By Heather L. Seggel
The Progressive Populist • May 15, 2012
When journalist Tracie McMillan decided to go undercover for a look at our food supply chain, she likely didn’t expect to be sidelined by tennis elbow. Turns out when you’re cutting garlic all day long there’s a high risk of epicondylitis, which cut short one of the many jobs McMillan took on to trace the paths food takes between farm and table. The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table (Scribner, $25, 284 pages) owes much to Barbara Ehrenreich’s methodology in her 2001 book, Nickel and Dimed, including a stint at Walmart, but McMillan explores why we don’t eat better when we seem to know better than our habits would indicate.
Income disparity lies at the heart of every story here. Working in the garlic fields and a peach orchard in California, McMillan’s checks are doctored to make it look as though she’s paid the federal minimum wage, though $26 for a nine-hour, excruciating work day is far from it. Bone tired and with virtually no pay to show for it, who’s going to dash out to the farmer’s market and blow that modest wad on kale when McDonald’s can fill you up for three bucks and no effort at all? Exactly. McMillan was often invited to eat with her landlord or roommates and did to save money, despite guilt over taking charity from people with even less than she had. The alternative was to eat out, which she also did, blowing her monthly budget more than once on food and beer.
McMillan’s time stocking produce at a Detroit Walmart Supercenter was in keeping with the retailer’s reputation. Buying massive quantities of organic produce from China then trucking it all over the US, by the time the food is unloaded it is often rotten, and either in need of aggressive “freshening” or inventoried for return and composted. Fresh produce is more of a concept than a reality at Walmart; it’s marked down in hopes of selling packaged food, or flat-screen TVs, to customers who drop by for celery.
Detroit is notable for its “food deserts,” neighborhoods with few to no supermarkets, where the most convenient option for shopping is a corner bodega that accepts food stamps but carries no fresh food. These markets are slowly being prodded to offer more fresh produce, and a few supermarket chains have grudgingly committed to add grocery stores in under-served neighborhoods. McMillan rides out to Detroit’s Produce Terminal and Eastern Market, massive malls of produce wholesalers selling fresh, gorgeous food in the middle of a neighborhood that needs it, but the vast majority is bought and hauled elsewhere. The good news? Urban farms that use reclaimed city land to grow food for the community are on the increase, and smart use of even the tiniest plots can feed many people well.
A New York City Applebee’s rounds out McMillan’s research, and she takes to the job quickly. Raunchy banter is tossed around while the employees change spoilage dates on food, microwave side dishes in plastic bags that flake apart into the meal, and consult charts to determine when a dish is done, thus completely automating the cooking process. Many of the cooks McMillan works with have logged time in other restaurants and clearly distinguish between “actual cooking” and what happens at Applebee’s. Once again, the job is exhausting enough to make eating the relatively tasteless meals comped to employees worthwhile, and the pay makes such benefits a necessity.
McMillan is an engaging tour guide; she’s upfront about the fact that being young, white and female factored into her treatment at each job. She concludes that “Wages, health care, work hours, and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop,” and makes several reasonable suggestions for incorporating positive changes, from coupons for fresh produce to making basic cooking lessons as widely available as possible. Let’s hope The American Way of Eating is a blueprint for changing the way America currently eats.