What Are We Really Eating? Reporter Goes Undercover to Reveal the Real Story of Our Broken Food System
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Tracie McMillan's The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table takes us on a vivid and poignant tour of a place we don't really want to go: the mostly hidden, sometimes horrible world of the workers who form the backbone of our cheap, industrialized food chain. Sound grim? It is, at times, but McMillan's lively narrative and evident empathy for the people she encounters make her sojourn into the bowels of Big Food and Big Ag a pleasure to read.
From the fields of California's Central Valley to the produce aisle of a Michigan Walmart, and lastly, the kitchen of a Brooklyn Applebee's, McMillan gives a firsthand account of the long hours, lousy wages and difficult conditions that are par for the course in these places. This is tricky terrain for a white, relatively privileged middle-class American woman, and McMillan navigates it with grace and humility, remaining acutely aware of the pitfalls inherent in such a project.
I sat down with McMillan recently to chat about her populist odyssey and found her to be just as down-to-earth and plucky as her prose.
Kerry Trueman: What was the hardest part of going undercover?
Tracie McMillan: This was the first time I had gone undercover to do work like that, because I believe very strongly in the importance of being upfront with people about what you're doing and who you are and I am not a good actress (laughs). So the place where I was culturally the least good of a fit, in the fields, I was really protected by the fact that I didn't speak the language. I just seemed like a kind of dumb white girl, and that was really helpful.
The first thing was getting over my anxiety over doing that kind of project and coming to terms with it. It meant that I had to be dishonest with my coworkers. I don't really care so much that I'm not honest with the companies. It's very interesting, the same year that I was working at Walmart during the holiday season, Stephanie Rosenbloom at the New York Times went and worked for a day at a Walmart with the company's permission, and she had a very different experience than I did.
And that's why you do it. Companies and supervisors do not treat you the same, and coworkers won't be as honest with you, or as open. I've come out of this very convinced that undercover work is worthwhile, but it's a complicated thing. There's a tendency to think "I can totally do this, and how else can I get this information?" but I also understand why people react badly to it sometimes.
So there was the undercover thing, and then there was finding the right balance between my narrative and talking about the people I was with. It's not supposed to be about me as a white girl having that experience; the idea is that I can only tell my story and what I observed, but I'm using that to get to the stories of the other people around me.
KT: You found that farm work in California's Central Valley was extremely demanding, sometimes dangerous, and routinely underpaid. What do you think it would take to provide the people who pick our crops with better working conditions and paychecks that don't deliberately shortchange them?
TM: I was typically working alongside undocumented immigrants. You always hear the stories about how undocumented immigrants work for very low wages and how they get treated. It's one thing to hear about it, it's another thing to see how terrified everybody is, how unwilling they are to say anything.