Tracie McMillan worked at a peach orchard outside of Kingsburg, California, in 2009. Women often cover their mouths with bandanas to avoid inhaling dust. For reasons McMillan doesn't understand, men don't.
to harvest fruit and
shelve food at Walmart,
and then move meals
from kitchen to plates
She lived and ate off
her paycheck, surviving
as part of America’s
low-wage food workforce.
"The American Way of
Eating" chronicles that
journey and looks beyond
McMillan’s own dinner
plate to examine the
national priorities and
policies that put the
food on it.
What People Are Saying
Where to find McMillan
on the web
McMillan's room when she picked garlic near Greenfield, California.
The bathroom in the house where McMillan lived when she picked peaches in Kingsburg, California.
Buckets overflowed from an unfixed leaky ceiling in a back room at a Walmart outside of Detroit, Michigan.
Walmart's moldy corn is stripped, then donated to a local food bank in a store outside Detroit, Michigan.
McMillan dressed for work to "expedite" meals at an Applebee's in Brooklyn, N.Y.
American Way of Eating
Should Not Be A Luxury
An investigative reporter goes undercover
to find out:
Why is it so difficult for many Americans to eat well?
What would it take for all Americans to do so?
In "The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table," (Scribner, February 21, 2012) Tracie McMillan portrays the life she led for 18 months when she confronted the daily challenges common to those who live off the meager wages earned in low-level food industry jobs. Evocative scenes take readers from the pain-inducing work in farm fields, supermarkets, and restaurants to the crowded, chaotic homes and dinner tables she shared with fellow workers.
McMillan weaves her own journey into the broader context of a broken food system that results in too many people being ill fed. And she asks “Why? Her insightful reporting on labor and economic issues involving agriculture and food, coupled with her exploration of the raw politics of food policy, explains why so many Americans don’t eat well despite living in a land of plenty.
“Our agriculture is abundant,” McMillan contends, “but healthy diets are not.”
Hers is "a voice the food world needs."
Dwight Garner, Books of the Times, The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2012
In his New York Times review, Dwight Garner wrote "The book Ms. McMillan’s most resembles is Barbara Ehrenreich’s best seller 'Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America' (2001). Like Ms. Ehrenreich, Ms. McMillan goes undercover amid this country’s working poor."
As a working-class transplant, raised by her dad during much of her childhood in rural Michigan, Brooklyn-based writer Tracie McMillan has written about food and class for the past decade. A college graduate who worked her way through school, she understands the perils of being the one who narrates the lives of the working poor. From the inexpensive packaged food she ate growing up to the meals she tried to prepare while working at the low-wage jobs she recounts in her book, McMillan knows bad food from good and writes about what it takes to get rid of one and embrace the other. In her book, she details how she budgeted for food when she was working at these jobs, and compares that with food spending for American households of four.
When McMillan writes about “the American way of eating,” she foreshadows the way that many people throughout the world are—or will be—eating, too, as American food and agricultural practices spread globally:
“The American way of eating is defined not by plenty, but by the simultaneous, contradictory, relentless presence of scarce nutrition in its midst. And though this conundrum may be seen most clearly in America’s extravagant harvests alongside our declining health, it is slowly taking root across the globe.... The American way of eating is on track to become that of the world, too.”
The Broken Food Chain
Is your neighborhood a "food desert"? Find out at the USDA's interactive "food desert" locator.
As an investigative journalist covering food issues in New York City for the magazine City Limits, McMillan mapped its “food deserts,” identifying swaths of the five boroughs where residents had no local access to a major supermarket. In Detroit, where McMillan lived while commuting to work at an ex-urban Walmart grocery store, not a single national grocer had set up shop within city limits, compelling the city’s residents to head to the suburbs for food.
In "The American Way of Eating," McMillan couples personal narrative with in-depth reporting to show how the U.S. food system really functions. She also details the consequences that the system’s wage structure, work policies and practices have on how Americans eat. There are, she observes, ripple effects when no supermarket is close by. In such places, she writes, “nobody had made a business of bringing fresh produce to the city’s low-income neighborhoods; not distributors, not wholesalers, not grocers.”
Rates of obesity—the American epidemic now being replicated in countries that adopt diets of processed food—typically rise “the farther people live from grocery stores,” McMillan writes. Put a supermarket in a community the size of a census tract (roughly 4,000 people) and “fruit and vegetable consumption goes up by as much as 32 percent.” Access, in all its forms—supermarkets, but also having sufficient money and time—turns out to be crucial to better eating and better health.
Challenging the narrative in some policy circles that poorer people don’t want to eat nutritious food, McMillan describes in her book what happened when farmer’s markets began offering vouchers—up to $20 a week—for produce to those who used food stamps. “In just the first year, food stamp spending at the markets increased by as much as 5 to 6 times—more than matching funds would account for,” McMillan writes.
In "The American Way of Eating," McMillan carries the reader into her workplace—in the field, at Walmart, and Applebee's—where her wages were low but she observed what happens behind the scenes of the food industry.
Bunch of garlic, drying
McMillan describes cutting garlic in the fields of California—calculating what her labors could earn her at a rate of $1.60 for every five-gallon (25 pound) bucket she should fill with heads of garlic:
"My thighs look as though they've been attacked by an enraged but weaponless toddler, peppered with dull reddish brown bruises where I've pressed into them again and again. My hands, swollen and inundated with blisters the first few days, have acclimatized, but there's a worrisome pain shooting up my right arm. And while I don't have a scale to gauge my weight, my clothing has become suspiciously loose." Read more>
McMillan's leg with bruises, after working in the garlic fields for a few days. The bruises came from balancing the garlic on her leg to hold it steady as she cut it. Some workers strap scraps of wood to their left thighs to avoid this. Photo credit: Tracie McMillan
Fresh produce at a Walmart
From the garlic fields of California, McMillan traveled to southwest Michigan. There she stocked produce at two Walmart stores, first in Kalamazoo, then in ex-urban Detroit, where one day a black bird with a yellow beak was found pecking at fresh lettuce. McMillan recalled from her training video that she should not attempt to remove “the pest” but “inform a supervisor and they will contact a pest control specialist.” She writes about what happens next:
“… I mention the bird to Randy [one of her supervisors] and he tells me not to worry about it.
“Walmart doesn’t like to call pest control for stuff like that ‘cause it costs $6,000 to have someone come out and get it,” Randy says. “We can get someone to open the skylight so it can fly away if it wants; it’s best to wait for it to go away and die.”
"This explains a lot of other things about the department. ... When we find rotten food—on the sales floor or in the cooler—we can't just throw it away.” Read more>
Then, it was back to Brooklyn, New York, McMillan’s usual home base. She applies for work at Applebee’s because it is world’s largest sit-down restaurant and the food it serves bears striking resemblance to that served at a “fast” food drive-thru. She doesn’t live at her apartment while she works at Applebee’s, choosing instead to hunt for one in her price range. She ends up in a windowless room in a three-person share, in a thin-floored apartment that is infused with marijuana smoke from the downstairs neighbor. McMillan describes the job she’ll do at Applebee’s:
"Expediting, I am told at orientation, is the hardest job in the restaurant. The primary responsibility of an "expo" is to coordinate the flow of food from line to floor. To paraphrase Bernardo, the frenetic bear of a general manager who runs my orientation session, everything I do keeps the restaurant moving. If I don't do my job right then the orders won't look right, and people won't come back, and servers' tips will be lower, and the restaurant won't make as much money, and then they can't afford to pay an expediter, which will mean the servers will have to expo their food themselves, which is never a good idea since it tends to result in the orders not looking right... and the downward spiral into chaos and bankruptcy begins all over again. I am the first domino in line; if I fall, we all go down." Read more>