By Michael Stern
The San Francisco Chronicle • Feb. 19, 2012
The American way of eating is terrible. So says Tracie McMillan, who spent a year pretending to be a poor person eking out a living at menial levels of the nation’s food system, including farm fields, Walmart groceries and an Applebee’s kitchen. A New York writer and senior fellow at Brandeis University accustomed to top-tier provisions, she descends the class ladder a few rungs (her expression) to venture undercover and figure out why the hoi polloi eat so badly.
McMillan’s book, “The American Way of Eating,” contends that a regime of Hamburger Helper isn’t just fattening. It is “an abandonment of America’s great promise … that it would always feed its citizens well.” (Presumably, the more familiar promises of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness are moot to someone stupefied by a diet of Happy Meals and Twinkies.)
McMillan believes commoners eat poorly not because they prefer junk food to artisanal fare but because America’s food distribution system makes good groceries and salubrious meals elusive to all but the advantaged few. During her stint at a Walmart outside Detroit, which is known as a food desert for its dearth of supermarkets, she discovers that truckloads of farm-fresh Michigan produce make it into the city only to get hauled out to the suburbs, leaving poor urbanites to shop for packaged crap at party stores.
At the end of a hard day, most working stiffs do not realistically face a choice of roasting a free-range chicken or ingesting a KFC Mashed Potato Bowl. The former is expensive and time-consuming, the latter cheap and easy. At one point, even the author finds herself so enervated by the heat and squalor of her job as a peach picker that she splurges on a burger, fries and soda in a sterile Carl’s Jr. “I should be eating something from the vegetable family,” she laments. “But I frankly don’t care.”
The book provides fodder for those who agree with its assumptions, confirming the dogma that we are a nation of victims, farm to table. McMillan finds workers who are exploited and cheated; she reveals that Applebee’s broccoli is mushy, its fish flavorless, and almost nothing served is fresh. Walmart, of course, is a major victimizer in the big picture; but curiously, while she fears and loathes the company’s staggering control over the nation’s food supply, she meets employees who actually like working at Wally World for its family-friendly flexible hours, its “free fruit Fridays,” and the fact that take-home pay is higher because they aren’t compelled to pay union dues.
The incantation of familiar betes noires includes beef cattle and fuel-purposed grain, both of which, McMillan argues, commandeer more than their fair share of land that should be growing vegetables. The lack of cooking in public schools’ curricula also gets blamed for erroneous food choices made by the unenlightened: They think meal preparation is too much work.
The primary culprit in this baleful tale is private enterprise. “Distributing our food solely through private networks makes sense only if you think of food as a consumer good,” McMillan writes, recommending that we change our perspective to “see fresh food for what it is – a social good, and a human right.”
The nostrum she proposes is “a public food infrastructure,” a microcosmic model for which she finds in urban gardens that have sprouted in Detroit, providing vegetables for surviving city denizens. How that would look on a national scale and how technocrat management would work better than it did in the Soviet Union are questions we assume a food czar or congressional super committee would be tasked to answer.
McMillan’s undercover work for “The American Way of Eating” takes readers on an educational journey, but the story is sapped by recurrent reminders that she doesn’t really belong in the wretched world she visits, that her real life is better than that of the proletarians she yearns to help. Such disclaimers, which are more hubris than humility, invariably signal the eclipse of genuine personal urgency by political litany; and while her journey is fresh, McMillan’s political slant is lockstep party line.
Her valiant effort to experience life in the lower depths is reminiscent of the 1941 Preston Sturges movie “Sullivan’s Travels,” about a successful movie director who craves to know what it’s like to be a common man. His vision remains comically arrogant until a twist of fate actually traps him in the inexorable life of society’s underclass. Finally, he truly sees the world from their point of view. Of course, that doesn’t happen to Tracie McMillan, whose perspective remains that of a privileged reformer who knows how and what everybody else should eat.