By Julie Mack
Mlive.com • March 20, 2012
Wonder what it’s like to work third-shift at a Kalamazoo-area Walmart store?
Author and Michigan native Tracie McMillan documents the experience in Chapter 5 of her new book “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.“
McMillan’s book is premised on the idea that America is a land of agricultural bounty, which makes it curious that so many Americans — especially low-income and working class families — eschew fresh produce in favor of processed food.
McMillan, who grew up in the Flint area and was raised on a diet of Tuna Helper and Ortego Taco Dinners, spent a year investigating America’s food system. In California, she harvested grapes, sorted peaches and cut garlic; in Michigan, she worked at Walmart stores near Kalamazoo and Detroit; in New York, she took a job at Applebee’s.
As to how McMillan ended up in Kalamazoo, she explains she chose the area “because it’s on the west side of the state, where agriculture is strong, generated much of the produce that ranks Michigan in the top ten states for fruit and vegetable production. This small college town also happens to be the home of my sister, Shana.”
According to the book, McMillan moved to Kalamazoo in November 2009 and stayed through most of the holiday season. She rented a room in what appears to be Kalamazoo’s Vine Neighborhood, based on the description, and applied for jobs at an area Walmart, landing a position “at a supercenter about 20 miles away,” which suggests it’s either the Walmart in Plainwell or Three Rivers.
In the book’s introduction, McMillan said she changed the names of her co-workers, but she offers plenty of detail about the job: Tricks of the trade in stocking shelves; the 50-cent premium for working nights; the observation that most of her co-workers were longtime Walmart employees; workers’ irritation with a Michigan law (since changed) that required a price tag on every item, a mandate that was the bane of a stocker’s life.
She also gave the lowdown on Walmart pay and benefits, circa 2009: She started at minimum wage, $7.40 per hour plus the 50-cent night differential. There were annual increases of 40 to 60 cents an hour based on performance; employee discounts of 10 percent; health-care coverage with deductibles of $350 to $2,500 available to full-time workers after six months on the job. She also said that one Walmart co-worker said it was better to work for Walmart compared to Meijer because Walmart employees didn’t have to pay union dues.
McMillan quit the Kalamazoo-area job because she wanted to work in produce as research for her book, and a transfer to that department didn’t seem likely.
She moved to the Detroit area, noting that Detroit is a “food desert” — a city of more than 700,000 without a single supermarket run by a national grocery chain.
As for her job working produce in a Detroit-area Walmart, McMillan offers this description: “I learn that produce is a living commodity rapidly approaching its demise and the produce section is nothing less than an expensive life-support system.”