By Jess Kelham-Hohler
The Hoya • March 28, 2014
When journalist Tracie McMillan set out to write about poverty through the lens of hunger, she had no idea that her ideas would spark a national debate on the relationship between food and class in America.
In her widely acclaimed book, “The American Way of Eating,” McMillan argues that fresh and healthy food should be thought of as a social and public good.
“I wanted to open up a discussion where we were talking about food as something that most people already care about, rather than as a luxury product. There was so much talk of food at the time as if it were something like a new pair of sneakers or some other product, rather than as a basic need,” McMillan said in an interview.
Her argument about the lack of availability of food will resonate with students who have experience working with the more underprivileged areas of the Washington, D.C. community. Areas such as Ward 7 are known for being severely deprived of places to buy food, with fewer grocery stores than in the other wards of the city. McMillan chose to write the book in order to discuss food and highlight how it has become another way in which the poor are disadvantaged, a way that is necessary for health and life.
“To make sure we get water in poor neighborhoods, to make sure we get electricity — we spend public money to do that. We decided as a country that it’s important to have those things. So it was pretty bizarre to me that we are totally fine with having neighborhoods where clearly the primary option is junk food. I wanted to bring up this line about how food is still the only basic human need,” McMillan said.
Writing the book was not without its challenges, especially since it involved an extensive amount of undercover, investigative work at companies like Walmart and Applebee’s.
“Initially, the hardest thing was being uncomfortable with doing an undercover project and understanding that to do my best work as journalist, I couldn’t be honest with everyone,” McMillan said. “That was pretty hard because I tend to be an open person. In the field, I was having very intimate relationships with these people, working with them in the day and going to their houses at night, and it took a while for me to feel okay with that.”
When the book gained significant critical response, winning the Sidney Hillman Prize and the Books for a Better Life Award, as well as being a finalist for the James Beard Journalism Award and a New York Times Bestseller, McMillan was surprised that she was not just seen as “an angry woman.”
She had been writing about poverty for 12 years before she began her book and wasn’t used to such positive reception.
“The kinds of things I wanted to talk about were not the things that anyone else wanted to talk about, and I had gotten pretty used to that,” McMillan said.
Certain that she was writing about something that wouldn’t interest enough people to make it a success, McMillan thought the book wouldn’t have an impact.
“The most likely outcome was that it would come out, disappear, and I would have to go and find a job,” she said. When the opposite happened, and the book gained much critical acclaim, McMillan was thrilled.
“It gave me more faith in people who buy books. I’d gotten so used to thinking that no one was going to want to read this, that I was this grumpy, crazy lady sitting in the corner that no one wanted to listen to,” she said. “To do all that work and have people come out and say, ‘Actually, we do need to talk about this’ — that, frankly, gave me more faith in America in a lot of ways.”
Even when Rush Limbaugh attacked her and her work, criticizing her for being “overeducated” — “I didn’t understand that. I only have a B.A.,” McMillan responded — elitist, and worst of all, female, McMillan took it as a positive sign that her work was prompting people to discuss the issues she had raised.
“I was really surprised because I didn’t think that people would pay enough attention to the book that it would matter what I said. That Rush Limbaugh jumped onto it showed me that it was actually a good idea, a powerful idea, because this person is willing to spend so much time and energy trying to shoot it down,” she said. “That means it was a powerful idea and not just me in my corner being angry any more.”
Since the book’s publication in 2012, McMillan has continued to write articles that explore the internal logic of the welfare system and the relationship between the availability of food and the poor. She claims that she is still discovering some shocking facts.
“I’m currently working on a feature for National Geographic about hunger in America, and I discovered things like that there are 90 million Americans who go without enough to eat. And of that number, 60 percent of those people have at least one person in the house who works full time,” McMillan said. “So now, poverty and hunger is not something that comes about because they’re not working, but because wages just aren’t high enough. To discover those specifics is pretty shocking.”
To aspiring journalists, McMillan, who was managing editor for City Limits and has done freelance work for publications like Slate and The Wall Street Journal, advises making sure you focus on an area you are passionate about.
“Do whatever. Build a significant expertise in a particular area you are passionate about. Expertise is what makes you able to find good stories. It’s incredibly time-consuming, but if you have that passion, it pays off,” McMillan said.
McMillan will be speaking about the food movement and poverty in Lohrfink Auditorium on Thursday, April 3, at 6:00 pm. A book signing will follow.