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Undercover in the Industrial Food System

Tracie McMillan starts with a simple premise in her book The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebees, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.

Where does the food Americans eat come from?

To find out, she embarks on a Barbara-Ehrenreich (of Nickled and Dimed fame) style journey.

First stop: the industrial fields of California where McMillan is a fish out of water with her petite frame, pale skin and poor Spanish. The work is hard, and she stands out.

’You almost never see gringos in the field,’ she says, not unkindly. ‘Are you a gringo?

More or less,’ is the only answer I can choke out as I hoist the first bucket weighing a good 25 pounds, to chest level. ‘It’s possible my father was Mexican, but me, I’m gringa.

I balance the bucket on the edge of the crate, then tip it in, a flood of garlic piling beneath and repeat the process with the second bucket. I hand Rosa my tarjeta. Click, click. …. After 3 hours of picking and at least a bucket and a half of charity, my tally stands at 4 buckets… I manage to learn that the price on my tarjeta $1.60 is the amount paid for each 5 gallon bucket of garlic we fill, which means my four hour morning will bring me $6.40.” (p.64)

Despite the heat, repetitive stress injuries, and low pay, McMillan writes fondly of the many people she encountered during her short time undercover in the fields and even trusts a few enough to confide her real reason for being there.
“I tell two families I’ve befriended – those of Jose and Dolores, Diego and Claudia – that I’m actually a writer. When I tell Diego, his face breaks into a wide smile. He knew something was going on!  I have to tell Hector! So he, Rosalinda, and I drive over to Hector’s apartment where we sit on plastic lawn chairs on kitchen linoleum and they tell me they had no idea I was a journalist. Then they lapse into Trique, expounding on the problems of farmwork, using Rosalinda to translate their concerns. They don’t earn enough money, the contractors cheat them, they don’t like being in the fields next to cropdusters and, heartbreakingly, can I please tell people about what it’s like? Surely, they say, people on the news will listen to me, I’m a citizen.” (p.96)

McMillan’s rich prose is the highlight of this book that takes us from the farms of California to a Walmart in Detroit to an Applebee’s in Brooklyn.

Sadly, her first-person descriptions frame only about half of the book – the rest is a detailed, but somewhat dry, analysis of food systems in America. While McMillan’s experiences certainly add color and depth to the hard facts, I kept finding myself drawn into the first person accounts and wishing they made up a greater percentage of the prose.

Similarly, the Walmart and Appblebee’s sections of the book fail to stack up to the first section. While they were written with McMillan’s trademark realism and rich description, the experiences she had were so much less foreign to her that they fail to rivet the reader in quite the same way. The scenes from the farm steal the show in this book, despite the fact that [spoiler] McMillan is the victim of a sexual assault during her tenure at Applebees.

One tidbit – an aside for McMillan – is  actually something I’ll share with friends and family when I tell them about the book. Many members of the sustainability community are passionate purchasers of organic produce for health and environmental reasons. The benefits of organic tend to blend together in my mind into a vaguely positive purchase I can feel good about. I was sad to hear that, from the farm workers’ perspective, there isn’t a lick of difference between working in industrial organic and plain old industrial fields:

So, I say, nodding at the sacks, trying to affect a ‘come here often’ casualness, These are organic fields?

They look at me oddly. Yes.

Is that better than regular fields?

Why would it be better?

Because there aren’t any chemicals. Is the work better?

The shorter of the two snorts. No chemicals, but it’s the same. Ninety-nine cents for a bag of onions, he says, nodding at the sacks.” (p.34)

Back to the farmer’s market for me! At least I know I can count on the pickers being paid a livable wage.
Jen Boynton headshotJen Boynton

Jen Boynton is the former Editor-in-Chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and has helped organizations including SAP, PwC and Fair Trade USA with their sustainability communications messaging. She is based in San Diego, California. When she's not at work, she volunteers as a CASA (court appointed special advocate) for children in the foster care system. She enjoys losing fights with toddlers and eating toast scraps. She lives with her family in sunny San Diego.

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