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An American Way of Eating

By Melissa Howard


Fit-A-Licious • Jan. 14, 2013

I recently read “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table” by Tracie McMillan and think it’s a book Fit-a-licious readers would enjoy.

Tracie McMillan, inspired by conversations with subjects of her stories on the ‘poverty beat’ of the paper for which she worked, embarked on an undercover, year long quest to find out how food gets to our tables and how the people that make this possible, often the lowest paid workers in our society, make ends meet.

From the growing fields of California, to retail sales in Michigan, to a neighborhood family chain restaurant in New York City, McMillan works and lives alongside the people about whom she writes, discovering the hardships as well as the strong community ties necessary for the American ‘underclass’ to get by. In memoir fashion, with informative footnotes, Tracie tells how she picked grapes and garlic in California, worked at Walmart in Michigan and worked at an Applebee’s in New York.

I was saddened, but not surprised to read about the children who sometimes work in the fields picking produce, the injuries caused by the repetitive motion, and the low pay and re-writing of pay records to make it look like they are paying the produce workers fairly. However, I was surprised and saddened to learn that for the workers, picking organic produce is just the same as any other produce. I think that we would like to think that “organic” means not only a lack of pesticide, but that the entire process would be kinder, gentler, healthier and more fair and that the workers would get higher pay since the produce itself costs more, but that is not the case.

Tracie includes facts about the grocery industry and how it grew quickly once it created it’s own distribution system and how Walmart’s low prices can be deceiving since the low prices of the loss leaders are made up by higher prices elsewhere in their stores. She points out that at both Walmart and at Applebee’s, there is supposed to be training for the employees and at some point they are asked to sign papers stating that they received training that they did not actually receive.

Reading this made me upset that in our country we make sure that people have access to electricity, water and to some extent even health care, but we do not put any effort into making sure that fresh, healthy food is readily available to everyone everywhere. Instead, we leave that to the private industries and corporations like Walmart.

Yes, these topics have been covered before, but not in the same way, all at the same time and making connections between them. McMillan tells us the story of America’s working poor and the struggle to get work, to make money, to support yourself, to feed yourself, and to eat well all while showing us what systems make it difficult for them to do so. She doesn’t just offer up simple solutions like, “pay the workers more.” She discusses many options and alternatives to help remedy the lack of affordable healthy food in America.

For example, educating Americans, starting in schools, about how to cook at home, taking away some of the mystery of what to do with good food once you get your hands on it. She points out the massive amounts of food that comes into Detroit only to be loaded onto trucks and shipped out to the suburbs. We meet community garden coordinators who are helping to feed inner-city Detroit. She talks about the success of food-stamp type programs across America that allow people to buy fresh produce.

The point of this book isn’t to get us to overthrow the current food network and let the government take over. It seems to me that McMillan wants us to think about how food is produced, transported, and consumed in America and consider how that all affects not only our health but also our well being, financial and otherwise. I found it to be a very thought-provoking book and recommend it highly.