Our Unhappy Meals


By Tom Philpott

OnEarth • Feb. 29, 2012

Every year, Americans drop a cool $1.2 trillion on feeding their appetites. That’s a lot of Big Macs and stuffed-to-groaning shopping carts — and billions of dollars in profits for the handful of companies that dominate our food system.

Planting, harvesting, processing, displaying, and cooking that vast hoard of grub, of course, requires veritable armies of workers. Keeping it cheap and plentiful for consumers, while also profitable for the food industry, means those workers generally get paid very little. The 11 million people who staff the nation’s restaurants earn average wages of just over $10 an hour. The 230,000 people who plant and harvest our crops would consider that an improvement; their average pay is just $9.64 an hour. Meatpacking workers are, relatively speaking, the aristocrats of the system: the 83,000 men and women who slog through the blood and guts of our meat supply get $11.60 an hour for their trouble. In all of these occupations, workers bring home average annualized wages that land them below or just above the poverty line for a family of four.

So what’s it like to work at the base of the food pyramid, amid the pig entrails and the pesticide clouds? One problem in parsing this question is that the people who feed us are essentially invisible. Beyond a youthful stint waiting tables or flipping burgers, most middle-class-and-up people rarely come into contact with workers at the bottom end of our food system.

In her important new book, The American Way of Eating, Tracie McMillan illuminates this murky yet vital sector of our economy. In her year of research, she embedded herself in the Big Food trenches and (to paraphrase Kafka) scribbled down what she saw among the ruins. She worked undercover stints in California farm fields, at two Walmart stores in Michigan, and at an Applebee’s in Brooklyn, living on the wages she eked out, often alongside the people with whom she toiled.

McMillan has committed a brave act of immersion reportage, applying to the food system the techniques of Barbara Ehrenreich’s classic 2001 chronicle of working-poor life, Nickel and Dimed. She’s also working in terrain mapped out by Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation (2001) and Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006), which galvanized a budding movement to interrogate and transform the food system. McMillan brings to the topic one thing that Schlosser and Pollan didn’t: a hard-won sense of the U.S. class system, from the bottom looking up. Schlosser’s book exposed brutal working conditions with a muckraker’s zeal, but we never heard much from the workers themselves, and Pollan completely omitted labor from his “natural history of four meals.”

The American Way of Eating, by contrast, invites us to imagine what it feels like to work within what Pollan and others call the “industrial food system.” McMillan, as she tells us in the introduction, grew up near hardscrabble Flint, Michigan, the child of a working-class father and a terminally ill mother. The family diet ranged from Hamburger Helper to simple from-scratch Sunday meals. Perhaps because of this cash-strapped youth, McMillan writes of her experiences among the working poor without a whiff of condescension or exoticism.

Before getting to the book’s other considerable merits, I should note one conceptual flaw. In her introduction, McMillan writes that the American way of eating is characterized by the “simultaneous, contradictory, relentless presence of scarce nutrition” amid plenty. More pithily, she says that “our agriculture is abundant but healthy diets are not.” All well enough put, but she frames what follows as an “investigation into just how America came to eat this way, why we keep doing it, and what it would take to change it.” While the book does throw off insights into these questions, they don’t really form its substance. Working in a California farm field or at a suburban Walmart for insight into how the food system morphed into its current state is a bit like embedding yourself in an army platoon to gain insight into the causes of war.

Where McMillan sparkles is in describing the relationships she forms and the coping mechanisms she develops as she makes her way through the grueling, ill-paid job opportunities offered by our food system. The sections on farm work are particularly striking. She describes the strange and awkward negotiations required for a “white girl” to find work in a labor market dominated by brown men from points south of the border. Her experience as the Other among Others drives home the ethnic and racial stratification of farm work. College-educated white kids may flock to work on small-scale organic farms, but they’re not rushing to do piecework in vast grape and garlic fields for a few dollars an hour.

McMillan’s first forays into farm labor don’t go well. She learns quickly that this menial work actually requires skill and care: you try getting up at 4:45 in the morning and spending your day snipping grape bunches, paring them down to look perfect, and stacking them carefully enough to avoid damage yet rapidly enough to make up for a crushingly low piece rate. Withering under the excoriating heat of California’s Central Valley, doubled over in the bathroom of a public library and unable to work anymore, she asks, “Whose f***ing idea was it to grow food in a desert?”

Whose idea, indeed? As McMillan makes clear, the main asset of the Central Valley as a produce-growing region (beyond long, sunny days) turns out to be the power of its landowners to import and consume cheap labor and water from afar. It would be no stretch to describe their treatment of labor as criminal. Contractors routinely underpay workers. Employers are obliged under California law to pay farm workers a minimum wage of $8 an hour, but many never do. McMillan reports that the garlic pickers she worked with are paid $1.60 for every bucket they harvest, at least some of the crop destined to be sold in Walmart and Whole Foods. But even the most proficient can fill only four buckets an hour, which amounts to $6.40. How do labor contractors hide the discrepancy? By lying about the hours worked, adjusting them downward so the math works out to meet the state-mandated minimum.

McMillan sets out to discover how people persevere in the face of these substandard wages, long and hard work days, and crowded living conditions. Her answer reminded me of Rebecca Solnit’s argument in her 2009 book, A Paradise Built in Hell: in times of crisis such as Hurricane Katrina or the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, “most people are altruistic, urgently engaged in caring for themselves and those around them, strangers and neighbors as well as friends and loved ones.” In McMillan’s networks of care, people pool resources, share cooking duties, and look out for each other in the fields, coming to the aid of those who work too slowly to make decent money. Obviously, the system is highly fragile and people fall through the cracks. But McMillan makes clear that she survived in the fields for as long as she did — just a few months — through the kindness of the friends she made. It’s true that her whiteness and youth made her an object of fascination; but I left the section on farm labor wondering how any individual worker can endure the conditions in our vegetable fields without being part of a tight-knit support group.

The American Way of Eating brims with such uncomfortable insights. Walmart has been hailed for the hyperefficiency of its operations, but in the Detroit store where McMillan finds work, the chaotic produce department is about as well-run as an army platoon in Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. As for the Applebee’s in Brooklyn, McMillan outs it as a kind of maquiladora of food: meals are slapped together from all manner of prefab, factory-made slop and then zapped in the microwave by people who have no training in food safety. This section contains the most painful truth of all: the vulnerability of young women locked in exhausting, low-wage jobs to sexual abuse, as McMillan learns in chilling fashion when she is assaulted by a co-worker. Sometimes, Solnit’s “paradise built in hell” devolves into hell without paradise.

Overall, this excellent book may not deliver much new insight into how the food system got to be the way it is, or precisely how it might be reformed to be more fair for the people who feed the rest of us. But by uncovering the largely hidden and routinely dire conditions faced by those millions of workers, it drives home how urgently such reform is needed.

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