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.
She eventually pays off the advance and gets help from her landlord, who lets McMillan pay weekly instead of monthly, thereby making budgeting easier. The landlord also makes a deal with her: do the grocery shopping and we’ll share meals from my part of the list. Over the course of reporting, McMillan finds similar generosity in her co-workers and landlords. “[A]s families eking out a living on very little, they understood the very basic role of food in their, and my, survival,” she writes.
It’s at McMillan’s final stop, a Brooklyn Applebee’s, that she has the most fun working, but experiences the worst personal affront; she’s sexually assaulted by a co-worker’s friend at her going away party. After talking to the police and several witnesses, she lets the matter drop (partly because she was drugged and has little memory of the attack), writing, “I could do something that, for most women in my situation, would be unthinkable. I could just walk away.”
That the perpetrator gets away with it is beyond irritating; it’s maddening. The assault—in the fields there’s something similar she calls “sexual quid pro quo,” and one survey she cites reports 80 percent of farmworking women have experienced some kind of sexual harassment—is one of the things McMillan brings to light, in addition to her difficulties eating well as a lower-middle-class worker. With no purpose for her work other than reporting—no kids to support or “real” bills to pay,” she can split.
McMillan rounds out each section of the book with histories of each type of work she performs, deftly weaving them into her personal narrative. At turns, she chronicles crappy farmhand wages and the rise of machine farming; Walmart’s ascent to the top of the grocery food chain; Applebee’s history from solo restaurant to an enormous chain with 2,000-plus restaurants worldwide; and the ways each of these histories impact the food choices in our lives.
As time wears on, she also becomes borderline apathetic about her own eating habits, preferring to consume Applebee’s food for lunch because she gets a credit that covers what she eats. She eats just one other meal a day while working at the restaurant.
Throughout the book, the prose is crisp, with a to-the-point simplicity that’s graceful and swift. Each section is well researched and the reporting is appropriately deep. And all the problems with the American way of eating—from a lack of food education for many in the populace, to a corporate-dominated farm system that underpays workers, to grocery chains with poor sanitation systems, to name just several—are covered by McMillan to varying degrees.
Food politics stories can be annoying; we hear about the obesity pandemic repeatedly; the first lady’s program to change kids’ eating habits is under attack from the right; and we all have at least one self-proclaimed foodie friend we want to smack. In other words, we’re bombarded with food. But McMillan’s story is one we can’t hear too often, even if there’s an occasional sense of deja vu. When she suggests a political solution akin to Henry Ford’s model of making his own cars affordable for his workers (which is an economic solution that would likely need political backing today) is the ultimate fix for changing the American way of eating, one wonders: Will any politician successfully take up the cause? Or will it end up another casualty of partisan bickering?
Probably. And that’s not just irritating. It’s a shame.
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