By Tracie McMillan
Eater.com • Sept. 21, 2014
Writing about food is the only way I’ve found to get Americans to talk about class without being jerks. That’s my meta-objective: to foster cross-class understanding so we can fix problems like poverty and education. That’s a high bar, though. I’d settle for seeing fresh, healthy food be as cheap and accessible as junk food is today.
I’m not really a typical food-world person. When I started my reporting career I thought food writing was a bunch of elitist snobs gazing in turn at their navels and their dinner plates. I only started looking at food after I’d spent several years covering poverty and welfare and did a story on food access in New York City.
“The idea that the poor might be a lot like them, only faced with different choices, was incomprehensible to most people. ”I did that food access story in 2004, and even though it was about poverty, people talked to me endlessly. That was completely new for me. Back then, getting people to talk about poverty required exploding their idea of America; I had to convince them class existed in the United States. Or, if they would talk about poverty, I’d spend a lot of time answering questions about what exactly the poor had done to get poor. The idea that the poor might be a lot like them, only faced with different choices, was incomprehensible to most people.
Writing about supermarkets and farmers’ markets was different. Even though that was a story about class and poverty, everyone got it. They understood that if a supermarket wasn’t nearby, it would take more work and effort to eat a healthy diet. So I started poking around more about food issues.
You can write about food and be a jerk, too, of course. Lately I’ve heard a lot of talk about how poor people just prefer bad food. I can’t say I’ve never seen anything suggesting that in fifteen years of reporting on the poor, but the word preference is almost Orwellian in its vagueness; your assumptions going in are going to predict your answers at the end.
If you start from a place of thinking that the poor are juggling cost, convenience, culture, history, habit and health-the same as middle-class people-you get one kind of story. But if you think that being poor makes someone a fundamentally different kind of human-that the poor only care about cheap food and not health, and that food preference for the poor is about innate tastes, not the history or habit we understand to middle-class tastes-you’re going to get a different story.
I can’t say I always succeed, but I try pretty hard to take the first approach. Otherwise, I’m just using my subjects to tell a story I already decided before I got there. That’s not just lazy reporting; it robs my subjects of their humanity. At the root of it, I try to use stories about food-a great universal, one thing that everyone has in common-to remind Americans of something our culture makes easy to forget: that the poor are human, just like all the rest of us.