Musings on “The American Way of Eating”

Tara Graff Fitness • Dec. 28, 2012

I’ve always been interested in food, food politics, food marketing, and food choices, and with my contest-prep diet, my interest in and passion for good-quality, healthy foods has sported up like so many stalks of GMO corn.

So, when I heard about Tracie McMillan’s undercover exploration of the American food industry – done in the style of Barb Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed – I ordered the book as my airplane read for our San Diego trip.

Tracie divides the book into three parts – Growing, Selling and Cooking. She commits two months to working jobs in each sector of the food industry, so that she can see up-close each step food takes before it crosses our ever-hungry lips. McMillan pledges to live the experience as a far-below-the-poverty-line food-worker as authentically as an educated, professional, attractive white woman can: She will work the same hours, do the same duties, rent in the same neighborhoods, and make ends meet only on the income she earns.

She begins her journey in California farm country, where the scenery is beautiful but the life isn’t. She lives in a borrowed trailer, the only gringa for miles. After befriending her neighbor, Pilar, a supervisor in grapes, she manages to get a job trimming grapes “for the table.” In other words, Tracie is hired to make the fruit look wine-label-pretty for the bourgeois.

Simple, right? It’s not as easy as it sounds. It’s physically challenging for this former deskworker, and Tracie struggles through a few days of it before there are no more grapes to trim. Growing seasons are short and intermittent by nature, and farmworkers are used to drifting up and down the state in search of another gig. After about a week, Tracie is forced to do the same.

She lands in garlic, living in filthy conditions – which she describes in graphic detail – in a house filled with her fellow cutters. In garlic, the heat is oppressive, and it often makes her queasy. She spends her off-hours in an air-conditioned library, or blowing her hard-earned wages on burgers at the blissfully cool Carl’s Jr.

Like Ehrenreich, McMillan provokes both guilt and gratitude out of her top-ten-percent readers. When she wraps up a day picking grapes having earned only $26, I shudder. People really live like this? People really live like this. At 34, I alone make, well, it’s not polite to give numbers, but more than that. And I’m nowhere near content. It still doesn’t seem to be enough. Perhaps my mother was, in fact, dead-on when she hit me with this: “It’s possible you could be an ingrate.”

Why are wages for farmworkers so low? A day’s worth of freshly cut garlic garners Tracie between $30 and $70, but it could retail for over $1,000. It’s hard to imagine there isn’t some wiggle room there to raise farmworker pay. McMillan asserts wages are low because there’s no compelling reason for growers to raise them. No, it’s because with a ready supply of often-illegal workers, perfectly OK with the status quo, why would growers bother?

In Tracie’s experience, the growers also blatantly cook the books when it comes to paycheck. Farmworkers are generally paid by piece, and if a worker is unable to earn minimum wage at the piece rate, the employer is supposed to make up the difference to the minimum hourly. However, this rarely happens. Instead, the employers reverse-engineer McMillan’s hours so that it appears her piece-pay reflects the minimum. (Her $26, eight-hour grape fields day is shown on her stub as three hours of work.) During her short stint in the fields, Tracie alone is shorted $454.

I found the Wal-Mart and Applebee’s sections a little less compelling than the farm work section. Perhaps that comes from my own grunt-labor roots. Wages are substantially higher – slightly better, even, than minimum wage – and, despite Wal-Mart’s legendary bad rap, McMillan doesn’t criminalize either employer. (However, after learning about “crisping,” you’ll want to rely exclusively on the nearest farmer’s market for your produce – if you can afford it.)

Tracie repeatedly acknowledges the ways her own experiences aren’t entirely reflective of a true farm, retail store or restaurant worker. When she injures her hand cutting garlic, she knows she has the option just to quit (which, after a couple of days of light duty, she does). She notes that special perks, such as her own garlic courier and air-conditioned rides in her supervisor’s pickup, are offered to her because of her age and skin color (and, though McMillan is too modest to add this, her cuteness is also undoubtedly a factor). However, her experiences are close enough to make us think.

Throughout the book, I was struck by how happy many of the people and families featured seemed to be. Sure, there are well-illustrated problems, but there is a sense of community and Got-Cher-Back-ness that helps pull the working poor through. Meals are made and shared with extended family, friends, neighbors. Beds are offered to weary stragglers. When Tracie offers to give her daily earnings to her fellow grape-pickers, feeling that she, just learning the job, held her group back from earning more, she is immediately rejected. “You worked hard and did your best,” implores her colleague. I guess life really is what you make it.

RATING: 9 outta 10. Read it!

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