By Hannah Wallace
Portland Oregonian • March 3, 2012
Tracie McMillan grew up on Tuna Helper and Ortega Taco Dinners and was raised to believe that farm-fresh, home-cooked food was for “fancy” people. But a decade ago, while covering the poverty beat for a small New York City magazine, she jettisoned these class assumptions about food. Writing about a program that teaches low-income youth to cook healthy food, she met 18-year-old Vanessa, who loved vegetables and wished she had a farmers market in her neighborhood but was resigned to eating what’s cheap and accessible: Burger King Whoppers and processed food from the supermarket.
“If you want people to eat healthy, why make it so expensive?” Vanessa wondered.
This question, which haunted McMillan as she watched New Yorkers rhapsodize over $6-a-pound farmers market tomatoes, is what drove her to undertake a yearlong investigation of the American “foodscape,” from (industrial) farm to (chain restaurant) plate in “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.”
McMillan focuses on three segments of our contemporary food economy: the fruit and vegetable farms of California; the big box supermarket, represented by Walmart, America’s largest grocer; and the chain restaurant (she chooses Applebee’s, the largest sit-down restaurant chain in the world). Like Barbara Ehrenreich in “Nickel and Dimed,” McMillan goes undercover, posing as a farmworker in California, a produce clerk at a Detroit-area Walmart, and a kitchen “expediter” at a Brooklyn Applebee’s. The result is both an indictment of America’s industrial food system and a vivid, compassionate portrait of the working class.
In the garlic fields of California’s Salinas Valley, McMillan, like the immigrant farmers she works alongside, is paid by the piece instead of by the hour, meaning she makes far less than the state’s minimum wage of $8. This practice is common, though illegal. Not surprisingly — she makes a paltry $204 a week for repetitive, exhausting work — McMillan subsists on a meager diet of cheese sandwiches and Diet Coke. A co-worker, taking pity on McMillan, invites her to a food pantry — a place most farmworkers rely on to supplement their groceries.
McMillan deftly skewers Walmart’s recent rebranding of itself as a champion for the poor by comparing the price of produce sold at the Walmart where she works outside Detroit with the produce sold at La Colmena, a neighborhood grocery store. The prices at La Colmena are consistently cheaper — sometimes by as much as 54 percent (for oranges) — and the quality is better. (Most of McMillan’s time at Walmart is spent “crisping” the produce, rehydrating limp greens and culling rotting lettuce leaves before returning them to the floor.) Economies of scale don’t work for fresh produce, she points out.
“There’s no profitable way to consistently buy massive quantities cheaply and then sell it off over time.”
McMillan is skeptical of Walmart’s long-term interest in helping the poor access healthy food. “As Walmart gains more and more market share — by putting competitors out of business, by entering urban markets — why would they keep our food affordable?”
At Applebee’s, where she spends two months in the kitchen, McMillan isn’t given any formal food safety training and is unsettled to find that meals are “assembled” rather than cooked. Soup is defrosted, cabbage comes pre-shredded, sauces pre-made — even ribs and chicken wings arrive precooked. The chain has more in common with McDonald’s than most sit-down restaurants. Nonetheless, dining at Applebee’s has become a “hallmark of American prosperity, a celebration of mainstream, middle-class success,” McMillan writes.
While the industrial provenance of Applebee’s ingredients won’t surprise locavores and slow food advocates, what is astonishing are the high prices customers are willing to pay for Applebee’s dinners. An asiago peppercorn steak, for example, is $17. McMillan finds she can make the same meal at home for $3.72 in as much time as it would take to drive to an Applebee’s, order and get her meal. Applebee’s remains popular, not because of its culinary sophistication or low prices, McMillan concludes, but because it gives middle-class Americans a night off from the daily grind and “removes the need to have to come up with a plan for dinner.”
McMillan never answers the question she set out to address — why is healthy food so expensive? But she does put to rest class assumptions about “fancy” people having a prerogative to farm-fresh, healthy food. What McMillan observes again and again are ordinary, working-class Americans who demand good food — especially when it’s affordable and accessible. Her co-workers at Walmart polish off grapes, apples, oranges and bananas during the company’s “Free Fruit Fridays.” Her colleagues at Applebee’s fantasize about eating buffalo mozzarella and sundried tomatoes. At Detroit’s Eastern Market, McMillan meets two 40-something sisters on food stamps who rave about the fresh fruits and vegetables they can now afford thanks to a coupon program that matches up to $20 of food stamps spent on Michigan-grown produce.
Should it come as a surprise that low-income folks want good food? It shouldn’t. There’s a whole movement out there fighting to make healthy food more accessible and affordable to low-income Americans, and oddly, McMillan only touches on it. By the end of her book, you’re left wanting more solutions to the conundrum she sets out to address: Why is it so difficult to eat well?