By Paul Raeburn
Knight Science Journalism at MIT • March 7, 2012
Fresh from his apology for describing Sandra Fluke, a Georgetown University law student as a “slut” who should have sex and “post the videos online so we can all watch,” Rush Limbaugh has now gone after the writer Tracie McMillan and her book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table. The book is the product of a nearly year-long investigative reporting project in which McMillan worked with, lived with, and ate with the working poor.
Yesterday, Limbaugh attacked McMillan on his radio show, criticizing her contention that the working poor don’t eat as well as people with more money. That doesn’t seem terribly controversial, but Limbaugh called it one of “the contrivances of the Left’s attack on liberty.” The book, he said, makes an argument for government involvement in food distribution, which he deplored. But he didn’t stop before attacking McMillan personally. He called her an “authorette,” and went on to say:
What is it with all of these young single white women, overeducated — doesn’t mean intelligent. For example, Tracie McMillan, the author of this book, seems to be just out of college and already she has been showered with awards, including the 2006 James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism. Social justice journalism…Her degree is not in food or nutrition. She has a B.A. from New York University in political science. She’s a political scientist. She’s a journalist.
McMillan is a friend of mine. We were both fellows in a journalism program at the University of Maryland nearly a decade ago. Having said that, I’m going to try to do what Limbaugh didn’t do: Evaluate the book on its merits, rather than criticize or praise McMillan personally or try to crumple and compress her work to fit it into an ideological box.
The American Way of Eating is a record of what McMillan saw and experienced. It doesn’t come as a huge surprise that farm workers and employees of Wal-Mart and Applebee’s don’t eat as well as, say Rush Limbaugh. But it’s the details that matter. And McMillan’s commendable efforts in a struggle to sort out the ethical and fairness issues in a country in which food is so inequitably distributed.
This is the result of McMillan’s first day picking grapes with two others, a job she’s lucky to find, after discovering that getting hired is more difficult than she expected:
Ten of the plastic clamshell boxes [of trimmed and sorted grapes] fit in a cardboard caja, a flat, and for every caja the three of us fill, we earn $2. We count our haul for the day: thirty-nine cajas. That’s $78 divided by three: $26 apiece. We’ve been at work since 6:00 a.m. There was a half hour lunch. Nine hours for $26.
I was fascinated to discover that despite the abysmal working conditions, the heat, and the miserable wages, the farm workers are amazingly good at what they do. McMillan has been picking for a half hour on her first day, when one of her co-workers looks into her bin and is dismayed.
No little ones, no rotten ones. Throw them out [he says]. He picks up a bunch from my bin and snips into it efficiently. Grapes fly. Stems snap. He finishes, and holds up a finely draped, flawless bunch of grapes. It belongs on the cover of Bon Appetit, or maybe a wine label. [He says:] See? These are for the table, so they have to be nice.
McMillan also “cuts garlic,” where she finds out that workers, surprisingly, get paychecks listing their wages, social security deductions, and taxes. What they earn is way below the minimum wage–in the case of one woman, $16 for nine hours’ work. She worked from 5:30 am until 2:30 pm to earn that, but her check says she worked two hours–exactly the number of hours she needs so that her $16 in earnings matches the minimum wage–$8 per hour.
McMillan’s first-person reporting, which makes up much of the book, is interspersed with solid reported sections looking at the economics of farms, food distribution, and retail food sales. And she tells the story not with cynicism or despair, but with hope and even humor. Working on an almost non-stop food assembly line at Applebee’s, she tries to drink water during her grueling shift, which can last 12 hours, to keep from becoming dehydrated. Terry, one of her co-workers, says, “You need to drink some water. You are red.”
“I’ve been drinking water,” McMillan tells him. “This is just the color white people get when it’s hot.”
“Really?” says Terry. “I get blacker.”
The American Way of Eating, much of which I would call science writing, is, despite its subject matter, pleasant to read, because of the sense of hope, the reader’s sense that all this reporting could help to change things, and because of McMillan’s delightful personality and seemingly endless generosity toward the people she works with.
And despite Limbaugh’s comments to the contrary, McMillan is not advocating government control of the food industry. In her conclusion, she cites Henry Ford–a capitalist of the first rank–as the model for what might be done to help those at the bottom of the food pyramid:
Henry Ford set about designing a way of manufacturing cars that would make them affordable to average workers…When he started selling the Model T in 1908, it cost one-third less than most of the cars sold nationwide that year. In 1914, Ford began paying his workers $5 a day, doubling the average worker’s wage and thus making his automobiles affordable to them. In the process, he built an empire that changed American society forever.”
Anyone who wants to change the American way of eating, she writes, “will need to figure out how to do the same.”
An authorette? If that’s what McMillan is, I take it to be the highest compliment.