BONUS: How Whole Foods really prices its food

It’s easy to gloss over the details in all the hubbub over the feature I just published with Slate and the Food and Environment Reporting Network, “Can Whole Foods Really Chance the Way Poor People Eat?” But I would encourage anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of food reporting to pay attention to the data set we amassed for the piece.

What’s the big deal with the data?

Comparing food prices between stores is phenomenally difficult to do well. Brand names, sale prices, different sized packaging…all of it gets very confusing, very quickly. The USDA does track food prices, but only at the bulk level—for a pound of green peas, for example. But most of us don’t buy just a pound of shelled green peas. We buy Green Giant, or we buy Cascadian Farmr, or we buy White Rose, with all the presumed differences between them affecting price. There simply isn’t anywhere that researchers can go, let alone consumers, to see a coherent comparison with name brands. Until now. Continue reading “BONUS: How Whole Foods really prices its food”

Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?

Slate; Food and Environment Reporting Network

Nov. 19, 2014

(1) “Everybody Was Talking About It”

A couple of years ago, as winter gave way to spring, Toyoda Ruff began to think about changing how she ate. Ruff had always been heavy, but her son, Tarik, a freshman honor student, had recently crossed the 300-pound mark, prompting Ruff to ferry him to appointments at a children’s weight loss clinic, 11 miles away in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, and to document everything he ate for two months. At 270 pounds, her husband, Jermaine Harris, wanted to slim down, too. Ruff was beginning to see her family’s weekly fast-food habit and visits to Golden Corral’s all-you-can-eat buffet as a problem.

As Ruff mulled over these changes, a friend cajoled her into joining a healthy cooking class at their church. Ruff was on medical leave from her job as a probation officer due to an injury, and the break gave her time to consider her meals. The more she thought about eating healthy, the more intrigued she was by a new store: Whole Foods, which had just opened in Detroit. “It was on the news. People were talking about it at church,” Ruff said. “Everybody was talking about it.” Continue reading “Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?”

Kitchen Elemental

Slate • May 3, 2013

When I was 10, and my family needed to take some kind of snack to parent–teacher conferences, I pulled out the Betty Crocker Cookbook and made croissants from scratch. (They recalled, in taste and appearance, those from a Pillsbury tube.) By 14 I was buying whole pumpkins from farmers down the road to make pumpkin bread, and at 17 I pickled a dozen eggs as a joke for a friend. I have always been, in other words, a cook—and one who wants to do it herself. Continue reading “Kitchen Elemental”

Cooking Isn’t Fun

Included in 2013 “Best Food Writing” anthology


Slate • Aug. 27, 2012

It took me until I was 33 to start cooking dinner.

Don’t get me wrong—I was no stranger to the kitchen. I had prepared laborious, extravagant meals before, often using exotic ingredients I’d learned about in magazines. Continue reading “Cooking Isn’t Fun”

Food’s Class Warfare

Slate • June 27, 2012

A few years ago, the chef and organic pioneer Alice Waters did a spin on 60 Minutes that managed to showcase exactly why foodies get branded as elitist. “Some people want to buy Nikes, two pairs,” she said in a casual moment at a farmers’ market. “And some people want to eat Bronx grapes and nourish themselves.”

This was vintage foodie-ism, a smug and irritating noblesse oblige transposed onto a discussion of our meals. That didn’t change the fact that much of everything else Waters said was right: The way we eat is making us sick; it’s a good idea for kids to learn to cook; even, in a more formal moment, “good food should be a right and not a privilege.” But her aside about sneakers made it unlikely that anyone not yet onboard with Waters would listen to her in the first place. Continue reading “Food’s Class Warfare”

Should White “Elites” Write About the Poor?

Slate • Feb. 20, 2012

It’s hard to avoid the occasional personal attack when you’re a journalist—especially when you write about an issue as fraught as poverty. And I’ve been called plenty of names before. But in the last week I’ve gained some new ones: “Elitist.” “Poverty pimp.” “Precious little snowflake.” Most of these came in the comments below three excerpts from my new book, The American Way of Eating, describing my experience going “undercover” to work in the kitchen at an Applebee’s, published here at Slate. Continue reading “Should White “Elites” Write About the Poor?”

The American Way of Eating: I got hired to do the hardest job at Applebee’s

Slate • Feb. 15, 2012

Nearly three years ago, Tracie McMillan left New York to go undercover within the American food system. McMillan had grown weary of lectures about local food that dismissed the importance of price to working-class people. At the same time, she knew from her work as a poverty reporter that poor families cared about the quality of their food, too. McMillan hoped to get a ground-level view of how Americans actually make decisions about their meals, especially when money and time are scarce. Continue reading “The American Way of Eating: I got hired to do the hardest job at Applebee’s”

Better Off on Big Farms

Slate • Nov. 2, 2009

I love food, but I’ve never been much into farms. I’ve ignored friends’ repeated encouragements to travel the world picking organic vegetables or do a cow-milking internship. But this summer I sucked it up and headed for the fields—the big ones in California’s Salinas and Central valleys, where half the country’s fruits and vegetables are grown. I went there to start research for a book, for which I aimed to work my way through America’s food system, from farm to table. At the outset, that meant spending 50-plus hours a week under the hot sun hoeing weeds, sorting peaches, and cutting garlic. I knew going in that I’d learn unexpected lessons, but of all the new thoughts crowding my head, none have surprised me as much as this: God bless big farms. Continue reading “Better Off on Big Farms”