When journalist Tracie McMillan covered a cooking class run by a youth services agency in New York City, she got to know one of the teenage students. Vanessa, who liked fruits and vegetables, knew that she should eat better. But eating healthy was so expensive, and Burger King was so close.
McMillan, who has written about food, poverty and the politics of both for publications such as the New York Times and Harper’s Magazine, got curious. Why can’t everyone get access to the same food? To answer that and other nagging questions, she spent months away from her cozy life as a Brooklyn-based writer. Going undercover, she picked peaches and cut garlic in the California heat, stocked produce at a Walmart outside of Detroit and did prep work at a Brooklyn Applebee’s, a pleasant job that had an unfortunate ending. Each time, McMillan lived off the scant wages she earned.
Those first-person experiences, along with a heaping portion of facts and figures, are presented in The American Way of Eating. Readers may wish McMillan had stuck to either a straight-ahead investigation or a wide-eyed memoir—the “real life” approach sometimes overwhelms the objectives—but there’s still plenty of meat to chew on. Convenience cooking (e.g., microwave meals) isn’t just bad for you, it’s more expensive than making the meal from scratch; most farm workers, a vocation that can start as early as age 12, typically live in overcrowded housing. In many cities, writes McMillan, Walmart has “little incentive” to drop prices because it’s the “biggest game in town.”
What sticks with you about The American Way of Eating isn’t the statistics or the overriding theme of how hard it is to get quality produce—especially if you are overworked and underpaid. It’s that McMillan puts a face on a largely anonymous process. Everything we eat has a story, and it usually involves some kind of woe—from the garlic cutter in a constant uphill battle to reach minimum wage to the server at Applebee’s who’s juggling a baby and college courses with her shifts. McMillan’s covert journey on this less-than-glamorous path reveals that the various laborers involved in our meals pay a higher price than we can imagine—an issue that may even rival the importance of Americans getting fresh, healthful food.