Looking For a Happier Meal: Two Worthy Books on Food Workers


By Kaitlin Y. Cordes

Righting Food • June 6, 2012

How much do we actually know about the people responsible for growing our food? Workers in the food system are often invisible to food consumers, toiling in obscurity for low wages and little respect. They occasionally rise to the level of consumer consciousness, for example with fair-trade-certified goods, though even then the focus is more on small farmers than on waged workers. Food workers also appear from time to time in prominent union campaigns or in news articles exposing bad practices in specific areas. (Occasionally, farmworkers are even mentioned in American pop culture – check out Stephen Colbert on the subject). Yet on a day-to-day basis, they are relegated to the murky category of “people and issues we’d rather not think about.” Shopping for food or eating at restaurants, consumers may think about food miles or the amount of pesticides used. But how often do you actually picture the people laboring over your food, from farm to factory to store to restaurant?

Although most books about food and our food system neglect the workers themselves, a few books in recent years have done the opposite, shedding light on the struggles of the workers who feed us. These books have begun to fill the large gaps of our collective knowledge.

To write The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, Tracie McMillan took jobs in California fields, the produce section of Walmart, and the chain restaurant Applebee’s, gleaning a firsthand understanding of what life is like for people working in various sectors of the American food system. She describes her work and her co-workers, and details the difficulties of eating healthily on low wages. The book is Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America for foodies, with a similar “undercover” approach by the author, similar jobs (both she and Nickel and Dimed author Barbara Ehrenreich worked at Walmart and in restaurants), and similar accounts of struggling to make ends meet.

Despite the many similarities to Ehrenreich’s excellent book, two distinct elements of The American Way of Eating make it a valuable and important addition to public discourse. Most importantly, McMillan explores agricultural working conditions in the United States, an area not discussed in Nickel and Dimed and one infrequently mentioned in other modern books on food issues. (Though, as The Economist has pointed out, one can obtain a good understanding of modern-day American agricultural working conditions by reading the 1939 classic The Grapes of Wrath.) McMillan’s descriptions of her struggles in the fields provide a personal perspective of the arduous nature of farm work. And the stories that she shares of her co-workers reveal glimpses into the lives of those who comprise the vast majority of agricultural workers in the United States:  migrant workers, sometimes undocumented, toiling hard at whatever jobs they can string together.

In addition, McMillan peppers her book with information about the food industry that is surprising even to those who have followed food issues for years. One example:  her revelation that food is rarely cooked in Applebee’s kitchens, but merely heated up, sometimes by microwaving it in plastic bags. Although Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal and The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals demystified much of the fast food industry, the extent to which sit-down restaurants are simply heating, rather than cooking, food was surprising to me. And while McMillan’s discussion of how difficult it is to eat well when working long hours at low-wage jobs was less surprising, her detailed journey still provides helpful anecdotal support to public debates on how to improve what we eat. (Another book that I’m looking forward to reading is Behind the Kitchen Door, by Saru Jayaraman of ROC United, looking at the working conditions of restaurant employees. If the trailer is any indication, this book, slated to come out in February 2013, will be excellent.)

Taking a very different approach, Swedish journalists Gunnar Brulin and Malin Klingzell-Brulin provide an international trade union perspective on workers in the global food system. In Food for Thought:  on food, power and human rights, published in English in 2010, Brulin and Klingzell-Brulin describe meetings with workers throughout the global food system, from a chocolate factory in Sweden to a Nestle factory in Brazil. The book is firmly located within the trade union perspective, and slightly skewed for Swedish readers: the authors are journalists for The Swedish Food Workers’ Union magazine, and the book was co-published with the union. It’s not a book for the masses, but it does provide an interesting collection of stories for people concerned about workers in the food system.

The book begins with the authors’ realization that fairtrade-certified coffee sold in Sweden is sometimes processed at Swedish factories that lack collective bargaining agreements. Indeed, they learn that, in this context, Fairtrade is only concerned about the farmers growing the beans, rather than the workers throughout the supply chain. (I find this particularly interesting juxtaposed with the old South Africa ethical wine program, which was generally only concerned about workers in the processing stage of wine, rather than workers in the field. No wonder consumers are confused when it comes to ethical seals and labels.) Subsequent chapters follow the authors as they travel throughout the world, where they talk with workers and union leaders about problems, challenges, and, every so often, successes.

Aside from the stories of food workers, this book, too, is full of interesting food industry anecdotes. For example, the book describes a Swedish Thai fast food chain serving food that is “produced” in Thailand, and then frozen and shipped to Sweden, arriving after approximately 30 days. Combine this story with McMillan’s description of Applebee’s kitchens, and you begin to wonder whether any restaurants other than high-end ones and hole-in-the-walls actually cook food on the premises.

Sharing stories is easier than providing solutions, and this is where these books fall short. I don’t fault them for this. Though I would have liked to read more suggestions for improving workers’ conditions or improving society’s relationship to food, these are difficult topics. It is not easy to develop effective solutions, except to outline the broadest steps that we need to take:  stronger government enforcement of labor laws, greater freedom of association, etc. Any person or movement that tries to say otherwise, be it from the perspective of slow food, organics, eating local, or fair trade, risks sounding trite, because, in truth, there probably isn’t any one-size-fits-all solution.

Thus, while both books provide brief suggestions on what should be done, neither delves deeply into solutions. McMillan focuses primarily on changing how Americans eat. She points to some smaller solutions, such as providing coupons for fresh food, and then acknowledges that bigger changes are also required for Americans to eat better, including changes in wages and health care. Brulin and Klingzell-Brulin wrap up their book with a few encouraging examples of positive impacts of trade union organizing and state that jobs must provide living wages. They conclude with a call for solidarity “in our approach to food and jobs … We must think and act in unison.” These are all good points, but the authors have not translated these into actions that consumers or citizens could take if they are concerned about labor in the food system. At my most cynical, I wonder whether this is because there is little that consumers or citizens actually can do, except at the peripheries, to improve labor issues in the food system. Yet at the very least, even if the books don’t provide detailed solutions, they do add valuable information to a neglected area of public dialogue. And, with time, increased public awareness and dialogue may lead to more solutions for improving our food system and the working conditions within it.

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