To report on food sourcing and access in the United States, author Tracie McMillan went undercover, picking garlic in the fields in California and working at a Walmart in Michigan and an Applebee’s in New York. She published a book about what she learned from these experiences called The American Way of Eating. Knowledge at Wharton recently had the opportunity to speak with McMillan about what she experienced in these diverse settings, how income level affects food consumption, the challenges of food safety, who controls the food we eat and why the food system might be transformed if people threw away less food.
An edited transcript of the conversation follows.
Knowledge at Wharton: Tracie, thanks for being with us today. Could you talk to us about your reasons for writing the book and why you thought going undercover at these places was the best approach?
Tracie McMillan: My background is as a poverty reporter. I’m also someone who comes from a working-class Midwestern background who has been living in New York for quite a while. As I started hearing this conversation around healthy food, local food and sustainable food and the discussion about how important it is for low-income people to be taking care of their diets, I just kept getting more and more frustrated and irritated, listening to people talk about spending more on food, without grappling with the fact that a lot of families are really struggling right now.
I wanted to figure out a reporting project where I could play with that tension and that disconnect. Most low-income families do care about diet, they do care about health. Yet a lot of folks don’t eat well. Why is that happening? [I wanted] to look at the structural reasons, but also get into some of the personal elements of that — for example, how individual choice works. That’s really why I wanted to go undercover. Certainly I wanted to go and see how things worked inside an Applebee’s and at a Walmart, and certainly in the field. But a big part of why I went undercover — where I went and lived and ate off my wages for two months in each of these jobs — was that I wanted to get a sense of what happened to my internal logic around my food and my diet when I was earning $2 an hour, $6 an hour, $8 an hour, and working these jobs that are a lot less forgiving than work as a freelance journalist. I really felt that there was no way to understand why people are making decisions about how they eat unless you have some sense of what it’s like to live a life that has the same basic constraints.
Knowledge at Wharton: You talk in the book about how it really did change the way you thought about food and the way you ate. Can you explain that in more detail?
McMillan: I threw out the idea of eating local and organic pretty quickly when I was in the fields. I was earning $1.60 for every 5 gallons of garlic I could pick. On my first day, I earned about $2 an hour. When you’re dealing with that kind of a budget, you’re at the store and organic is more expensive. It doesn’t matter if it’s worth it if you don’t have the extra money to spend on it. For me, the biggest change was actually that I came to really resent and dislike cooking for a while. I’m somebody who grew up cooking a lot. My Mom was pretty ill, so I learned to cook early on, and I’ve always done that and enjoyed it. I don’t think I’d ever really realized that part of the reason I enjoyed it was that it was a choice. I’ve always been someone who had enough savings that I could go buy a cheap sandwich somewhere. I could go to the vending machine. If I ever got hungry, I could get a quick fix.
When I was working at Walmart, I screwed up my budget by about $30. All of a sudden, I ended up $30 short for rent, and I had nothing but oats and some rice and some flour in my cupboard. When it got down to the fact that I was either going to go hungry, eat raw flour or spend the next two hours baking bread, that made it a lot less fun and less interesting. It certainly gave me a lot more sympathy for folks who say that cooking is too much work. I’m saying that as a single person. I didn’t have to worry about feeding kids or my partner or anything like that. Once I didn’t have an escape hatch of a pizza or McDonald’s, cooking became just a really boring chore for me.
Knowledge at Wharton: There was another point in the book where I think you were trying to figure out a couple of different social events and if you could fit them into your budget. I remember some of the concerns were, “Can I afford the gas to drive here? Can I afford the ingredients to make the cookies to go to a cookie exchange?” When you’re in that dilemma, what sort of things are running through your head? Was it a surprise to you that it was so easy to get into that kind of situation?
McMillan: I was really surprised at how quickly my finances fell apart. At Walmart, I was making $8 an hour. What had happened was, I didn’t account for the fact that I was working on the night shift. My paychecks for Friday night would actually only go from 10 p.m. to 12 midnight. Then my next paycheck would have the following six and a half hours on it. I ended up about $40 short. All of a sudden, I was faced with, “Well, is it a question of gas money? Do I get the cookies? Is there a way to make cheaper cookies? What if I buy the cookie mix?” I had this idea in my head that the cookie mix that I was stocking every night, which was $.99 a bag, would be cheaper than baking a cookie from scratch. I bought the cookie mix, and I said, “These cookie mixes are probably a little drab, so I’m going to buy a bag of dried cranberries on sale. I’ll buy that and put them in the oatmeal cookies. I’ll spend a little extra time making the cookie look extra nice, and do it that way.” I ended up spending an hour and a half making cookies with this mix. But with the mix, you still have to buy the butter. You still have to buy the oil and the eggs. I realized at the end of it, that it would have been pretty much the same cost for me to make something from scratch. It would have taken about the same time. It probably would have tasted better. I’d gone through this whole rigmarole of, “I guess I’ll do the processed food version.” It didn’t really save me any time or money.
I have a lot of sympathy for how much people tend to dig their heels in when you start talking to them about their diet, if you’re not taking their budget into account. The cookie party was something my sister was throwing. I was talking to my sister. She said, “Well, you just have to bring six dozen cookies to do an exchange.” I said, “That’s three batches of cookies. I would need three sticks of butter, and I only have one stick of butter at home. A pound of butter is $4.” To go through the economics of that and to feel how resentful and defensive I immediately got when my sister said, “Oh, well, it’s just six dozen cookies.” For me, that was really instructive.
Knowledge at Wharton: After excerpts of the book were published on Slate, some of the readers accused you of being an elitist or someone who couldn’t really understand what it means to be poor. They asked, why didn’t you have people who were actually working at Walmart or picking in the fields contribute to the book? What do you think books like yours and similar efforts — for example, Newark Mayor Cory Booker recently tried to live on a food stamp allotment for a week — contribute to the conversation about improving access to food and improving the way that Americans eat?
McMillan: I try to take these concerns about elitism really seriously…. But the alternative, honestly, is that it doesn’t get written about at all. It’s not a perfect solution, but if we’re committed to having discussions about the fact that we have a society with social classes and with inequality, we’ve got to work with what we’ve got…. Even if I had the time and the budget to spend years with the family, so that you can understand the internal logic of someone’s head, I’m never going to get it exactly right. But I can tell people what I’m thinking and feeling as I’m going through these experiences … and translate that as best I can for the audience that buys books. I don’t think it’s the perfect way to do it. But I think that the best I can do is be cognizant and be thoughtful. I say this all the time: If you find a farm worker who has the time and the skill to write a novel or a journalistic account of their work, who can get a major publisher to sign onto it, and who can take the time to do all of the promotion, I am happy to step aside. I think that [would be] a very valuable contribution, and in a lot of ways, more important than what I can do.
But I’m not really interested in writing about what it’s like for a working class kid to get a job at a newspaper. I don’t think that’s particularly useful. We don’t need more stories about that. We do need more stories about what’s happening at the lower end of the income spectrum.
Knowledge at Wharton: You argue in the book, and it’s made pretty clear by your experiences, that solving all of the problems America has with food is going to take a multi-pronged approach. There’s no silver bullet to fix it. But that said, what do you think are some of the most impactful things that businesses, the government and even just average consumers could do that would make a difference?
McMillan: I don’t have a huge background in dealing with the private sector, but I [suggest] more coherent planning about how food access works in this country. [Someone needs] to take a birds-eye view of stuff, which is usually where you would find a role for government, to try and figure out how you get food into communities. That’s really important. I also think one of the biggest barriers we’re facing, in terms of people eating healthier food, is that most Americans don’t know how to cook that well. It is absolutely possible to eat well and cheaply and quickly from scratch, but you have to be a very skilled cook to do that. You don’t have to be talented, but you have to have a really good skill set. Until we start treating that as a piece of literacy that’s important — the same way math and science and reading are important — I don’t think we’re going to see very much change.
Knowledge at Wharton: One of the things that struck me in the book is that in all three of the places you worked, you received little to no food safety training. Did that surprise you? How do you think that contributes to some of these broader issues that you address in the book?
McMillan: I was really shocked. I didn’t get food safety training until the second job that I took at a Walmart. I’d already gone through working in the fields for two months. I had done nightshift stocking in the Walmart grocery section. Then I had worked in the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s. Then when I finally get to the last job at Walmart, when I’m working in produce, I’m doing this training about food safety. I’m like, “This is kind of familiar. What is this?” Then I had this epiphany moment, where I thought, “Oh, people told me to kind of do these things before, but nobody ever gave me any training in it.” For me, that was shocking, to [realize] it’s the Walmart produce job where I learned food safety training. Not in the restaurant, not on the farm. But the Walmart produce section. The thing that was most instructive about that was to realize that we really do treat food like it’s any other commodity. We treat it like we don’t have to worry about it rotting or going bad. I feel like that really informed a lot of the way that food was being treated throughout the food system. For me, that was really shocking.
Knowledge at Wharton: Was there anything you learned about the way food is handled, the way food is viewed in other cultures in other countries, that you think the U.S. could learn from in trying to solve some of these challenges?
McMillan: The biggest difference in treatment of food — and I saw this the most when I was living with farm workers and working the fields of California — is just that most other communities, and a lot of low-income communities, treat food as if it’s valuable. Because it is. We don’t tend to think about this. You’re taking nutrients out of the soil. Soil is actually a resource, the same way coal or diamonds or anything else is. You can exhaust soil. It’s a natural resource. We’re taking all of those nutrients out of the soil. Then we’re doing this whole huge system to get food onto a plate. Yet, I forget what the statistics are, but we waste an incredible amount of food. It’s something like 40% of the food that is taken home by Americans gets thrown out at some point. To really appreciate the importance of food is a big deal. We say, “Oh, you could never feed the world with organic agriculture.” I would argue with that. If we’re throwing away 40% of our food, maybe if we just stopped throwing it out, we would have a much better shot at developing a sustainable agricultural practice that can feed us for the long haul.
Knowledge at Wharton: Reading the book made me think twice about eating at Applebee’s again. It made me think twice about shopping at Walmart. You said a lot of people tell you that. Is that what we should really be learning? How would you respond to someone saying, “OK, I read the book, and now I don’t want to eat at Applebee’s anymore.”
McMillan: My work isn’t really about saying, “Do this, not that,” and particularly about something like Applebee’s. If that is something that someone feels is a good treat for them, I totally support that. That’s fine. And even shopping at Walmart. I’m a real critic of the idea of voting with your dollars as a substitute for actual political participation. [I’m an advocate] for doing things in communities to change not which store is there, but how things are working overall. People need to make decisions for themselves about what they’re comfortable with or not.
But for me, the bigger lesson in the book was a much broader, rhetorical one, which is to say, food is not an elite preoccupation. It’s not a luxury lifestyle product. It’s something basic that everybody wants, everybody needs and pretty much everybody appreciates. Or at least certainly to point out that there are plenty of people at the low-income end of the spectrum who care about meals, just as there are plenty of people at the high end of the income spectrum who don’t. If we’re going to have a real serious conversation about our food system, we need to make sure that we’re talking about everybody, not just well-educated elites who can go to the farmer’s market and afford to pay farmers a good, fair price. For me, it’s less about, “Don’t go to Walmart,” and much more about, “Let’s think, in a systematic way, about how we want the food system to work, and then build back from there and figure out how we can do that.”
Knowledge at Wharton: It’s clear from your book just how deeply ingrained Walmart, for one, is in this whole food system. They’re not going away.
McMillan: Walmart is not going to go away. Frankly, we’d be in really big trouble right now if they did. They control a quarter to a third of our food supply. If all of a sudden Walmart went belly up, that’s a quarter to a third of the grocery stores in America closing their doors. This idea that we have of a food retailer that’s too big to fail, that was a little terrifying for me. I would really like there to be a food delivery system in communities that is flexible and that isn’t so centralized that if it collapses, we’re all in really big trouble.
Knowledge at Wharton: After having all of these experiences while writing the book, have you found that there’s been some lasting change in the way you eat?
McMillan: Absolutely. I’ve gotten a lot better about budgeting, that’s for sure. Ironically, the year after I finished all of the undercover reporting — I basically needed to hole up somewhere and just write and do reporting, but couldn’t otherwise earn income — I ended up on food stamps for the year. Between the work I had done undercover, and then being on food stamps, I’ve gotten very good at not wasting food. Thinking of cooking as a chore in a way has been really liberating for me. When I thought about it as entertainment only, if I didn’t feel like cooking, I didn’t do it. Then I would spend money on prepared foods, or I would just eat crackers for dinner.
Now, I just feel very firmly that cooking is a chore. I don’t always like doing it. I still have to do it. I don’t like taking a shower every day. I still have to do it. I blow dry my hair for 20 minutes. I can spend 20 minutes making sure I eat something healthy. Changing the way I thought about food as part of my basic chores to do as a human, as opposed to just something entertaining that I like to do — that really transformed my diet. I eat much healthier, a lot more stuff that’s cooked at home. I certainly save a lot of money that way, too.