american way of eating

Arguing that healthy food access should be easier and that most Americans care deeply about their food, Tracie McMillan’s award-winning book “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table” is an interesting read for anyone concerned about food production.

Why do Americans eat the way they do? That is the question that this New York Times bestseller tries to answer. The author spends one year working at various jobs in the produce fields of California, in Walmart stores near Detroit and in Applebee’s in New York City. Reporting her personal experiences from the fields, produce aisles and restaurant kitchens of the country, McMillan shows the inner workings of America’s food industry: growing, selling, cooking and serving.

McMillan first goes to work in the fields of California picking garlic, amongst other things. She next works at a Walmart grocery department and then in the produce section, and finally gets a job as an “expo” at Applebee’s, adding ramekins of ketchup, slices of lemon and springs of parsley to plates.

What she learns in the bowels of the American food industry has lessons for us all:

  1. Raising the wages of farm workers and field hands would not increase the prices of fruits and vegetables very much. Most of the cost that we pay goes to distribution and marketing, not growing and harvesting.
  2. Communities become more important the poorer you are. Shared resources and information are crucial factors in survival – and is empathy.
  3. Some people in charge of produce departments (such as the one at Walmart in suburban Detroit) have no clue about fresh produce, ripe produce, healthy food or produce in general. Consumers must be responsible for choosing (or not choosing) fresh fruits and vegetables.
  4. Many people would cook more, and more healthfully, if they knew how. Cooking classes for young people and everyone else could greatly benefit society.
  5. Contrary to popular belief, most “working class poor” people do care deeply about the kinds of food they eat. They just don’t have the time and/or resources to eat organic, non-processed healthy food on a regular basis. Homemade meals made with fresh food become a luxury for those working three different jobs.

As the American economy slowly recovers, many of the new jobs being created are low-paying retail and food industry positions that McMillan experienced. Protests about minimum wage have made the news lately, forcing the consideration of those who grow, prepare and stock our food.

Not everyone can afford organic heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market for $6 per pound – but everyone would be more inclined to make healthy eating choices if they were easier and if they knew how. Cooking classes and coupons for fresh produces are two small steps in the equation, McMillan argues, but our country’s food system needs far greater changes than that: wages, health care, work hours and kitchen literacy.

“The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table” by Tracie McMillan is available now via your local bookstore or Amazon.com.