The journey from farm to the dinner table

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Interview by Kai Ryssdal

“Marketplace,” American Public Media • Feb. 21, 2012

Kai Ryssdal: Not to pry, but what’d you have breakfast? Toast? Yogurt? Fresh fruit, maybe?

By the end of the day, it’s hard to remember, and sometimes hard to worry too much about it. But for a lot of people in this economy, what we eat is way more than a quick bite. It’s a livelihood and a way of life.

Tracie McMillan writes about it in her new book called “The American Way of Eating.” Good to have you with us.

Tracie McMillan: Thanks so much for having me.

Ryssdal: I wonder if we could break down the title a little bit, because this isn’t so much the American way of eating as it is the American way of growing and buying and selling, and then getting our food to our plates, right?

McMillan: Right. It ended up being more ambitious than I had realized. I decided what I would do is I would go and work in three parts of the food system. So I worked as a farmworker in fields in California; and then I moved on to work in the produce section of Walmart, a Walmart supermarket outside of Detroit; and then I finished up in the kitchen at a New York City Applebee’s. And part of the wrinkle in this was that I had live and eat off my wages the whole time.

Ryssdal: Just to make it a little more challenging, right?

McMillan: Exactly.

Ryssdal: As much as this is a book about food, it’s a book about people too, right? It’s about the characters you met in the fields in the Central Valley in California, at the Walmart and at the Applebee’s. And the one that sticks with me after having read this book is, she was your first forewoman, Pilar, in the fields of southern great valley in California.

McMillan: There was a farmworker family that was going back to Mexico for a few weeks to visit family, and so the idea was I could stay in their trailer. And what I was told was, ‘Well you could just sort of walk around the trailer park and ask people for work.’ So I went to the first trailer and said, ‘Hola! Hi. My name’s Tracie, I’m looking for work.’ And they sort of looked at me like I was crazy; it was like a mom, a dad and a kid. But after talking with them a little bit, the woman said, ‘Well I’m a forewoman. If you want to come work with me, you can come work with me.’ So I said, that would great. She really ended up being just a wonderful friend and a really generous woman.

Ryssdal: That whole experience to me was made all the more meaningful by the fact that when you working in the fields with her and the other folks on that small team that you were with, your inability to do the job — and I’m not mis-characterizing, because you say it yourself, I guess you were cutting grapes that first day and you had no idea what you were doing — your inability to do your job meant money out of their pockets.

McMillan: Right, so we talk a lot about piece rate and you think, ‘Oh I will make this amount of money for this amount of product as an individual,’ but a lot of crops are actually pooled in terms of piece rates, so a whole crew of people will get paid by piece rate for the amount of grapes that they harvest. And so because we were paid by crew, the three of us sort of pooled what we made that day together, and that meant that I basically robbed of them of wages to some extent. And that’s also because we were being paid piece rate, and it wasn’t being brought up to minimum wage.

Ryssdal: Did the people that you met on your stations of the cross, if you will, of the American food system in the fields and at Walmart working produce and at Applebee’s, did they understand that they’re cogs in this enormous agricultural machine that we have?

McMillan: Mostly, you know, people are just working to get by. And when you’re at the really low levels of the wage system, people are just thinking, ‘How do I get more money?’ So it doesn’t matter how many hours you are out there, what matters is that you’re amassing more money.

Ryssdal: So at the end of the day, other than farmwork is hard and people in the food chain don’t get paid a lot and Americans generally don’t eat healthy stuff, what did you learn?

McMillan: I just saw over and over again how much people in all levels of American society care about their food. And that really what’s holding folks back, I think, from making better food choices isn’t so much that they don’t know to eat their vegetables or they don’t care about their health, but that there are all these other pressures that make it really hard for them to do so.

Ryssdal: Tracie MacMillan, her book is called “The American Way of Eating.” Tracie, thanks a lot.

McMillan: Thanks so much for having me.

Featured in: Marketplace for Tuesday, February 21, 2012


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