A Food-Chain Reaction


By Aram Bakshian Jr.

The Wall Street Journal • Feb. 28, 2012

In 2009, Tracie McMillan, an accomplished young writer, spent nearly a year working undercover as an agricultural field laborer in California, as a produce handler at a Michigan Wal-Mart and as a kitchen worker at a Brooklyn branch of Applebee’s, the country’s largest “family style” restaurant chain. The result of her efforts is “The American Way of Eating.” The best thing about this engagingly written tract is its excellent and sometimes moving first-person narrative of the author’s experiences sharing, albeit briefly and under false colors, the daily grind of workers at the bottom of the Great American Food Chain.

Her basic cover story, Ms. McMillan tells us, “was true insofar as it went.” She told potential employers that she had family problems, needed work, didn’t want to deal with customers and didn’t mind working hard. As far as her supervisors and co-workers knew, she was “a single, childless thirtysomething white woman trying to keep her life afloat by, at various times, picking grapes, sorting peaches, cutting garlic, stocking grocery shelves on the night shift, stocking produce on the day shift, or expediting and doing prep work in a restaurant kitchen.”

Apart from a few rough patches—the worst of which had to do with a boozy farewell party at journey’s end rather than anything on the job—she was usually able to rely on the kindness of strangers. And as is often the case, some of the kindest were also the humblest Mexican laborers and their families, often illegal immigrants, who found a place in their hearts for someone they believed to be a troubled middle-class gringo who had somehow stumbled into their lowly world. Building on their sympathy, Ms. McMillan soon earned their respect by her capacity to learn her job and work hard at it.

So far so good. As long as Ms. McMillan concentrates on what she actually saw and did, she has an interesting story to tell and she tells it well. Unfortunately, again and again, just as one settles into her persuasive personal testimony, she starts taking polemical potshots. Wal-Mart’s routine use of house brands—a practice followed by all major supermarket chains for generations—somehow means that it not only competes but competes “viciously.” Ms. McMillan bemoans the fact that people of modest means who want to eat well may not get much help from coupons: “There were coupons for Reddi-wip, for Chef Boyardee ravioli in a can, for envelopes of Orville Redenbacher’s microwave popcorn. . . . But there were no coupons for something that America needs to eat far more of: produce, which is sold essentially in bulk and—with a few notable exceptions—doesn’t carry a brand name.”

Actually, there are plenty of bargain offers for produce every week in supermarket newspaper ads. They don’t show up in coupons since coupons are usually joint efforts between brand-name producers and retail chains, the small-scale equivalent of manufacturers’ rebates on cars or appliances. No conspiracy here. And produce is often fairly cheap anyway; it is not only price that keeps people from buying it but eating habits and taste preferences.

Ms. McMillan seems genuinely puzzled by the fact that high-crime, low-income areas, like many of the neighborhoods in Detroit, are “underserved” by supermarket chains and food merchants in general. But surely the scarcity of supermarkets in such areas—like the blocks of boarded-up, abandoned housing, the neglected, underperforming schools and the corrupt local authorities—are surface symptoms of an underlying social dysfunction. These are places where everyone who can leave does, where family structure has collapsed, where illegitimacy, crime and drug-abuse rates are high, and where opening a new business can entail physical as well as financial risk. You don’t have to be a Nobel economist to understand that bad neighborhoods are likely to attract bad stores or no stores at all.

It was Edmund Burke who warned us that “to read without reflecting is like eating without digesting.” The same rule should apply to writing, especially about food. Ms. McMillan doesn’t go as far as some of her fellow nutrition activists, whose claims of simultaneous hunger and obesity epidemics among the needy imply that somewhere out there are millions of very poor, very hungry Americans who are also very fat. But she does have an unfortunate weakness for ill-digested statistics.

For example, we are told that, though Americans spend only about 13% of their take-home pay on food and the French about 20%, this cost-of-living advantage is no blessing for Americans. On the contrary, Ms. McMillan says, the French may be deliberately spending more on food and possibly eating better because—lucky them—”their government provides quality child care, higher education, communication, and transportation at little or no out-of-pocket cost to its citizens, and mandates five weeks of paid vacation each year.” Not to mention drastically higher sales taxes and unemployment rates and a financial crisis brought on by nanny-state free lunches that turned out not to be so free after all.

A final irony: In her closing argument for a better American “way of eating,” Ms. McMillan cites the example of Henry Ford, a “pragmatic visionary” whose assembly-line, mass-produced Model T was the first affordable car for ordinary Americans. That same approach, Ms. McMillan suggests, could be used to transform the way we eat.

Only it has already happened. Stripped-down, mass-produced “affordable,” “convenient” food turned out en masse—like the Model T—by laborers rather than craftsmen is exactly what Ms. McMillan encountered at every step along her journey from a California garlic field to a Midwestern big-box store and a New York family-style restaurant. She deplored it all. One is reminded of the old Chinese curse involving wishes that come true.

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