Book Review: “The American Way of Eating”

The best way to describe “The American Way of Eating” by Tracie McMillan is as a cross between Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed” and Eric Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation.” Like Ehrenreich, McMillan goes “undercover” and works at some of the lowest-paying jobs in America: as a farmworker picking grapes, peaches, and garlic; a stocker in a Walmart produce section; and finally, a cook in an Applebee’s kitchen. Like Schlosser, McMillan exposes the conditions under which our food is picked and delivered – either via a supercenter produce shelf or a chain-restaurant kitchen. What she shows us is grim.

Each section – “Farming,” “Selling,” and “Cooking” – begins with a stark breakdown of how much she earned at each job, how much she spent on food, and what percentage of her income that represented. Obviously, at the lowest-paying job (farming), food ate up – pardon the pun – most of her income (almost 27 percent). You can only economize so much – there is a base level of food needed for survival, regardless of income.

But more than the facts and figures, what was most interesting about this book were the experiences McMillan shares with us. While they are her own, they still point to very common, widespread realities that exist far beyond the bubble of pundits and politicians. To wit: the fact that fewer and fewer people know how to cook means they must rely on pre-processed or -prepared foods – exactly the kinds that are highest in salt, fat, and sugar. Obviously, the primary produce “delivery system” in America is the supermarket – yet many poor urban and rural areas don’t have any, thus creating the “food deserts” we’ve been hearing so much about. And even within supermarkets that carry fresh fruits and vegetables, stockers and managers of produce sections are often given training that differs little from stocking sneakers or toothpaste, resulting in obscene amounts of waste and very poor quality produce.

Mostly, though, what engaged me was her own narrative. She begins the way I suspect many people do: believing that caring about what you eat is an upper-class luxury, a frivolous hobby, or occasional indulgence. By the end of her journey, she sees that nearly everyone, of all social classes, values good food. This leads her to question exactly why eating well is so difficult as to be non-attainable except by those with more resources.

By the end of the book, with her new perspective on working-class realities (especially regarding money and time), she offers some realistic solutions to helping make eating well as easy as eating junk, such as mandating cooking classes in public education and developing logistical systems to make sure fresh food makes it to every area in the U.S. But first and foremost, she recognizes that all workers must be paid a living wage. This seems so deceptively simple, yet it is at the heart of nearly every social problem America faces. It won’t matter if there are acres of fresh, delicious foods just blocks away if you can’t afford the food – or an apartment with a kitchen to cook it in.

This work reminds me a lot of Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle,” written over a century ago. Sinclair wrote the book primarily to expose the awful conditions under which our food workers lived and worked – shoddy tenements without basic necessities, unsafe working conditions, the lot. But it seemed that mostly what got America’s collective panties in a wad back then wasn’t the workers’ plight; it was the unsanitary way the food was being handled. It was primarily because of this groundbreaking work that the federal government passed the Pure Food and Drug and Meat Inspection Act, which is now enforced by the USDA. I hope McMillan’s work has a similar effect.

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