Like many Americans, Tracie McMillan grew up on a steady diet of prepared and processed foods. It wasn’t that her family preferred Hamburger Helper and Ortega Taco Dinners to farm-fresh produce and home-cooked meals. It was just that with her mom suffering from a long and debilitating illness and her dad working overtime as a lawn equipment salesmen, they didn’t have a lot of time or money left at the end of the day to spend on food.
Years later, when she went to college in New York City to become a journalist, McMillan worked for an affluent family, sometimes cooking their meals. And while her Midwestern, working-class background told her that Moroccan stews and balsamic portobello mushrooms were fancy foods for fancy people, she couldn’t deny the many pleasures and benefits of eating fresh, healthy and delicious meals. But, as a college student struggling to get by and with little money to spare, she didn’t see how she could ever eat like that.
After graduating, McMillan’s work as a journalist focused on issues of poverty. During one of her investigations she met a young girl named Vanessa, who would change how she thought about food in America.
Vanessa lived in a poor, immigrant community in Brooklyn, and she decided to take a cooking class as part of an after-school internship program. The class, which taught cooking alongside the principles of healthy eating and environmentally friendly food sourcing, exposed Vanessa to a world of food that felt miles away from the McDonald’s, Popeye’s and junk-food stocked corner stores that dominated her own neighborhood. The few grocery stores where she lived were stocked mostly with canned and processed foods, alongside a dismal array of wilted and rotting produce. In order to find the kinds of fresh, healthy foods that she was learning to cook in her class, she would have had to go into Manhattan with its well-stocked and expensive grocery stores. That wasn’t an option for her and her family. In response to these frustrations, Vanessa posed a simple question: “If you want people to eat healthy, why make it so expensive?”
For McMillan, this question revealed something both illuminating and troubling about the American food system. It wasn’t that poor people like Vanessa or struggling, working people such as her own family didn’t want good, healthy food; it was just that it was much easier for them to eat poorly.
To find out why it is so hard for many Americans to eat well, McMillan went undercover to investigate the American food system. She describes what she found in her book “The American Way of Eating” (Scribner, $16). She spent a year working entry-level, minimum-wage (or less) jobs in the farm fields of California, the produce section of a Detroit area Walmart and the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s in order to understand how food travels from farm to plate and to try to answer the question of what it would take for all Americans to have access to good, healthy food.
There’s this passage in your book about the idea of being a “foodie” that I think says a lot about the relationship between food and class in America. Your friend is having an argument about whether or not her Mexican-American mother who grows and preserves her own food qualifies as a foodie, and this other guy who claims to be a foodie himself, keeps telling her that her mom isn’t really a foodie because, “Well, foodies just really care about what they eat.” Right. This word “foodie” is really kind of hilarious because it presumes that it’s something unusual and exclusive to actually care about food and take an active interest in it. And a lot of my work is dedicated to the premise that that’s not actually unusual and that most people already do care about their food. Most people already care about health, and they care about and appreciate farm-fresh food. The question is: How do you make that something that people can go after and exercise their interest in, and how do you open up this discussion so that we can make it easier for folks to get access to that food?
I love that conversation I had because it really encapsulates this idea, right? I mean, Mexican immigrants are foodies; they appreciate growing this good and healthy food. They do it in part because of cost and tradition, but they wouldn’t be doing it in the first place if it didn’t taste good, too.
I also write about Patti Good in the book, which is another excellent example of this woman who, if you looked at her, you would not think “foodie.” You would just think “broke white lady.” And yet, she was so excited about buying Brussels sprouts on the stalk from this Detroit farmers market where I met her. And I think it’s really easy, particularly because of how polarized our politics are right now, to think, “Oh well, whatever — those crazy foodies are eating those weird Brussels sprouts on the stalk now. Who eats that?” It’s like, “Well, actually Kmart cashiers like Patti Good, who are putting food on the table by working 10-hour shifts — that’s who cares about eating these locally grown Brussels sprouts on the stalk.”
So your book begins by considering the fact that for the majority of working Americans like Patti Good, it is much easier to eat poorly than it is to eat well. What are some of the historical factors that have led to this situation? There are a number of things that have made it easier for poor folks to eat poorly than to eat well. One of the big ones that I focus on in my book is the way that we have treated food infrastructure and getting food into neighborhoods. We basically let food be treated like any other commodity, like sneakers or lightbulbs or what-not, and we haven’t paid attention to making sure that it gets into neighborhoods affordably and accessibly for everyone. Wages haven’t been going up, and healthy food has been allowed to get more and more expensive, even as junk food and processed food gets subsidized down to be cheaper.
So, access and affordability are really important, and then there’s also stuff that I think crosses class lines a bit more, like cooking education and food literacy. These are things that really started to decline with my generation, people who were born in the ’60s and ’70s. There’s been a lot of attention paid to the ways that when women moved into the workforce, they often weren’t cooking as much at home, and that’s certainly been part of it. But when I was doing the reporting for “The American Way of Eating,” one of the things that I realized was that it wasn’t just that moms weren’t cooking as much at home themselves. They also didn’t have the time to teach their kids how to cook. And I think you see that with folks my age. Some of us picked it up, but a lot of us didn’t.
We now live at a time when one in seven American households is considered to be food insecure, meaning that they lack the resources to provide enough food for themselves and their families. How does this relate to our country’s approach to food as a consumer good, rather than a public good? Families are having trouble buying and procuring enough food, and we don’t have that problem with clean water, and I think that that’s really instructive. We have, as a society, tried to make it possible for everyone to have access to clean, drinkable water because it’s an important and basic thing that people need to live. And we do the same thing around electricity and phone lines, but we haven’t put that kind of attention into healthy food. And so what do you start to see? One in seven families being food insecure. That’s an indication not just of poverty, but of failing to make sure that basic human necessities are being met. So that’s been a big thing for me, in doing the reporting for “The American Way of Eating” — really coming to feel that good, healthy food is something we all need, and therefore we’ve got to start taking this seriously as a political issue. We haven’t focused on making sure everyone can get food, even when they’re low-income. We do it with water, and at this point I find it really absurd that we don’t do it with food.
So, to try to answer the question “What would it take for us all to eat well?” you went out and actually worked in the farms, supermarkets and restaurants that make up the American food system. Why was it important for you to take this direct, literally hands-on approach to this topic? I wanted to just dive in and explore this stuff from the ground level, and to me this felt like an issue that was really urgent and timely. So the best way that I could do that efficiently and start to understand the psychology around how some of these decisions about food get made would be to write about my own experiences working these jobs and living in these communities.
Can you describe the physical experience of the some of the work that you did?
The most physical labor that I did was in the fields. For instance, when I was picking garlic, in order to harvest it, I had to be down in the dirt for eight or nine hours at a time, so my knees would get tired, and trying to stand up after working for a while would be pretty difficult. To cut the roots of a garlic bulb takes a fairly good amount of strength, and even really burly guys can’t do it with just their hands: You need to use your arm and your shoulder, and you just sort of bear down on your leg to close the scissors. So I would get bruised all up and down my legs from that, and obviously you’re talking blisters and things like that. The peach work I did was pretty intense because I would be standing on the running board of a trailer with a couple of giant crates for peaches. The crates would come to about hip level on me, so I would have to bend over at the waist to sort through the peaches, and that’s in 105 degree heat. That’s the point at which I got heat sick and was not able to keep doing that work, because my body just gave out.
Although the work was often excruciating, one of the things that I really appreciated about your book was your description of the physical and mental challenges that are involved in performing work that is often thought of as unskilled. It almost sounds trite to say it, but the work that I was doing was incredibly skilled. We talk about farm work as being a low-skill job, and while it doesn’t require four years of college before you’re allowed to go do it, it certainly challenged me as much as many of my college courses. There’s not just the physical stamina and strength that’s required to do it, but it tends to be very high motor skilled, and you need to come up with a strategy about how to prioritize your time and your energy. When you are out there in the fields picking, your productivity and your wages depend on you being the most efficient worker you can be, and you have to devise strategies for how to make the most of your time.
In addition to describing the work that you did at these jobs, your book really demonstrates just how difficult it is to get by in this country on minimum wage and how your relationship to food changes when you’re struggling just to make ends meet. Yeah, so when I was working at Walmart, I had done this very smart, middle-class thing of buying a bunch of my groceries in bulk, in advance. And I patted myself on the back for being a very savvy shopper, and then I ran into a couple of unexpected expenses, and I ran out of money and couldn’t pay my rent because it was all tied up in dry goods. And then I found myself in a situation where I was really hungry. I had no money, you know — I am not going to get a soda out of the Pepsi machine because I am so poor — and if I wanted to eat, I was going to be baking bread, or if I didn’t feel like doing that, I would be eating raw flour. Those were my two options. I also found not just that budgeting is tricky but also that cooking isn’t fun when you don’t have a choice about it. You know, I’ve always been in a situation monetarily and in terms of access where I could get take-out or a salad from the grocery store or something like that, and once that choice got taken away, and if I wanted to eat, I had to cook, I didn’t find it to be that much fun anymore.
One of the key insights of your work is that everyone, regardless of their position in society, deserves and would like to eat good, healthy food. So at this point, what do you think it would take for us all to eat well? It takes a political movement and demanding it from our political leaders. And I don’t mean, by the way, that there are a bunch of broke people sitting around saying, “If only we could get that fresh, healthy food then we would buy it right away,” because there’s a lot that happens in terms of culture and habits getting entrenched and people learning to make due with what’s available in their community. So there is a cultural component to this too, as well, and it takes having a much more open and honest discussion about how food works in communities and really learning to talk with people of different classes and races and not just at them. And there’s a degree to which, for me, I would be totally thrilled if the biggest thing that my book accomplished was that it just kept people from sneering at broke people who are making bad food choices, because I really do feel that until you’ve walked in somebody’s shoes, you don’t have a right to judge them, and to remove that from the discussion would be great, and it would open up our discussions of food in a way that it hasn’t been before.