The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

October 1, 2012

Patty Crane: Journalist’s jobs in food business chronicled in book

By Patty Crane
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — In “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table,” journalist Tracie McMillan takes a year to work in various parts of the food industry. She works two months at each job, lives off the wages she earns and stays with the people with whom she works.

The premise intrigued me -- I could experience vicariously other jobs and ways of life.

But this book is much more than a foray into other jobs. It’s a mix of real life with a hefty dose of research into the way our food network forces some Americans to eat the way they do.

McMillan first began to wonder about how America eats covering poverty for a New York City magazine. Her assumption was that eating healthy was too expensive. She was raised to believe that healthy meals made from scratch were for “fancy people.”

Then she was assigned to report on a cooking class offered by a youth services agency and met Vanessa, a high school student who knows what foods are good for her and even likes fresh fruits and vegetables.

But for Vanessa, cost is not the only thing preventing her from eating a healthy diet. A lack of choice and time figure just as prominently into her food choices. For Vanessa, it was easier to find junk food in her neighborhood than healthy food.

This book is the result of McMillan’s quest to understand why.

She first began to explore food choices in her own neighborhood, then the city. What she discovered is that there are very few supermarkets in the city and the poorest neighborhoods have the fewest.

These food deserts, a community with insufficient grocery stores for its population, exist across the country (check out the United States Department of Agriculture website for the food desert locator map). So why, in a country where it is far easier to eat well than in most of the rest of the world, do we have difficulty obtaining healthy foods?

Her quest for answers begins in the fields of California. It takes her a week to find her first job as a grape picker. From there she moves on to peaches and garlic.

For each job she details what she does, how she gets hired, where the food she picks is going and a history of the industry. But the really interesting part of these jobs and the others she takes is her interactions with the people with whom she works and lives. Despite the scholarly tone of some this book, McMillan does a good job capturing the essence of the people she works with in her various jobs.

In the California fields she finds people who are barely making enough to feed and shelter their families sharing what they have with her. They help her find jobs and then help her do the jobs when she is slow or the work is too much. They befriend her, feed her and in some cases offer her a place to stay.

Her next stop along the path of food is the store. She chooses to try her luck at a Wal-Mart produce department in Michigan. She chose Wal-Mart because it is the top-selling grocer in the United States, providing 22 percent of all groceries sold in this country.

She eventually gets a job stocking shelves in a Wal-Mart on the outskirts of Kalamazoo, Mich. She leaves this job abruptly when she realizes that a move to the produce department is unlikely.

Her next Wal-Mart job, in a suburb of Detroit, is in produce and for those who shop at Wal-Mart McMillan may give you more insight than you want about how produce is handled.

Her last stop on the food path is an Applebee’s restaurant in Brooklyn, N.Y. She works as an expediter who “dresses” the plates, groups the orders for the table and keeps the food moving from the kitchen to server. As with the other jobs, you find out about food preparation and distribution in the restaurant industry, as well as her experience working at the restaurant and living in New York City on the wages she earns.

This informative book has an extensive bibliography for further exploration and may make you take a closer look at the way you eat.

Patty Crane is the reference librarian at Joplin Public Library.