By China Millman
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette • March 4, 2012
From a certain perspective, Americans have never been so obsessed with food. Turn on the TV or pick up a magazine and you can feast on recipes, restaurant reviews, profiles of the latest celebrity chef and hottest new ingredient. One could easily imagine that it’s never been easier or more fun to eat well in our nation.
But what if the only large grocery store in your town offers rock-bottom prices for food that comes in a box, while produce is expensive and often of poor quality?
What if you make less than $200 a week, and you and a dozen other adults share a kitchen that has just one small refrigerator and stove?
What if you work around food all day but come home so tired that the idea of cooking seems completely beyond your reach?
In “The American Way of Eating” Tracie McMillan recounts months she spent working in the grape and garlic fields of California, the grocery and produce departments of two Michigan Walmart stores, and the kitchen of an Applebee’s in New York City.
Ms. McMillan makes a convincing case that America’s food system is a mess. But this is no harangue. Her book is a pleasure to read, illuminating complex arguments and statistics with vivid details and engaging stories.
As a work of experiential journalism, the book has much in common with Barbara Ehrenreich’s 2001 “Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America.” Like Ms. Ehrenreich, Ms. McMillan immerses herself in her new jobs, attempting to live off her wages plus an appropriate start-up fund, and she supplements her personal experiences with interviews and detailed statistics. Also like Ms. Ehrenreich, she quickly discovers that her college education and experience as a journalist don’t necessarily equip her with the skills to work these supposedly low-skilled jobs.
Each experience gave her a different perspective into the American food system and a chance to answer some of the fundamental questions about how our food gets from the field to the dinner plate.
The book is full of harsh realities. As an agricultural worker, Ms. McMillan often feels she receives favoritism because of her gender, her age and the color of her skin, but that doesn’t keep her from being illegally underpaid, along with the rest of her co-workers, her paychecks manipulated to reflect a few hours of minimum wage work instead of full days of work paid by the quantity picked.
At Walmart, she discovers that the famous institutional efficiency does not extend to the produce department, where she finds herself throwing out “200 pounds of asparagus, the base of every bunch coated in thick moldy layers.” The produce on the aisles isn’t always better. One shopping trip turns up “Kirby cucumbers … gone soft,” cilantro with “blackened greens,” and “mushrooms … slimed with age.” But at least it’s cheap, right?
Not necessarily. Ms. McMillan learns that while Walmart beats competitors handily when it comes to shelf-stable goods, their produce prices aren’t necessarily any cheaper than smaller, independent stores. Despite all this, Americans already spend one in four of their produce dollars at Walmart, and as the company lobbies to expand into “underserved” neighborhoods, it’s likely that proportion will grow larger.
This combination of the factual and the personal breathes life into dry economic terms such as “changes in market share” and “supply chain efficiencies,” providing a sense of what they mean in the lives of real people.
Applebee’s doesn’t compare with Walmart in size, but it is the largest sit-down restaurant chain in the world, and like the grocery behemoth, it relies on innovations in the supply chain for profit and growth.
Working as an expediter, the person who makes sure that each plate goes out of the kitchen to the dining room correctly, Ms. McMillan discovers that most of the food the restaurant serves, from sauces and soups to proteins and side dishes, comes to the restaurant already cooked. It just needs to be reheated, garnished and served. Fruits and vegetables can be hard to come by, not because customers wouldn’t buy them, but because they are difficult to sell as profitably.
But her time at Applebee’s is also spent thinking about what cooking means in America. Ms. McMillan knows she could make healthier, better-tasting food for a fraction of the cost of an Applebee’s meal, but as days pass, the long hours on her feet and the offer of a subsidized meal at work slowly sap her desire to cook.
How much harder is it, she wonders, for people who don’t feel comfortable in the kitchen? Ms. McMillan cites studies that have shown it takes families about the same amount of time to make dinner from a boxed mix or from scratch, and cooking them from scratch is much cheaper. The people using the box are likely substituting money for skill — They use the box because they aren’t sure they know how to make dinner without it.
In the face of all these obstacles, the book, and the author, remain surprisingly optimistic. Everywhere Ms. McMillan traveled, she met people who may be struggling to get by on minimum-wage jobs, but they still make an effort to eat as well as they can, and they enjoy and appreciate fresh food.
The book has big villains, but it also has plenty of small heroes, like Patti, a cashier at Kmart, who calls oranges a “splurge” and says “it’s too expensive to eat fruits and vegetables much.” That may sound like someone who doesn’t care about eating healthfully, but Patti drives 13 miles to take advantage of a farmer’s market program for food stamp recipients that gives her an extra $20 to spend on produce. There, she buys “honeycrisp apples, potatoes still smelling of earth, paper-skinned onions and Brussels sprouts still on the stalk.”
Near the end of the book, on a cross-country drive, Ms. McMillan finds herself eating lunch at a McDonald’s, the only option “in sight of the gas station that lured me off the highway.”
As she ate her burger, fries and soda, she thought about all the similar meals she’d eaten at Applebee’s and considers some of the ways she might have managed to eat a healthier diet. For a moment, from the outside, it seems so easy: Join a co-op, cook in the morning, split up cooking duties with a roommate.
But as a journalist, she takes a step back and looks at the bigger picture. “The reason these things [procuring fresh food and having time to cook it] seem hard is because they are, at least for people like myself and my co-workers — not just at Applebee’s, but at Walmart, and in the fields, and I suspect even for folks more affluent than that.” She writes:
“I haven’t landed here with my diet soda and mysterious beef patty because I, personally, haven’t got the right priorities. I’ve landed here because, for a very long time, America has ignored a priority that should be one of its biggest: Making sure its people can eat well, not just through the agriculture it practices but through the wages it pays, the work and education it provides, and the rules it keeps.”
The next time Alice Waters suggests poor people should buy local vegetables instead of sneakers — or, in other words, that poor people just don’t have the right priorities — I hope someone hands her a copy of “The American Way of Eating.”
It’s not rocket science. If people learned how to cook in public schools, programs made fruits and vegetables cheaper and high-quality fresh food was more readily available, people would eat healthier and be healthier.
At some point food, as basic a necessity as the air we breathe and the water we drink, became something else — a personal rather than a collective responsibility. Ms. McMillan believes we can change that, and that if we did, we could live in an America not so different from our own, but one where eating good, fresh, healthful food would truly be the American way of eating.