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The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

Digging Deep • June 27, 2012

In a nutshell: informational, engaging, and enlightening – 5 out of 5 shovels

Several months ago, I kept seeing blurbs and reviews about the latest piece of food journalism to hit the shelves. Tracie McMillian’s book made quite a splash for its humble approach and complexly recriminating analysis of the American food system (even getting the attention of Rush Limbaugh, who called her “overeducated” and derided the critique of a corporate-controlled food system implicit in the section about working in a Walmart produce department). I’m just now getting around to checking it off my to-read list, and I wish I had done it sooner.

The book is primarily a narrative of McMillian’s experience working (as the title suggests) undercover in three different components of America’s “foodscape”: farming in California’s central valley, selling in the produce section of a Detroit Walmart supercenter, and cooking in the kitchen of a Brooklyn Applebee’s. The author devoted a whole year to this experiment, limiting her budget to what she could eek out from these minimum (or below)-wage jobs, and sharing her insight along the way. Interspersed with her personal story is a very well researched account of how our American food system came to be.  For all my previous knowledge about growing food, making food, and inequality surrounding food access and distribution, The American Way of Eating continually made me go, “wow!” or “huh, I never thought of it that way.”

Probably my favorite aspect of the book (unlike a lot of other books about food I’ve read) is that the author doesn’t seem to be riding any kind of high horse. Her critique of the American food system is insightful and down-to-earth, derived from personal experience as much as research and data. She writes not as a celebrity or academic, but as someone who had to make the choice between buying healthy food and paying rent on time, between putting up with labor abuses or losing her job all together. Reflecting over a meal at McDonald’s, she writes:

“Either eating well needs to be easier, or the terms of my life need to be more forgiving. And no amount of intelligent analysis or principled argumentation will change those simple, pragmatic facts.  I haven’t landed here with my diet soda and mysterious beef patty because I, personally, haven’t got the right priorities. I’ve landed here because, for a long time, America has ignored a priority that should be one of its biggest: making sure its people can eat well, not just through the agriculture it practices but through the wages it pays, the work and education it provides, and the rules it keeps.”

Overall, this was a great and engaging piece of non-fiction that I would recommend to almost anyone who eats food in this country—gourmets, sociology students, public health people, and Applebee’s lovers alike.

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