American Way of Eating: The Thrilling Conclusion

Regular readers (Hi!) may recall my partial book review of The American Way of Eating, a madcap adventure in the economic realities of food industry workers. And I mean industry workers: vegetable pickers, bagged sauce microwavers, and pallet unpackers. She is very clear: there is no cooking in any of her food industry jobs.

No Molto Mario and barely even the Sandra Lee Semi-Homemade she cites. The head of produce at Walmart knew nothing about produce.

Part 1 described McMillan’s experiences as an ag worker in California’s Central Valley. Heat stroke! Tennis elbow! Generosity as self-interested social practice!

She then worked in the grocery section at a Detroit Walmart and the kitchen of an NYC Applebee’s, the world’s largest grocery store and chain restaurant. These sections were so different that they seemed part of a different book.

Frankly, her experiences at Walmart and Applebee’s were much more familiar. Her coworkers spoke English, she filled out applications and was interviewed before getting hired, and she had some measure of legal protection—including the ability to file a police report after a sexual assault. The mostly undocumented farmworkers who are assaulted don’t have that. The book makes it clear that some of our most basic legal protections are, in fact, luxuries.

These sections were also lighter on the personal narrative and heavier on the Reporting. This made it slower reading, but more enlightening.

For example, as a former business reporter I was aware of grocery store consolidation. But I presumed that this was due to general business pressures. Many industries are consolidating to stay competitive.

Well, silly me.

Grocery stores are the main distributors of produce in our country. Several decades ago, they realized that they’d save much more dough by handling the distribution themselves. This shift in the grocery store business model pressured ever more stores to team up with the big ones and get in on the distribution network. Hello consolidation!

There’s a vast, hidden network of growing, packing, trucking, and unpacking that is central to the grocery business but that we usually don’t see or think about.

Walmart’s success is due to its superior distribution network. Their logistics are so tight that they can offer the lowest prices in the country. But only for shelf-stable food.

It turns out that for produce, their economy of scale doesn’t really work. McMillan used her employee discounts at Walmart to buy produce, but the savings wasn’t worth it. Spinach was mushy. Bell peppers were filled with mold. Tomatoes were pink and watery. The independent store in her neighborhood offered much fresher, tastier produce at lower prices.

She wrote this book while Detroit was on the cusp of a revolution in urban gardening, entrepreneurship, and local distribution networks. Corner stores were motivated to start carrying produce to bring in SNAP buyers. A few independent folks started building their own private distribution networks to these stores. Meaning: a guy in a van goes to the wholesale market, buys stuff for liquor stores, and drives it around to them till mid-morning.

She set out to figure out why there were food deserts in cities. Instead, she discovered this bustling world of food innovation and local entrepreneurship.

But she does thinly discuss the food desert concept: grocery stores felt that lower income people wouldn’t spend enough to warrant the investments in building grocery stores there and bringing in the distribution networks. That’s slowly changing now, but as of a few years ago, lower income urban people like her landlord were spending gas money driving to the suburbs for Walmart’s lower prices on shelf-stable food. While she was there, she’d buy fresh food, but it was never good. Why bother? Consequently, she just didn’t eat as much produce.

That’s a really compelling explanation of why we don’t get as much fresh produce as we should to stay healthy. Much more compelling than the standard: the working poor just don’t know enough about food to make healthier choices.

Her personal narrative also makes very clear how difficult it is to eat well on minimum wage (or less, in the case of the field workers). She couldn’t afford to buy ahead, couldn’t take the time to buy fresh food in smaller amounts more frequently. And she was often too tired to cook. She writes with astonishment at how poor her diet was during this investigation. But she could not have managed another way.

Her own experience bolsters her broader agenda: to change the very premise of our discussion about class and food. It’s not that lower income people don’t want to eat healthier, or don’t know that fast food is bad for them. Instead, it’s about access. Too often healthier choices are much harder to make, and not just because of money. By increasing access to produce—either on the local level, like Detroit’s urban gardeners are doing, or nationally, by changing policy—healthier choices would be easier for families to make.

She also blames our food and health problems on a widespread lack of food literacy. Like, at her Walmart, produce section staffers didn’t know what ripeness looked like, or even what certain vegetables looked like. Many people turn to boxed food because they don’t know how to make the meal from scratch—which would be cheaper and take no more time. She’s right about this, but remedies seem much harder to implement. I don’t think cooking classes would be the first on the list when we finally fix the perpetual emergency of our public schools.

I could quibble about some things: the unwieldy, confusing endnotes, the missed chances to pursue other investigative avenues (responses from Walmart or Applebee’s corporate?), the slightly stiffer prose of the Walmart section.

But this is the only non-fiction book I’ve completed, for fun, since graduate school. It gave me a broader, more complete understanding of where my food comes from and why our system is set up this way. It helped me see specifically, in lived experience, the costs and benefits of this system. It taught me more about the realities of low-wage labor (just about the only thing, besides premise, that it had in common with Nickle and Dimed). And how the system depends on low-wage labor.

If you don’t want to read it, you can call me. I’ll talk you through it. But it’s stuff that everyone should know.

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2 thoughts on “American Way of Eating: The Thrilling Conclusion

  1. […] Orlean’s Rin Tin Tin book (it got a bit dull when the first two Rin Tin Tins died) and all of The American Way of Eating. Plus Jessica Valenti’s Why Have Kids?, which I […]

  2. […] Susan Orlean, Tracie McMillan, Jessica Valenti: nonfiction that I am very glad I […]

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