By David Sands
Seedstock • August 5, 2014
Over the past few years, journalist Tracie McMillan has carved out a space to talk about food in a way that isn’t discussed all that much in the mainstream media, namely, how it relates to the lives of working-class and poor people.
Best known as the author of “The American Way of Eating,” a New York Times bestseller where she goes undercover to investigate the gritty reality of the country’s food system as a farm worker, Walmart associate and Applebee’s employee, her reporting has also appeared in the pages of Harper’s and the New York Times.
Interested readers can check out her feature “The New Face of Hunger,” which documents the challenges of families struggling to feed themselvesin Iowa, Texas and New York City, in the latest issue of National Geographic.
While McMillan is now known for her exposés on food, it’s not a topic that she gave much reflection to growing up in the eighties in the small town of Holly, Michigan. Although McMillan took to cooking at an early age, her younger years were filled with lots of processed food. Back then, she thought of folks who made their salads with greens other than iceberg lettuce as pretentious snobs.
Living in a blue-collar community near Flint at a time when auto factory closings were making the nightly news, however, she developed a deep respect for the everyday challenges of people trying to make ends meet.
“I grew up in a family that was facing a lot of economic and general difficulties,” she tells Seedstock. “My mom was really sick, so I was basically raised by a single dad. I got a real sense that sometimes families need help beyond what they’re able to do for themselves.”
Attending college at New York University, she developed a passion for journalism by reading books like William Finnegan’s “Cold New World,” an account of poverty in the U.S. during the 1990s. Her interest led to an internship at the Village Voice, where she worked as a research assistant for accomplished investigative reporter Wayne Barrett.
After graduating in 1999, McMillan found work researching welfare reform, then spent five years serving as managing editor for City Limits, a New York publication dedicated to covering civic and social justice issues. By then she’d adopted a more open attitude towards her own diet, due in part to an experience nannying where she shared meals with a wealthy Manhattan family.
While at City Limits, she wrote a piece about a food justice cooking class that taught youth about healthy eating. This piqued her interest in writing about food and its intersections with hunger, malnutrition and poverty.
“The more that I was talking to families about the way they were eating,” McMillan says, “the more I realized that it had a lot more to do with the structure of their neighborhood and the structure of their life, then it had to do with with not caring about what they were eating.”
Intrigued by these issues, McMillan initiated a study of food access in New York City that helped spark discussion about food deserts and prompted the municipal government to begin using metrics to measure the problem. She took advantage of this interest to get freelance assignments writing about food and low-income families.
“I got into writing about food because nobody would pay me to write about poverty,” she says.
“When I start talking to people about access to food in communities …. people are much more open to discussions.”
Lacking Ivy-League credentials, McMillan decided to write a book to help get her byline into higher-profile publications. Initially, she looked into writing a tell-all about supermarkets, but a talk with her agent helped convince her to put herself at the center of a project, by combining investigative research with an undercover look at America’s industrial food system.
McMillan spent three years researching “The American Way Of Eating,” working in California’s farm fields, at an Applebee’s kitchen in NYC and inside a Detroit-area Walmart produce department, creating a behind-the-scenes look at what eating means for America’s working poor. In her quest to illustrate the path food takes on it’s way from farm to table in the United States, she documented everything from questionable food practices like rehydrating wilted lettuce to eyebrow-raising working conditions, including outright wage theft.
“The American Way Of Eating” hit bookshelves in 2012 to both praise and controversy. Right-wing talk show host Rush Limbaugh launched into a misogynistic tirade against her work. She also caught flak from folks who’ve tried to peg her as a privileged New York ink slinger slumming it with a bunch of working stiffs to stew up a juicy story.
“I don’t live extravagantly,” says McMillan. “Doing that book project, I was on food stamps for a year. That wasn’t for experiential purposes. I was working on writing the book, and I didn’t have enough money to buy groceries.”
That said, she did struggle with the idea of going undercover. Her conundrum, she tells Seedstock, was that the mainstream media rarely covers the sorts of topics she investigated in the absence of a white protagonist. Ultimately she went ahead with the project, vowing to be transparent about her feelings.
After winning a prestigious James Beard Journalism Award last year, she did just that, remarking on the irony of “swanning around in a party dress with a champagne flute for writing about farm workers sleeping in the field.”
Her hope, though, has always been that the book would bring exposure to topics like job conditions and food access, and get people thinking about the role government and the public sphere can play in our food system. So, no matter what her critics say, McMilllan is thrilled about the discussion the book has generated. She’s also dead set on pushing forward with her work, asking tough questions about our food system and its impact on folks who struggle to pay their bills and feed their kids.
And while it’s not always easy getting publications to cover these sorts of issues, McMillan says she’s hit on a pretty good formula for getting her stories into print.
“What’s worked for me is being too stubborn to do anything else,” she says.