39 pages 1 hour read

Tracie McMillan

The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table

Nonfiction | Book | Adult | Published in 2012

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Summary and Study Guide


The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table is a 2012 non-fiction book written by American journalist Tracie McMillan. By zeroing in on three aspects of the American food system—farm, supermarket, and family restaurant—McMillan, who has reported extensively on food and social equity, investigates how and why healthy meals are out of reach for so many Americans, despite the fact that food is abundant in America. She argues that America has not treated access to healthy food like the essential service it is, and that tackling the disparities in access will require addressing the complex reasons people eschew healthy meals. The book has won several awards, including the Sidney Hillman Prize for Book Journalism and a Books for a Better Life Award. This guide refers to the First Scribner hardcover edition.

Before McMillan turns to her year in the American food system, she explains her own relationship with food. As the child of a lower-middle-class Michigan family, McMillan grew up thinking that farm-fresh food was for fancy people—in other words, for upper-class snobs. In college, her experience working as a nanny for affluent families exposes her to the joys of high-quality produce, an experience that’s echoed by that of a teenager named Vanessa whom McMillan meets while reporting on a cooking class. Vanessa appreciates the importance of healthy food and loves fresh vegetables but can’t afford to buy them. Wondering why, if healthy food is so important, it isn’t more affordable, McMillan starts down a path to uncover what it would take to ensure access to healthy food for all.

Part 1 documents McMillan’s time laboring alongside other fieldworkers in California’s Central Valley, the site of much of the agricultural production in the United States. After struggling to find work, McMillan secures a job picking grapes, for which she earns just $26 on her first nine-hour day. This is partially due to McMillan’s unfamiliarity with the work, which makes her slower than the other workers, but even for more experienced laborers the wages are low, as they’re paid a piece rate that rarely adds up to minimum wage. Moving on to peaches and then garlic, McMillan finds little improvement in pay, which remains barely enough to meet her expenses; she survives thanks to the generosity of fellow workers (and landlords). McMillan sustains a repetitive strain injury after two weeks of cutting garlic and is forced to stop, prompting her to reflect on how her status as a white American citizen with an education allows her to seek out other work, a privilege many of her fellow fieldworkers do not share.

In Part 2, McMillan investigates supermarkets, as exemplified by Walmart Supercenters. Supermarkets are an under-examined aspect of the food system, McMillan argues, but they’re the way the vast majority of Americans procure their food. McMillan works in the grocery section at a Walmart in Michigan, which in this case largely means stocking shelves with processed food. Processed food is key to the development of supermarkets in general, and of Walmart in particular, McMillan tells us, as the invention of food that doesn’t spoil allowed large retailers to buy in bulk, giving them a competitive advance over small grocers. When McMillan switches to the produce department, she learns this competitive advantage doesn’t quite apply to fruits and vegetables. Walmart does have strategies for extending the life of produce, however, and McMillan’s job in the produce department consists of trimming the ends of wilting vegetables and removing rotting parts to make produce appear more fresh. McMillan ends up throwing away a significant quantity of rotting food.

In the final part, McMillan finds a job as an expediter in a Brooklyn Applebee’s, the largest chain restaurant in America. As she spends time in the kitchen, McMillan is surprised to learn that the pre-packaged meals are mostly cooked in the microwave. In this way, they resemble the boxed meals of McMillan’s childhood, causing her to reflect that the appeal of processed food, whether in a restaurant or at home, isn’t so much that it saves people time or even money, but that it removes the need to plan a meal, eliminating a source of stress from people’s lives.

In the conclusion, McMillan makes an argument for why healthy food should be seen as a human right, and why it’s too important to be left to the private market to provide.  While McMillan doesn’t offer any one solution to fix the disparities in access, she offers solutions that correspond to the various reasons people don’t eat well: higher wages, working conditions that allow people time and energy to cook, smaller-scale agriculture and food distribution networks with some measure of public control, and cooking classes.