life skill in McMillan’s mind.
“We need to think of learning to cook as a form of self-sufficiency,” she said. It’s as important as making sure people have access to affordable, healthy food.”
Such massive social change, of course, won’t happen overnight. And much of what McMillan exposes in her book is far from cheery. But like Barbara Ehrenreich (Nickel and Dimed) and Jessica Mitford (The American Way of Death, whose title McMillan’s book pays homage to) someone has to tell it like it is. Fortunately we have McMillan reporting back from the frontlines on the dark side of of the American way of eating.