Traversing the U.S. Food System: An Interview with Tracie McMillan

Traversing the U.S. Food System: An Interview with Tracie McMillan

(Jim Henderson, 2012, Wikimedia Commons)

In Dissent’s Spring 2012 Food issue, Marion Nestle pointed out that changing the food system is as radical an objective as those pursued by the civil rights, women’s rights, and environmentalist movements. “But food has one particular advantage for advocacy,” Nestle wrote. “Food is universal. Everyone eats. Food is an easy entry point into conversations about social inequities. Even the least political person can understand injustices in the food system and be challenged to work to redress them.”

A similar conviction compelled Tracie McMillan (a former Dissent intern) to spend three years reporting, researching, and writing The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, which this month won the 2013 Sidney Hillman Prize for Book Journalism. Since 1950 the Hillman prizes have honored reporters who produce compelling, investigative narratives in service of the common good. Previous winners include such journalistic greats as Jane Jacobs, Michael Harrington, and Robert Kuttner.

The American Way of Eating follows McMillan’s journey as she works in the food industry: picking garlic in Californian fields among Mexican farm-workers, stocking produce in a cavernous Walmart outside Detroit, and expediting meals at an Applebee’s in Brooklyn. The book skillfully weaves personal narrative with intensive reporting and meticulous research. McMillan persuasively argues that while everyone wants good food, it’s not equally easy for everyone to access such food—but it should be. “Food is not a luxury lifestyle product,” McMillan writes. “It is a social good.”

When I spoke with the author over the phone, she was eating lunch—a tabouli and fattoush salad. Her current home of Dearborn, Michigan has a substantial Middle Eastern population, meaning Lebanese staples are cheap and readily available. Reporting and writing The American Way of Eating has had an enormous effect on the way McMillan approaches food. “I’m much more cost-conscious,” she says, “and I cook so much more than I used to.”

McMillan came from a modest background in rural Michigan: her father sold tractors, and her mother was often sick. Although they weren’t exactly poor, her mother’s medical bills put a strain on the family’s finances. “I came out understanding that the structural opportunities you have are really key to where you end up,” she says.

Studying at NYU—as a political science major with a double minor in journalism and women’s studies—drove this point home. McMillan was engaged in political activism on campus, leading debates about welfare reform, while also volunteering at a Lower East Side school with a student body composed of Chinese, Latino, and African-American students from low-income housing projects. She also did domestic work for an inordinately wealthy household in Soho. “I traversed the entire class system,” she recalls.

Eating in the house of her employer was an especially big culture shock—McMillan refers to the experience as the catalyst for an “identity crisis.” The food was so different from her working-class family’s staples, and it was good. “There was this tension unfolding within me,” she explains. “What’s wrong with what my family ate?” Adding to this tension was the fact that her employer ridiculed much of the food McMillan had grown up eating.

“I recognize as somewhat bizarre that this thread of American food culture based around Cool Whip and Jell-O exists,” the author says, but the fact that privileged liberals could readily dismiss this way of life with condescending laughter seemed short-sighted to her. In part, The American Way of Eating came out of this internal conflict, and the desire to have a respectful conversation with people about different modes of eating.

“It’s not that [the working class] doesn’t value food,” McMillan says, “it’s that they have other stuff on their budgets.” And the reality is that most proponents of the organic, sustainable, and local food movements have never had to struggle to feed themselves. “When you have people up there saying: I care about my food, as proven by the fact I just spent $7 a pound on tomatoes…That really shuts down the conversation.”

“It’s not that [the working class] doesn’t value food,” McMillan says, “it’s that they have other stuff on their budgets.” And the reality is that most proponents of the organic, sustainable, and local food movements have never had to struggle to feed themselves.

When I first moved to New York, I was confounded by the radically different food cultures within the city’s bounds. The gap between these worlds—families trundling carts of cheap bulk items and suspiciously flawless produce out of Costco; Union Square Greenmarket-goers fetishizing knobbly, green-streaked heirloom tomatoes—seemed insurmountable. But it is this divide that McMillan hopes to bridge. “I wanted this book to shift discussion,” she says. “I wanted to see if it was possible to get people to talk about food with an eye to the experience of most Americans, not just the middle class.”

McMillan’s immersive reportage stripped her of the easy privilege she was accustomed to. Struggling to live within her means on $8 an hour, she took out cash advances, often went hungry—especially during her initial stint as an agricultural worker—and was on food stamps for all of 2011. While observing the underhand dealings, merciless working conditions, and complex logic of the food system, McMillan also experienced first-hand how difficult it is to prioritize a healthy diet while working a strenuous, minimum-wage job. Laboring intensively for very little return is terrible for one’s sense of agency, she learned. Getting home from yet another exhausting day’s work, which has done nothing for your prospects, renders implausible the idea that good food choices could affect your health.

Bolstered by an impressive (and often damning) array of statistics, The American Way of Eating’s real power resides in its compelling personal narrative. Although the book began as an exercise in translation between classes, it became, McMillan writes in her conclusion, more about “observing mundane facts of life.” In the simple relation of her own experience, McMillan embeds details that convincingly support her central theses: food appreciation is not dictated by class; mutually impoverished communities can be more generous than wealthy or unequal ones; working-class jobs are demanding and thankless; the financially insecure women working those jobs are vulnerable to harassment; consolidation in the food retail industry has a huge effect on agriculture; and the American “foodscape” in general is rife with flaws, inefficiencies, and injustice.

Rush Limbaugh has railed against McMillan’s book, singling its author out as a threat to American liberty. The memory makes McMillan chortle gleefully. “I didn’t make this stuff up,” she says with satisfaction. “I believe in making a compelling argument based in fact.” In using personal narration as the backbone of the book, she explores the psychological and physical effects of working low-wage food-industry jobs—ensuring that the slippages between personal and political, and between the middle- and working-class experience, are intrinsic to her argument.

Having initially worked as a welfare reporter in New York, McMillan soon focused on food as a means of encapsulating social justice issues. Food, she points out, is “a very powerful lens for shifting the way people look at the world.” This is why, despite the grim realities her reporting exposed, McMillan’s outlook is bright. “Even conservatives understand the importance of good, healthy food being accessible to folks,” she reasons. “If you’re talking about food, people don’t shut down the same way they might about poverty.”

Nevertheless, her optimism is cautious: “There’s no magic bullet.” The book’s editors encouraged the inclusion of policy suggestions, and McMillan’s conclusion lays out several possible options: universal coupons for fresh produce, cooking classes incorporated into public education, urban agriculture, and public control over food distribution. But the job of ensuring good, healthy food is easily accessible to every American is ultimately someone else’s, McMillan says. Hers was to examine how food, politics, and class function at the low end of the wage system—something she achieves with an extraordinarily light touch.

“Eating is not just an agricultural act,” McMillan writes, adapting a Wendell Berry aphorism, “but a profoundly social one as well.” The American Way of Eating makes this fact abundantly clear. And it poses the question: “What if eating well was the easy thing—and all this grease and corn syrup and salt were difficult?”

Kirsten O’Regan is a former Dissent intern, freelance writer, and NYU graduate student. Born in England and raised in South Africa and New Zealand, she now lives in East Harlem. Her work has appeared in Guernica Daily and the Paris Review.