By Rodger Helwig
San Francisco Professional Food Society • Sept. 10, 2012
From field to plate is the subject of The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan, a groundbreaking book enthusiastically endorsed by all who attended the SFPFS book club meeting on August 2.
During a lively and passionate discussion, we all agreed that McMillan did an amazing job of documenting the human cost of America’s cheap food, while painting an unflinching portrait of the nation’s food workers.
In 2009, award-winning journalist Tracie McMillan set out on an undercover journey to see what it takes for Americans to eat well. For almost a year she worked at below- to minimum-wage jobs, picking grapes and garlic in the fields of California, stocking produce at Walmart and working the line at Applebee’s.
In this well-written, intelligent book she documents the lives and foodways of the people she worked with along the way, as well as detailing how she personally attempted to get by on meager wages.
Her mission was to answer two questions: Why do we eat the way we do? How can we change it?
As she said in a Huffington Post interview, “Most writing about food in the U.S. has come from a gourmet tradition. Very few people dedicate serious reporting to how the food system works.”
Some of her observations:
• Food workers are, in terms of money and time, among the least able to eat well in America. Most are too exhausted to cook wholesome meals and instead eat junk food that makes them hungrier.
• Increasing farm wages by 40 percent would only increase the average family’s produce bill by about $16 a year.
• While 84 percent of produce in America is purchased at supermarkets, many large metropolitan cities have a paucity of these stores. Detroit, a city of 700,000, is without a single store from a national grocery chain
• “Walmart’s produce section is nothing less than an expansive life-support system,” said McMillan. “Most days, when it comes to vegetables, it was like putting lipstick on corpses.”
What does McMillan offer in the way of solutions to these problems?
She argues for small changes, like cooking classes to demystify eating well, and coupons for saving on fresh foods, which is better and cheaper than eating processed food or eating out.
She believes that cooking is a big part of self-sufficiency, and we need to be teaching it to kids. That it’s not only good to know how to feed your self, but it’s also a practical way to learn math and science.
McMillan also feels that “Changing what’s on our plate simply isn’t feasible without changing far more. Wages, health care, work hours and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop.”