Interview by Sam Dean
Bon Appétit • Feb. 26, 2012
To write her new book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, Tracie McMillan spent months working on farms and in restaurants. She picked produce in California, worked at two Walmarts in Michigan, and spent time as an expediter in a Brooklyn Applebee’s. Along the way, she found both shocking and predictable hardships, and she used her awareness of those injustices to probe deeper into the workings of the American food system. This is a must-read if you care about the way we eat as a society (and the New York Times agrees).
McMillan spoke with Bon Appetit about what she learned, what’s missing from the media’s discussion about food, and what we can do to change things for the better.
So, why food? How did you come to write a book about how Americans eat?
Tracie McMillan: As a working-class kid who moved to New York City and worked for really wealthy people as a nanny and tutor, and then also working in a public high school, and putting myself through NYU, I had this constant experience of interacting with different classes. And later, when I was a journalist, and started looking at food, I realized that that gave me a really interesting way to talk about race and class in America.
Also, I’ve found a lot of the foodie stuff of the past ten years or so really annoying and kind of condescending. Even though I thought a lot of people were very well intentioned and trying to do good things, a lot of discussion about food assumed that most people had way more time and money than most families do.
And at the same time, I was a Welfare and Poverty reporter. So while I was personally reacting very strongly to this cultural expression about food, I found out how important food was for the people I was writing about. It’s not like they didn’t want good food and want healthy food for their lives, but they couldn’t participate in the foodie thing. So I really wanted to sit down and grapple with this. How do you talk about food in a way that accepts it and engages with it in an interesting way, without being a jerk about it?
You talk about this in the book, but what was it like just working briefly in these worlds?
TM: Walmart was really uncomfortable for me, because that’s where I’m from. I’m from rural Michigan, and had I not had the opportunities that I had, going to a good public school, I could have easily ended up doing that for my whole life.
Do you think there’s anything missing from the food discussion in the media?TM: A reality check is missing, often. Part of that is because media is becoming much more difficult for reporters. There aren’t jobs now, and what started out as a working class profession has become much more upper-middle-class. That shift going on. So the traditional concept of food writing has been that anyone who would bother to write about food were already gourmands. And that preselects for really, really wealthy people or people who want to ingratiate themselves with really, really wealthy people and become friends with them. Lambasting food writers for writing to elite audiences doesn’t make sense, because that’s where the tradition comes from.
But you’re clearly working from a different kind of background.
TM: Yeah, there’s a much smaller tradition of really engaging with food in all its sociopolitical contexts, like with George Orwell and A.J. Liebling, but one thing I really found, doing the investigative research side of the book, is that there’s no set protocol for how to do this kind of reporting.
TM: In Detroit, for instance, I kept hearing people cite this statistic that Detroiters spend 60 percent of their food stamps at corner stores on stuff like liquor and junk food, with just enough normal food spending to get certified. That’s a powerful statistic that really indicts the food system in Detroit. So, I asked where that number was from, and they’re like “Oh, I don’t know, I just heard it.
Someone finally said it came from a book someone had written years earlier, so I asked the author where they got the number from. They told me they couldn’t find any real statistics, so just wrote that there are more corner stores than supermarkets in Detroit, so people must spend more food stamp money at corner stores than grocery stores. Which is crazy!
It took me and a research assistant 30 phone calls and emails and two months to track down a good statistic after that, and we found that the real number was 14 percent. Which is still double the national average, so is significant, but it’s not 60 percent! So there’s a lack of real reporting on this kind of stuff, which I’m hoping will change soon.
What do you think has stopped that kind of reporting from getting more attention?
TM: Well, it’s depressing stuff, writing about problems with food. But still, people respond to food in a way that people don’t respond to writing about poverty.
Food is this universal experience we’ve all had. Everyone’s been hungry, even if it’s a very safe hunger where you just haven’t had time to eat yet, so people can identify with the idea that being hungry would really suck. By comparison, people who aren’t poor don’t really experience the problems of not being able to pay bills, and just absolutely not being able to scrape by.
Besides just getting better facts out there, do you think that there’s anything we can do to make the food system better in America?
TM: It’s really easy to feel hopeless, but there are a lot of small changes we can make that would have a huge impact. I think that most Americans can agree that cooking is an important part of self-sufficiency, and we need to be teaching it to our kids. And not only is it good to just know how to feed yourself, but it’s a practical way to learn math, chemistry–things like that. Everyone hated word problems in algebra because they seemed so pointless, but as soon as you need to figure out a real problem, you buckle down and learn how to figure it out.
Have you found that kids are really growing up not knowing how to cook?
TM: This is one thing that there’s almost no social science on. Anecdotally, I know cookbook authors who talk about how over time, they’ve had to change recipes from saying “add two eggs” to “crack two eggs in a bowl, whisk, then add to mix.” No one knows the basics, so people need things spelled out more.
Did you see people cooking less than you’d expect when you were working in the fields, or Walmart, or Applebees?
TM: It’s important to remember that cooking, especially veggies and rice and things like that, is way cheaper than eating processed food, or eating out. So really poor people tend to cook a lot. But when you’re really broke, and really tired, it feels really hard to eat well and muster the willpower to change your habits. We’ve all had that, where we’re tired, and our brains just shut off, and we eat a bag of chips.
Also, a lot of people forget, in all the rhetoric about cooking healthy meals for your family, that that assumes that your home is a place you’d want to cook, and that you get along with your family. When I was living outside of Bakersfield, roaches would scatter whenever I walked into the kitchen, which made cooking there a lot harder.
And because we don’t talk about these things in polite society, no one ever brings up the possibility that home, where you can cook, could be the last place you want to be. There are abusive families, drinking problems, illness–it’s a poverty thing, not so much a problem of making people eat their veggies.
Is there any way to make eating well the easy choice, though?
TM: Subsidize demand. Or, in less wonky terms, just give people coupons for good food. Everyone’s into free fruits and vegetables, and when people start eating it more regularly, suddenly it’s a no-brainer to go get a good apple instead of junk food.
I saw this work really well at farmer’s markets in Detroit. They matched up to 20 dollars for food stamp clients during growing season, and you saw people go after that produce like gangbusters! You’d see a cluster of rough-looking, working-class dudes eagerly getting their double up tokens and all excited about the fresh food they could get. If those guys are into it, there’s no reason that everyone shouldn’t be eating well.