By Rae Francoeur
Cape Ann Beacon • March 28, 2012
Why is it so hard to eat well, journalist Tracie McMillan wondered. Good food, such as the produce America grows in abundance, is relatively expensive even though only 14 cents of each dollar spent on produce ends up back on the farm it came from.
And “food deserts,” as McMillan calls them, stretch all over America where you have to drive 10 or 15 miles to get to a supermarket, making healthy food harder to find than the ubiquitous Happy Meal.
People patching together a meager living working multiple, exhausting minimum wage jobs are way too tired to spend time regularly preparing meals. And younger people now grow up without the training to function in a kitchen, even if they do have money, time and access to good food. They may not, however, given that one-third of American households earn less than $35,000 a year. In America, it’s simply easier to eat poorly.
“We’re facing a dire public health problem related to poor diet,” writes McMillan. “Is it really in America’s best interest to maintain a food system where eating well requires one to either be rich or to drive a total of 30 miles?”
McMillan’s eye-opening book gets the answers she’s looking for. As the title implies, she went undercover for one year to get a close look at America’s food production, distribution and preparation processes. McMillan dubs this food network our “foodscape.” Food, its distribution, preparation and its consumption is far more than process, she argues, it’s what made us human in the first place. Everyone loves good food, she discovers, and when given the resources, that’s what they choose.
McMillan began her undercover year harvesting grapes and garlic in California’s Central Valley. In the short time spent as a farm worker, she suffered heat stroke, a crippling repetitive motion injury, and ravenous and unabated hunger due to her meager wages and exhausting work schedule. She lived with other farm workers in packed quarters and, still, she lived better than many. She made friends with the other workers, who helped her find scarce work and who helped her improve her productivity. They shared their food with her and helped her find housing, even when they were all struggling with the heat, the hard work, the dishonesty of the pay system, and the demands of the families they supported. You’ll never crush a garlic clove without thinking about the anonymous laborers who expertly snip each head in blazing heat for mere pennies an hour. For one day’s work harvesting grapes, McMillan earned $26 for nine hours in the fields.
From the fields, McMillan moves on to work at a couple of Walmarts in Michigan. In Kalamzoo she prices baking supplies and in Detroit she works in produce. Walmart sells a quarter of the food Americans buy. Because it’s perishable, produce is among the most expensive of food items. And because Detroit is one of those food deserts, Walmart lacks the competition and, therefore, the impetus to offer the low prices you expect at Walmart. As for the produce at Walmart, and probably other markets, the refreshing and trimming activities that busied McMillan keep the produce on the shelf for a longer period of time, though all that trimming definitely reduces the size of the heads of lettuce and bunches of grapes. The low pay makes paying rent on time impossible. The lack of money combined with her growing exhaustion drive any thought of food preparation off McMillan’s to do list. And, still, it takes McMillan many weeks of effort and over 100 phone calls to get work at Walmart.
McMillan enjoyed the work at Applebee’s in Brooklyn because of the camaraderie. Like the work in the fields, her white skin set her apart from the rest of the workers. Instead of it being a disadvantage, she felt her initial ineptitude and skin color may have garnered certain compassion from fellow workers.
In Applebee’s, she works as an “expo” or expediter. Her job is to coordinate the flow of food from the kitchen to the dining room. Applebee’s is a family restaurant, with 2,008 restaurants in 2009, 140 of them abroad. Wages start at $8 and go up to low teens, but it’s harder for women to move up the pay scale in food preparation work. McMillan, though, is seen to be a good, hard worker and a suggestion is made that she move on to management before she gives her notice.
Applebee’s assembles most of the food you see on your plate. Foods like mashed potatoes and even pastas are portioned in plastic baggies that are microwaved. Steaks, burgers and fries are cooked, but most foods and even seasonings are prepared in advance and assembled on your plate. Foods are basic, but the draw is getting out of the house and relaxing in a comfortable, familiar setting. In one week, the Applebee’s in Brooklyn where McMillan worked brought in $122,000, more than nine times the weekly sales of the average restaurant.
“American Way of Eating” is filled with information on the farming system, the infrastructure that supports enormous distribution systems like that of Walmart, and food in general. Interspersed with McMillan’s fascinating undercover story are the efforts of a relentlessly curious and energetic journalist. She looks into everything and provides thorough notes and footnotes. In the end, she seems a bit hopeful about the future. Michelle Obama has taken up the cause of healthy eating and fresh produce, and it’s hard nowadays not to acknowledge the harm our poor way of eating is causing our bodies and our society as a whole. McMillan has contributed meaningful work to an already important body of work about agriculture and food processing.