The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table | By Tracie McMillan | Scribner | 336 pages, $25.00
Irritating. That’s the word that comes to mind when reflecting on Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.
Irritating because McMillan goes undercover in order to determine why Americans as a whole—especially the poor—eat so badly. Except we’ve viewed or read parts of this story before in Morgan Spurlock’s series 30 Days, Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation, and Robert Kenner’s Food, Inc., to name three examples. Throw in Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and it’s increasingly unclear what else could be said about food that merits such continued attention.
Irritating because McMillan is a middle-class white woman who delves into the lives of the poor and because so many pious, holier-than-thou narratives use the poor to teach us life lessons. (Mercifully, she avoids preaching, and her secondary characters are largely engaging and well rounded, but the poverty tourism nonetheless is irksome.)
Finally, it’s irritating because despite its flaws, the book works. Its shortcomings make it easy to want to hate, but the story is captivating enough to engross and sway. But if the trade-off is reading again, for example, about Walmart’s competition-killing practices while learning the reasons fresh produce is harder to come by in Detroit, or how Applebee’s doesn’t cook its food so much as assemble it, the trade-off—suffering through some oft-told tales—seems fair.
While covering the poverty beat for a magazine, McMillan had a minor revelation when a teenaged interview subject with bad eating habits let her in on a secret: She eats poorly because it’s cheap. Vanessa, the young interviewee, loves fresh vegetables but can rarely afford them, and asks McMillan, “If you want people to eat healthy, why make it so expensive?” McMillan acknowledges Vanessa hasn’t said anything groundbreaking, but she’s hit on a truth: “Eating poorly is easier than eating well.”
It’s irritating—even disheartening—that, for many Americans, eating fast food or prepackaged food is a simpler, less headache-inducing (though possibly more artery clogging) alternative to searching out, purchasing, and then preparing fresh food. Why shouldn’t the poor have easy, affordable access to the same foods the affluent have? Everyone has to eat, and eating fast food each day may kill you (just ask Morgan Spurlock).
So McMillan goes undercover as a member of the working poor to determine why eating poorly is the standard and whether it’s possible to eat, for example, fresh produce while living off the wages earned by picking grapes in a field. She also picks peaches and garlic at California farms where she’s the only white person in the fields. (Her standard cover story is that she has lots of problems and doesn’t want to work at a job where she has to deal with customers.) She moves onto working at Walmart supercenters—the stores with groceries—in Michigan. Finally, she works the line at an Applebee’s restaurant in Brooklyn.
“What would it take for us to all eat well?” McMillan asks herself at her journey’s beginning. The low-paying jobs—she sets aside some startup cash in each location to find an apartment, but that’s about it—make it easier for her to live and spend as an actual farm worker, grocery clerk, or food runner would. In each location, McMillan charts her take-home pay and expenses, including her food budget. She does some meticulous planning to keep from going hungry in each spot. Not surprisingly, she hits some stumbling blocks.
Shortly after starting a stint cutting garlic, McMillan feels pain in her arm. “The pain is actually so great I cannot cut a single garlic stalk,” she writes. “This is all it took? Two weeks in the field and I’m debilitated.” She receives medical care—she has tennis elbow—but leaves farming. “It comes down to my arm or the fields,” she writes.
When McMillan moves on to Walmart, she makes the mistake of eating out too often. She lives near family. “I socialized with my sisters,” she writes. After some quick calculations, she finds the money she’s short on rent and gas is about the same she spent while out. She brings home around $220 a week and has to take out a cash advance on her credit card.