By James Sweeney
Cleveland Plain Dealer • Feb. 21, 2012
Why do we do it, America? Why do we eat a cheeseburger and fries for lunch instead of bringing carrot sticks and hummus from home? Why, in the supermarket, do we walk past the produce bins to reach the frozen pizza?
We know better.
Journalist Tracie McMillan decided to find out why Americans, particularly the poor and working class, eat so much of the bad stuff. She went “undercover” as a harvest worker in California, a produce clerk at a Walmart superstore outside Detroit and a kitchen employee at an Applebee’s in New York City. The approach is similar to the one Barbara Ehrenreich took in her superior 2001 expose, “Nickeled and Dimed,” but McMillan puts the emphasis on food.
The book starts with the author harvesting peaches, grapes and garlic, earning, for instance, $2 for each 20-pound flat of grapes. She was the only gringa in an otherwise Mexican and Mexican-American work force. Living as well as toiling with the fieldworkers, McMillan subsisted on her pittance and learned how hard the labor is.
These are the books’ best chapters, contrasting the warmth and camaraderie of the workers with their harsh economic reality and often unfair treatment at the hands of the corporations that employ them.
“These families were generous with me, I think, not just because of a tradition of hospitality, but because, as families eking out a living on very little, they understood the very basic role of food in their, and my, survival. They understood something that I vaguely knew but had never before articulated: that good, fresh food, like water, is a shared and precious resource,” she writes.
From California, McMillan moves to Michigan and Walmart, the largest grocer in the world, where she stocks shelves and ponders the lure of processed food. She reports that Walmart now accounts for at least half the food sales in 29 American metropolitan markets. Lastly, McMillan relocates to Brooklyn and become a food expediter at Applebee’s, the world’s biggest sit-down restaurant chain.
Little actual cooking is done at Applebee’s. There is lots of defrosting, portioning, assembling and microwaving of items delivered in trucks, but not much cooking, a fact that depresses the kitchen staff.
The most informative parts of the book are not the descriptions of the work — anyone who doesn’t know these jobs are hard is unlikely to read this book –but the explanations of the food economy in our cities.
While many urban centers are considered “food deserts” because they lack supermarkets and other vendors of fresh food, McMillan shows that lots of produce flows into downtown food distribution centers (like the Northern Ohio Food Terminal in Cleveland), but most of it ships right back out to suburban markets.
The major supermarket chains own their distribution networks, leaving little room for growers to supply the small, independent urban grocers. The author backs up her findings with solid reporting, including calculating the density of supermarket square footage per population in various cities and keeping detailed records of her food budget.
After a year in the food trenches, McMillan concludes that the working poor and middle class eat Froot Loops and Hamburger Helper not because they don’t want or appreciate fresh food, but because it can be expensive, time-consuming and difficult to eat better.
“Wages, health care, work hours, and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the place at which we shop,” she writes, sounding a good deal like Ehrenreich.
McMillan doesn’t address our innate cravings for fat, salt and sugar, so well represented in processed food, but she does make a compelling and cogent argument that eating healthily ought to be easier.