By Leah Douglas
Seriouseats.com • Aug. 5, 2012
It’s common knowledge that our food industry is dependent upon the cheap labor of scores of workers in all kinds of service jobs. But the stories of these workers are often untold. Even in a time when talk about food—what to eat, how to eat it, and where to get the best stuff—is pervasive in all forms of media, undocumented, underpaid workers are left out of the conversation. Journalist Tracie McMillan attempts to illuminate the lifestyle and experiences of these hard-working men and women in The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table.
McMillan went undercover in three food service jobs: picking produce in California fields, working in a Wal-Mart in Detroit, and picking up shifts at an Applebee’s in New York City. In all three jobs, her goal was to live and eat as cheaply as possible. In California, that meant sharing a small cottage with up to seventeen fellow laborers and subsisting on beans, rice, and cheap tortas from street vendors. In Detroit, she shacked up with college students and often ate from the Wal-Mart vending machine. And in New York, where her job at least offered a full meal each day, she worked exhausting shifts and arrived home covered in a film of kitchen grease.
Her hours were random, and often work was hard to find. In the fields, she would rely on word of mouth to accumulate hours; even with helpful new friends, she would take forced days off. She worked overnight shifts at Wal-Mart, because after extensive interviews and searching at dozens of retailers, she couldn’t get reliable daytime work. At least Applebee’s provided consistent hours and better wages, though never more than 8 or 9 dollars an hour.
One of McMillan’s most important projects was carefully documenting her income and expenses during her experiment. She allowed herself a small nest egg, savings from prior jobs, and used her real resume to apply as a worker. But for the most part McMillan was living off of her meager wages—and struggled to make ends meet. Working in the fields meant bosses who paid well below minimum wage and cheated laborers’ hours. She learned the pains of accumulating debt and cutting out even the smallest luxuries to avoid missing work or a rent check. The appendix of her book contains charts and calculations to demonstrate the percentage of her small budget spent on food, and how that compares to the national average.
This book is thoroughly researched and well-written. Almost every page contains lengthy footnotes, explaining everything from how to make tortillas, to the wage gap between women and men in farm labor. These additional tidbits make for a rich, informative read; the gripping, sometimes harrowing anecdotes from McMillian’s personal experiences are coupled with statistics and real facts to contextualize her thoughts. And McMillan manages to discuss issues of race, class, wages, and discrimination with incredible tact. She is careful to make note of her inherent advantages—her white skin, her gender, her education—but also clearly relates to and understands her fellow workers. Their stories enliven the book, and give a face to labor that is so often forgotten. I would highly recommend this book for its valuable insight into the behind-the-scenes of food production in this country.