The American Way of Eating Summary

Tracie McMillan

The American Way of Eating

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The American Way of Eating Summary

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Tracie McMillan’s The American Way of Eating investigates the American “foodscape” – from industrial farming to cooperative markets to fast food and chain restaurants to the dinner table of Americans of all classes. McMillan, who came from a lower middle-class family and was taught that fresh vegetables were “fancy” food is interested in the way that class and food culture are woven together in American culture, and how the high cost of fresh, healthy food impacts millions of Americans, particularly those in inner-cities and below the poverty line.

McMillan’s quest began when a magazine she was working for in New York assigned a story about a program that taught low-income kids in New York City neighborhoods with limited access to farmer’s markets how to cook with fresh produce. Vanessa, an eighteen-year-old who loved the class and enjoyed cooking with fresh vegetables, was disappointed by the limited food options readily available to her. Rather than having access to farmer’s markets, or even stores with fresh vegetables, Vanessa knew that she was stuck with Whoppers and boxed food from supermarkets. She asked McMillan, “If you want people to eat healthy, why make it so expensive?”

McMillan was troubled, even haunted by this question, which made her reconsider food culture in New York City, where rich Manhattanites purchased heirloom tomatoes at exorbitant prices. She decided to undertake an investigation of food, where it comes from, and where it ends up. To discover the true food culture of the working and lower classes, McMillan went undercover in three different stages of food processing – an industrial farm in California, as a produce clerk at Wal-Mart, America’s largest grocery store, and as an employee at Applebees, the largest sit-down chain restaurant in the world.

McMillan begins her journey at a garlic farm in California, where she is paid by how much she picks rather than the hourly minimum wage of $8 an hour. She works alongside almost exclusively undocumented immigrants, and after a week of repetitive, backbreaking labor, she receives a meager $204 paycheck for the week. Unsurprisingly, McMillan’s coworkers begin giving her suggestions to supplement her food costs – during the week, McMillan is living on cheese sandwiches and diet coke because that’s all she can afford. She learns from her coworkers that many of them regularly visit the food pantry to supplement their groceries, which is the only way they can afford to both eat and live.

At Wal-Mart, McMillan works as a produce clerk and makes the relatively unsurprising discovery that despite claiming they are bringing fresh food to the poor, Wal-Mart offers poor quality vegetables at a cost that is actually higher, on average, than the nearby local market. As a produce clerk, McMillan spends most of her time “crisping” the vegetables – essentially, trimming off wilted or rotted bits of lettuce or greens, and making the food appear as “fresh” as possible in order to attract customers. McMillan makes it clear that Wal-Mart’s method, which works for dry goods and other products, fails when it comes to fresh food. You cannot, McMillan claims, buy in bulk and sell off slowly when it comes to produce – the quality just isn’t there. McMillan is also deeply skeptical of Wal-Mart moving into rural and low-income areas and putting other markets out of business due to their low cost. She is not convinced that once they become the only food source in these areas, they won’t raise their prices, making even this low quality produce off-limits for most people living in poverty.

Finally, McMillan moves on to Applebees, America’s largest chain restaurant, which merged with IHOP in the mid-2000s. At Applebees, McMillan works as a food “expediter,” where she learns that nearly everything in the restaurant comes pre-cooked and frozen, and is reheated in microwaves or thawed and served. This isn’t necessarily surprising given fast-food culture, but the difference is that Applebees charges a much higher rate for the food they serve – McMillan, for example, compares a $17 peppercorn steak dish to one she could make at home in the same amount of time, which she estimates would cost her about $4. From this experience, McMillan learns that the appeal of Applebees is not food quality, but rather the middle-class ideal that customers can afford to eat out. It also is similar in many ways to America’s fast food culture – going to Applebees for dinner is easier than deciding what to eat, going to the grocery store, and cooking that same food, even if the cost is significantly lower and the end result significantly healthier and more delicious.

Though McMillan didn’t get many positive results or offer much in the way of solutions in her book, she did uncover that the working class desires access to fresh food – they just aren’t getting it. Though not surprising, she does highlight a significant problem with food access in America, which she hopes will force readers to rethink the privilege they have around food and the value of programs that provide fresh food to areas in need.