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All You Can Eat

Trend-setting restaurants, Northwest cookbooks, local food news and the people who make them happen.

October 17, 2012 at 6:00 AM

Muckraking journalist on ‘The American Way Of Eating’

McMillan2.jpg

Tracie McMillan went undercover in plain sight in the world of food, working as a farm laborer, as a Wal-Mart produce stocker, and as an expediter at Applebee’s. The journalist’s research became a book, “The American Way of Eating,” which was praised by The New York Times for its provocative and well-documented take on food and class, and criticized by Rush Limbaugh as the product of an “overeducated” “young single white woman” bent on government expansion.

McMillan will speak at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 17) at Town Hall; details are over here. We spoke by phone before her flight to Seattle about home cooking, Wal-Mart vegetables, and how a blue-collar kid from Michigan gets tagged as an elitist “authorette.” Here are some edited, condensed outtakes from our chat:

On how she came to propose the book:

“I would hear all these discussions about how we should be eating and the kinds of agriculture we should be practicing. It seems the prescription was always that we should spend more time and money on our meals. That just seemed so divorced from the reality of what I grew up with, and the people I reported on as a poverty reporter. I was honestly irritated with foodies for not understanding the reality of what most Americans’ lives are like, and I wanted to start a conversation about that, but I also wanted to do a reporting project that would be engaging and interesting and that I, as a reporter, would have wanted to read.”

On the crippling work and horrendous compensation she found picking crops in the California fields with migrant workers:

“I was sort of like, ‘I know people don’t get paid very well,’ but in my head that was still minimum wage. So to learn ‘Oh, that’s $3 an hour’ — that was a big shift for me that made it concrete…

“I knew they were poor. I didn’t expect for them to be so poor that when I went through photographs a year later I got them confused with photos I had taken in Guatemala. For me that was really striking: ‘Oh, right. That’s how poor this is. This is Central American poverty in the U.S.”

On what people can do to change that situation:

“One easy thing is — if you’re already going to a farmers market — is to ask the farmers about their labor. We ask farmers all the time about pesticides and farming practices… they don’t necessarily think people care about labor, it hasn’t been treated as though it’s an important part of the process…

“(But) theres nothing as a consumer I think you can do at a grocery store to make sure your groceries were prepared or picked under reasonable working conditions. Ironically, we have a Fair Trade certification for food that’s grown internationally…the reason we developed fair trade in the first place was there was an assumption that anything grown or made in the U.S. was with a base level of labor standards…

“Most of this stuff, we can’t shop our way out of it. We can and need to make cases to politicians and to corporations and to other institutional stakeholders about why these things need to change. Because farmworkers getting paid poorly isn’t just a problem for farmworkers, it’s a problem for all of us, because it drags our wages down…At this point working conditions in the fields can be so bad with pesticides that it almost makes (only) being underpaid not seem so bad… the bar just keeps getting dragged further and further down.”

On stereotypes of how poor people eat:

“I take offense when I see this idea that low-income people must be stupid or not care about their families or their health or else they would make better dietary choices. For me, I saw a lot of people eat a lot of (poor-quality) food not because they didn’t care, but because it’s an awfully (hard) task when you’re making ends meet on $8 an hour and live an hour away from a good supermarket and healthier food is more expensive…

At Wal-Mart, “Given the quality of produce we were providing to people, I no longer feel it’s fair to fault people for not going to Wal-Mart and eating produce…I don’t think I could blame anyone for going to the freezer section instead.”

On other ways to encourage a healthier diet:

“The way people will do that is if you make it easier. When I say easy, I don’t mean there should be an instant deposit of fresh vegetables in people’s kitchens every day. I mean there should be reasonably easy access to quality healthy food. People need to have enough time to cook from scratch if that’s what we’re expecting them to do. And I think cooking should be part of a basic education…

“At this point cooking gets treated like it’s this luxury hobby for folks, when in fact it’s a very basic skill that everyone needs to know how to do.”

On politics and food:

“I want GMOs (genetically modified organisms) to be labeled because I want to know what’s in my food. I don’t think that’s a right or a left-wing thing. People should be able to make an informed choice about what’s being sold to them and what they’re putting in their bodies… I would sort of go further and say I want to be able to say that my food was produced with people being paid legal wages, and not just because “Oh, I’m a soft liberal and I’m all gooey and sentimental about the worker,” but because I don’t want my wages to (go) down… I want to aspire to make a decent wage.”

On things that surprised her in her research:

“I was surprised at how I disliked cooking once I didn’t have time and didn’t have money for ingredients and didn’t have an escape hatch, particularly when I was working at Wal-Mart and Applebee’s. I didn’t have the income where I could go out to eat when I felt like it — or even eat out of a vending machine for a snack. (The choice was between) raw flour, or ‘I’m going to have to bake bread.” That took a lot of the fun out of it for me.”

On why Rush Limbaugh would think she was an ivory-tower elitist, given her blue-collar background and an income she describes as “well into the bottom third of America’s income brackets the bulk of my adult life”:

“Limbaugh clearly did not read the book…I think what happened is, they saw I had this fellowship appointment and they made an assumption that because I had a sort of titular affiliation with Brandeis, I must be this moneyed East Coast person. And then what really put them out was the Times review by Dwight Garner that uses a line from my book about how food is the only basic human need where we’ve left the distribution of it entirely to the private market.

“I think that’s true. I don’t think that’s an overstatement of fact. Water, clean air, electricity — these are things we have some public oversight about, making sure it gets to everyone and that it’s affordable to everyone, and we just do that because it’s important — and we don’t do that for food. For me that was sort of a key observation from my reporting, and for Rush Limbaugh this is considered a threat to liberty and freedom in the U.S…

“I don’t think anybody would have paid attention even to that, but what really got people’s attention was then he veered into this sexist rant about, what is it with all these young single white women (who are) overeducated…my response was, I just have a B.A. I was a scholarship kid with a B.A. Does that mean Rush Limbaugh thinks I shouldn’t have gone to college? What should I have done?”

On the idea that she was a tourist in her research who could go home if it got too tough:

“If I wanted the kind of job I had been running after my whole life, I had to stick it out and had to do this. I had options in terms of my safety, but it was being balanced against me wanting to create a career for myself where I was doing something meaningful and useful…

On what drew her to this career:

“I really have no patience for doing work I think is not useful…I saw my family and other families really struggle when I was growing up. I have a real sense that it’s not just enough to work hard, there are a lot of systemic things that make it hard for people to get by… the key is to start working to make it a little bit easier for folks to get by.”

On how her own cooking has changed when she’s back home in Brooklyn:

“I used to think of food as a hobby. Now I think of it as a necessary chore, and I make myself do it… I can cook myself a good meal in 20-30 minutes, and I’m happy to do that. Not happy — but I’m willing to do it.”

Photo courtesy of Town Hall Seattle

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