Kitchen Nightmares

So asks a Brooklyn teenager in the question at the heart of Tracie McMillan’s ambitious The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. Writers on food rarely focus on why people eat what they do when their choices are scant. McMillan, a journalist who has long covered a poverty beat, wants to know how it is that the American food system fails to yield accessible fresh food for people of modest means. Against the notion that such people just aren’t sufficiently committed to healthy food, she argues that “we need to examine how to make it easier to eat well.”

To find out what the poor are up against, she went undercover. Echoing Barbara Ehrenreich, she picked crops in California, slogged through shifts at two Michigan Walmarts, and choreographed kitchen activity at a Brooklyn Applebee’s, keeping close track of her earnings and food expenditures (and sometimes her struggles to keep afloat) while turning a sharp eye on the institutions she worked for.

Many of her experiences are appalling. At Applebee’s, she witnesses flakes of melted plastic in the vegetables and is asked to relabel the use-by dates on expired rice. At Walmart, rotting produce piles up; a youthful manager appears to know little about fruits and vegetables despite being in charge of half the town’s produce supply.

The most memorable section is McMillan’s account of working alongside migrant laborers in California. There she develops heat sickness, is guided to lie about having taken a food-safety course, and is given toxic lubricants with which to spray her crop-cutting scissors; at one point, she shares housing and a sinkless bathroom with 13 other people. In an account of picking in a field supplying The Garlic Company, she takes ironic note of the company’s claims to ethics-conscious customers that it “controls everything, from field to shelf.” Yet among other abuses, the company’s farm-labor contractor routinely underreports workers’ hours, including hers, to skirt minimum-wage laws.

Beyond McMillan’s admirable field work, The American Way of Eating is a meticulously referenced text on the American food system, with a particular focus on the unsexy but crucial topic of food distribution. She includes well-researched mini-essays on the histories of supermarkets, convenience foods, and processed foods; the rise of automated cooking in restaurants; and Walmart and its single-buyer market power. Along the way, she touches on related topics like labor law, crop subsidies, and irrigation practices. Despite the book’s flaws—similar material is sometimes spread piecemeal among different chapters, and there are some awkward transitions and superfluous anecdotes—it works, not least because the author takes care to reveal her own biases and point of view. (It’s worth noting that McMillan is not a member of the vegetarian, paleo-dieter, Slow Foodist, locavore, or any other foodie school. She just wants people to be able to afford fresh food.)

McMillan argues for changes to more than just the food system: “Wages, health care, work hours, and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop.” She suggests issuing coupons for fresh produce, citing the popular program that allows food-stamp recipients to spend their credits at farmers’ markets; offering cooking classes in public education (“leaving those skills to chance strikes me as short-sighted”), and emphasizing large-scale agroecology over industrial agriculture. Perhaps most urgently, she suggests some public control over food distribution. Unlike other shared resources like roads or electricity, she writes, “food is one of the only base human needs where the American government lets the private market dictate its delivery to our communities.” But food, she points out, “is not a luxury lifestyle product. It is a social good.”

Jenny Blair is a writer, editor, and M.D. Her website is www.jennyblair.com.