With the rise of farmers’ markets and community-supported agriculture, and the release of books like Michael Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma’’ and Barbara Kingsolver’s “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,’’ the drumbeat that people should be eating healthily, locally, and sustainably has gotten louder and more insistent. “The American Way of Eating’’ is journalist Tracie McMillan’s riposte to the argument that Americans need to eat better. Of course we should - and most people want to, she writes. But how can we? What are the stumbling blocks?
McMillan spent six months undercover in America’s food industry, living on the wages she was able to scrape together and trying to answer these questions from two different angles: by seeking to understand how food in America is grown, sold, cooked, and eaten, and what eating decisions people working in the food industry, living under great economic pressure, make for themselves.
Her first stop is California, where she finds jobs picking peaches, grapes, and garlic. With her pay tied to how much she gathers - $22 for a half-ton crate of peaches; $2 for a cardboard flat of grapes; $1.50 for a five-gallon bucket of garlic - she’s able to eke out an average of $153 a week. As she gets to know other farmhands - many of them undocumented immigrants from Mexico (during her two months picking, McMillan writes, she never meets another Caucasian working in the fields) - she gives us a sense, in quick brush strokes, of what their lives are like and how they try to make ends meet. Some live with a half-dozen others in a garage; others rise at 3 a.m. to prepare and sell food to workers just getting off their shifts.
From the fields, she moves on to the grocery and produce departments of Walmart, the company that sells more than a quarter of all groceries in America and thus has a huge influence on how food is grown, distributed, and priced. McMillan shows how these supersize supermarkets bring consumers in by slashing prices on packaged, processed foods that can sit on the shelves for years while leaving prices of fruits and vegetables relatively high. And her descriptions of her work “crisping,’’ or removing rotten leaves and stems before putting items back on the shelf, may change readers’ perceptions of those water-frosted aisles of glittering produce. She also shows how giant, competitive stores like Walmart contribute to the phenomenon of “food deserts’’ - large areas, often in inner cities, where residents have few or no shopping options beyond convenience stores.
McMillan’s last stop is working in the kitchen at Applebee’s, the world’s largest sit-down restaurant chain, where she finds that cooking involves a lot of microwaving pre-portioned food in plastic bags, and then mixing it with sauce scooped out of plastic containers. It’s there, working 40 hours a week for $8 an hour, that she comes to understand why many Americans rely on cheap, easy-to-cook, processed food. “I remember feeling frustrated, even angry, at the fact that my low wages meant that . . . basic functions of human life - procuring fresh food and having time to cook it - were nearly out of my reach,’’ she writes.
This passage hints at a tension in the book: Though McMillan’s account sheds light on the lives of her co-workers, the book’s narrative is really about her own experiences and hardships. She acknowledges that she can enter and exit these low-income jobs at will while her co-workers are stuck there, so the complaints and desperation she expresses often fall flat.
Her tone is surer when she uses data to build her book’s main argument, which is both clear and essential: In America, for a whole host of reasons, “[e]ating poorly is easier than eating well.’’ Until we change that equation, through policy changes large and small, no amount of telling people they should buy from their local farmer will make enough of a difference.
Katie Bacon is a writer and editor based in Brookline. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.