The American Way of Eating: Grapes

The Miscellany News • April 9, 2013

For my Intro to Sociology class, I read The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan over spring break. I was expecting another book that detailed the complicated food industry by spewing out random facts and numbers. Instead, I was surprised to see how McMillan managed to describe the process in an overall linear and clear manner, due to her immersion as a worker in the world of food production. McMillan takes her reader through the whole process of how food ends up on our dinner plates, and on the way unveils many of the exploitative and unfair practices of large food businesses.

McMillan is a journalist who spent a year undercover in three different areas of the food industry: the farms, the supermarkets, and the restaurants. Of the three areas in which she works, the farms are the ones I remember the most. McMillan travels to the valleys of California where she is the only “gringa”—native English-speaking female—amongst the workers who have emigrated from Latin American countries. She jumps from job to job, laboring in tough conditions during the day and returning to a cockroach-infested home shared by dozens of other workers at night. McMillan has never before encountered this type of blue-collar work. Besides the hard labor and filthy living arrangements, wages are the biggest issue for the workers. The workers don’t get paid by the hour, but by the quantity of product they gather. This results in much less pay after a long day of working. In addition, the company who hires the workers fudges the number of hours the workers worked on their paychecks so that they can pay the workers less. For example, instead of the company recording that their workers worked for 9 hours, the paycheck would say they worked for 2 hours—the amount of time it would actually take to receive the amount the workers are getting paid.

McMillan starts her farmwork by harvesting grapes. In the nine hours that she works bent over the vines, snipping grapes under the sun, she makes only $26 dollars. The payment works in this way: after a day of picking grapes with two other people, the workers pack the grapes into shipment boxes. For every cardboard caja (box) the three of them fill, the team earns $2. At the end of their first day, the team fills 39 boxes for a total of $78. $78 divided by 3 gives them $26 apiece. Had they been paid hourly with minimum wage, they would have made $76 each! That’s a $50 difference that goes to the owners of the farm instead of the workers.

McMillan explained that if the wages for the workers were increased, it would barely affect the food prices for produce in stores. This is because growing the product only accounts for 16% of the final price, while 84% of the price is made up of various marketing negotiations and contracts that slowly cause the increase of the product. Increasing the wages of the workers would add little to the amount of money a family spends on groceries each year. The question is, why don’t they just increase the wages? McMillan goes into much more detail about these matters, and how even though higher wages are possible, the workers don’t have the power to ask for them.

In the end, who really thinks about these things when they eat a handful of grapes? When I see grapes in the Retreat, I don’t think about the process of how they got into the little plastic packages into a shelf here at Vassar, and I don’t think about the workers who spent all day picking them and getting severely underpaid for it—I don’t think anybody does. What this book opened my eyes to is all of the corruption, the profits, the workers, and the lower-class lifestyle involved in food production, all told from someone who actually lived through it as a farmer. (That’s investigative journalism for ya!) In addition to grapes, McMillan also harvested peaches and gleaned garlic, all the while living amongst the other workers who couldn’t leave the toilsome lifestyle when they had tired of it, like McMillan could. McMillan goes into her investigation with the comfort of having an education and a credit card to enable her to escape this difficult way of life whenever she wanted. This isn’t an option for the other workers, who have left their families for hard labor jobs here, and can only keep doing this job to survive. This is a thought to keep in mind in regards to where the food we’re eating comes from.

Definitely check out McMillan’s book; it’s a quick and easy read, but I can guarantee that you will gain so much knowledge from it.

Until next time, stay curious!