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A lesson in fields and Walmart on ‘American Way of Eating’

By Andrew Z. Galarneau


The Buffalo News • March 11, 2012

Tracie McMillan didn’t grow up eating organic heirloom arugula. Her mom was sick and her dad worked, so it was meals from boxes or other easy food. Tuna Helper was a good night.

On Sundays her dad might make a roast. “But regularly eating food that took that much time or money — or, most outrageously of all, both — wasn’t for people like us,” she writes of her family. “It was for the people my grandmother described, with equal parts envy and derision, as fancy; my father’s word was snob.”

Armed with that background, McMillan undertook the mission of explaining how America’s food system works, or doesn’t work, at a time when more Americans than ever are considering the wider issues related to what’s on their plate.

In search of a first-hand glimpse into the way America feeds itself, McMillan took jobs as a California farmworker, a Michigan Walmart produce section employee, and an expediter at a Brooklyn Applebee’s. The result reads like Barbara Ehrenrich’s “Nickel and Dimed” crossed with Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma.”

At each stop on her six-month journey, McMillan tried to live and feed herself on what her jobs paid. She couldn’t, for the most part, underscoring her observations about how lack of money deprives many Americans of the food choices others are free to debate.

Her detailed narrative of the struggles that ensued comprise the emotional core of this book. McMillan fortifies her firsthand observations and personal stories with extensive research into the history and economic realities of the American food system, giving her tale greater heft.

It’s hardly possible to read “The American Way of Eating” without rethinking some of the consumer choices you make in the supermarket every week. If you spent weeks working alongside the garlic workers, the grape pickers and lettuce cutters that made your produce section possible, perhaps you wouldn’t groan when you notice the price of cauliflower is up.

It turns out that just as we’d rather remain blithely ignorant of how an animal became that red slab on the white Styrofoam tray, we’re comfortable with mentally divorcing $1.99-a-pound table grapes from the hand-to-mouth existence of migrant produce pickers that makes it possible.

Her book nods, in its title, to Jessica Mitford’s “The American Way of Death,” a 1963 classic of investigative reporting aimed at the American funeral industry. Mitford’s book took readers inside a business practically every American would interact with during their lives, but few understood from a dollars-and-cents perspective.

McMillan can’t supply answers for many of the probing questions she voices about how and why Americans eat as they do. But if you follow her journey, you might find yourself asking many of the same questions in your own eating life. In that way, “The American Way of Eating” succeeds, even if its reach exceeds its grasp.

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