Welcome Tracie McMillan (TracieMcMillan.com) (HuffingtonPost)and Host TBogg (blog-TBogg)

[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]

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

….UC Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin explains that labor costs vary widely, from 1 to 2 per pound for harvesting oranges and tomatoes to 20 to 30 percent of production costs for apples and lettuce. On average, however, if farm wages were allowed to rise 40 percent, and all costs were passed on to consumers, Martin estimates the cost to the average household at a maximum of $16 per year.

- Tracie McMillan (The American Way Of Eating)

In her landmark book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America published in 2001, journalist Barbara Ehrenreich went undercover working in a series of minimum wage jobs (waitress, nursing-home aide, maid, etc.) to learn what life is like for the “working poor” in America. For most of those thrown off the welfare rolls, women in particular, these were the jobs that were available to teach the former welfare recipients the “dignity” of work. What Ehrenreich found was demanding and exhausting work paying sub-poverty wages so low that workers could scarcely afford to feed and shelter themselves, no job security, no benefits, and no future.

Eleven years later in The American Way Of Eating Tracie McMillan has traced a similar path, only this time exploring the economic and societal implications of how we grow our food, harvest it, ship it, and market it in America. Why do Americans make so many bad food choices? Why do we eat so poorly? What is a “food desert” and why do we have them? The answers reside in the ever more powerful supermarkets with their massive infrastructure and distribution systems which have displaced the local grocers, and with the cookie cutter restaurant chains where the food is not so much cooked as it is assembled from pre-packaged portions which are microwaved and served to a clientele who want a night away from their own kitchens where they, most likely, would have been emptying a salad bag into a bowl while a frozen packaged entree slowly spins in the microwave. Combine that with a populace who increasingly know less about the food they eat and seemingly spend more time watching cooking shows on TV and cooking less because they “don’t have enough time” and we have serious food issues in America.

Beginning her journey in the San Joaquin Valley, where her Hispanic co-workers can’t understand why a young white woman is picking grapes with them instead of working in an office, Tracie works in 100+ degree weather for nine hours a day netting $26 in pay (until 1980 farm workers were not entitled to minimum wage, which is not to say that even today growers don’t have ways around that, because they do). Then it is on to handpicking peaches where workers are paid $22 for a 1000lb. crate which works out to 2.2 cents per pound. And then the garlic fields of slightly cooler Salinas where the work is no less intensive and no better paying and, like in the inland valley, the workers are forced to combine their meager resources (at one time Tracie lives in a ramshackle one-bathroom house with fourteen other people) to survive from day to day with no guarantee of work the next day.

Following the trail of food, Tracie then moves to a Detroit Walmart (Walmart accounts for approximately 26% of grocery sales in America – more than the next three chains combined) where, after a mind-numbing stint in baking supplies, Tracie is able to land a job in the produce department where the employees are more tightly managed than the quality of food sold. Here, once again overworked and underpaid, Tracie learns the fine art of resuscitating less than fresh produce; trimming off the early signs of spoilage and “crisping”, a method for re-hydrating wilting produce. Along the way, we discover that Walmart, whose produce may not be the freshest, is also not necessarily the low price leader when it comes healthy produce and fruits.

Last stop is an Applebee’s (the nations largest full service restaurant chain) in Flatbush where in yet another low paying job that does not pay a wage that can keep a single person afloat, Tracie works as an expediter combining elements, dispensed by “cooks” (average annual salary: $22,140) but who more likely resemble assembly line workers, into presentable plates of food for people who would rather leave their home, travel and then pay someone else, to cite an example, $16.99 for a plate of food that they could make at home with fresher ingredients for $3.72 … if they only took the time to learn how to shop and cook better.

Outside of the personal story of a young single woman struggling to get by working low paying, demanding and in many ways dangerous work, there is much to take away from The American Way Of Eating. Tracie McMillan doesn’t have the answers to our food ills (low wages for the workers, unhealthy eating habits, infrastructure not conducive to supplying fresh food to all Americans, food ignorance, too much farmland dedicated to grains and not enough to fruits and vegetables), but who does? But she poses more questions than Applebee’s has entrees and we would be wise to have a national discussion about food in America because, as Tracie McMillan explains:

Distributing our food solely through private networks makes sense only if you think of food as a consumer good, looking solely at the meal before you. But if you change your perspective and see fresh food for what it is – a social good and a human right – it makes far more sense to have a little public control over its distribution. Just as we ensure water and electricity gets to nearly every American, it makes sense to ensure that every American can access fresh and healthy food too.

166 Responses to “FDL Book Salon Welcomes Tracie McMillan, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table”

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Tracie, Welcome to the Lake.

Toby – Thank you for Hosting until Tom is here.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 1:51 pm

Welcome Tracie – welcome everyone on this (well, at least at my house) sunny Sunday. Tracie – let’s start from the very beginning – what made you decide to take this food journey?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:01 pm

Hey, thanks for having me.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

Basically, I decided to go work my way through the food system for a few reasons.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:02 pm

The most visceral one is that I grew up in a white working-class community, and worked as a poverty reporter,and then about six eyars ago started hearing people say – and this is a paraphrase – “People need to prioritize their meals, and care about their food, and so they should pay more for it and they should cook more.” And people would say this as if the only thing standing between my disabled black vet superintendent in Bed-Stuy and an organic roast chicken was his priorities (or lack thereof). And it made me nuts. So I wanted to do a project that could really dig into the daily reality of how Americans eat when time and money are an issue.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:03 pm

My pleasure. It might be just a couple of us for a bit – but let’s get started. For those of us who have not had the opportunity yet to read your book, what made you decide to take this food journey?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:03 pm

But I’m also trained as a reporter, and wanted a framework to explore the internal logic of industrial food. I felt like I was hearing a lot about the ways we could farm and eat differently — but that hardly any of it engaged with how we got here in the first place. So I wanted to see what the food system looked like from the ground up.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

(ooof: i think there’s a little time-lapse issue here. hope folks can follow)

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:04 pm

I’m sure every different ‘adventure’ in this project held some real surprises – what what the thing that shocked you the most? That upset and worried you the most?

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 2:05 pm

As a technical note,
there is a “Reply” button in the lower right hand of each comment. Pressing the “Reply” will pre-fill the commenter name and number you are replying to and helps for everyone in following the conversation.

(Note: If you’ve had to refresh your browser, Reply may not work correctly unless you wait for the page to complete loading)

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:06 pm
In response to Tracie McMillan @ 7

How we got here? Wow. Sometimes I think the the issue revolves around the American mythology of ‘cheap food and lots of it.’ I’m still trying to wrap my head around where that came from.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:06 pm
In response to BevW @ 10

Ah, got it, techwise. Sorry ’bout that.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:08 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 9

Well, let’s start with the most surprising things.
The biggest surprise — and this feels naive to me now — was just that it’s very normal for farm workers to earn far less than mininum wage. As i write in the book, I was earning $2-$4 an hour, being paid $1.60 for every 5-gallon bucket of garlic i could pick. This was highly organized, reflected in paychecks and payroll records. That really shocked me.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:09 pm

And the more I dug into that farm work — trying to figure out what chemicals had been sprayed on the field next to the one I was workign in, identifying the name of the farm/ranch on which I was working — the more it felt like I was in a place where laws did not, in practice, apply.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Now, if we head over to Walmart, where I worked in grocery and produce, I was just really surprised as how little training my colleagues and I received when it came to handling the produce section.

TBogg May 6th, 2012 at 2:10 pm

Just wanted to pop in from wetlands that is now my home and apologize for not being available…. but while I’m here: one thing that struck me about the book was the average American’s poor food knowledge. Many people don’t even know what to look for in fresh produce and fruits, much less how to cook them. We know less than our parents who, in all likelihood, knew less than their parents.

I’m particularly concerned about people my daughter’s age who think they can “nuke” a meal in the microwave and if the sodium content isn’t high, think they’re eating healthy.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

Ah – I think this gets to the mythology of ‘cheap food’ – working back from what consumers pay(and we aren’t even including tax payer paid agricultural subsidies, which fruit and veggie growers get far less of than do grain growers) and the number of times food gets ‘handled’ between the field and the grocer’s shelf, it almost dictates that the people who actually pick the produce be paid poorly.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:12 pm

In the town I was working, Walmart was one of two big grocery stores, so it was effectively half the town’s food supply. And yet the person running the produce section was a 20-year-old kid who didnt know ANYTHING about produce, and didn’t know how to organize things, and it felt like I was stuck in some Kafka-esque take on a produce department. And the quality was just plain bad; I threw out 200 lbs of asparagus in a day because it had been left for a month in the cooler.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:13 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 17

About this mythology of cheap food….

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:14 pm

What I found was that about 16% of the cost of food at the store goes to the FARM, and so only a subset of that — maybe 5% of the retail price — goes to farm workers.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:14 pm
In response to TBogg @ 16

TBogg — this is an issue that Jamie Oliver (whether you love him or hate him) has been grappling with ever since he got started. No one knows anything about food – how much they need to buy, what they need to buy, how to prep it, how to cook it. Families have been seduced into convenience since my parents’ day – it just gets worse and worse.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Food hasn’t gotten cheap just because of pressure on farmers, but because of all the consolidation in the supermarket industry. Big chains like Walmart pretty much control the movement of food from farm to plate, and that’s where a lot of the cost savings come from for them — it’s how they expand their profit margin.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:15 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 21

Toby, TBOgg: There’s a degree to which I think Oliver’s right, and a degree to which he’s not.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:15 pm

Do you think that the reason Walmart had a 20 year old produce manager was because they are not willing to pay for someone with some actual produce knowledge and experience? Or is it because those people get moved on into management and no one bothers to train the kids?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:16 pm

There is a real lack of fluency in the kitchen, for sure. But there’s also a lot of existing cooking knowledge that gets skimmed over.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:16 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 24

Toby, about the produce manager: I just think that — at least at the Walmart I was working at — there wasn’t a sense that produce was any different than sneakers.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:17 pm

And yeah, Walmart’s reluctance to hire folks full-time and keep training them well for departments — that’s going to have a huge effect onthe quality of food in the produce section.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:18 pm

Tracie – I also think that this also enables multi-national conglomerates like Monsanto and Dow to browbeat government entities and farmers into using their seed and their chemicals – “without us, you can’t produce the huge amounts of food necessary to keep the costs down for consumers!”

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:19 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 28

Toby — what’s really interesting is that the UN has started researching agricultural productivity outside of the big conglomerate models.

TBogg May 6th, 2012 at 2:19 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 28

To say nothing of genetically altering things like tomatoes to have tougher skins so that they can be machine harvested.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

And what they’re finding is taht “agroecology” can be quite productive, and not nearly as land and resource intensive as ‘conventional’ ag. The tricky part is that it DOES usually require more labor.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:20 pm

Well, I think you are right – I think Walmart has a retail business model and it doesn’t change whether they are selling jars of pickles, sneakers, TV sets, bicycles or cucumbers. Selling produce requires a LOT of attention to detail (quality, quality maintenance)and I don’t think Walmart’s business model is based on having knowledgeable employees who are paying that much close attention. Except of course, if the veggies and fruit need to be spiffed up a bit, right?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:21 pm

The push towards developing food that doesn’t need human involvement is a really tricky issue. I can’t say I’ve done lots of research into it — but, at a visceral level, I feel pretty wary of it.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:21 pm

Rodale has done a lot of research on that – they have a 30-year study that they just keep on doing.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:22 pm

About the Walmart produce — I have to say, I was really overwhelmed with how complicated a produce section is.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 2:23 pm

How much “profit” is there in produce for Walmart? Is produce being there more of a convenience for the shoppers vs real profit?

Phoenix Woman May 6th, 2012 at 2:23 pm

Tracie, what I liked about your description of your Applebees’ co-workers is that they (or at least most) were themselves cooks — they knew what was good and what wasn’t, it’s just that their jobs and schedules didn’t allow for making good food. It’s not as if people at the bottom of the wage ladder aren’t interested in good food — they are, but there are barriers to their having it all the time.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:23 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 34

Yeah, the Rodale research is realy interesting. But, again, I didn’t delve too deep into that so can’t really comment on it; I was trying to rein in the narrative to focus on what I was seeing directly.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:24 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 37

Hi, Phoenix Woman, thanks for commenting. And yeah, I was interested to see how much even my co-workers at Applebee’s appreciated good food.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:24 pm

Tracie – I have very strong feelings about America’s love affair with going out to eat. I think it’s more complicated than just ‘two-earner households.’ What about you? What did you see at Applebees?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:24 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 37

Honestly, I would have expected folks working in that kitchen environment to be kind of embittered and apathetic about food — that kind of job seems like a real breeding ground for that.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Tracie – were your co-workers at Applebees trained cooks? Were any of them graduates of culinary programs?

Elliott May 6th, 2012 at 2:25 pm

Good healthy eating habits start from the very beginning. Hard to keep it up in our advertized fast food world.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:26 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 40

Well, eating out at Applebee’s seemed like a treat for folks.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

Toby — I do’nt think anyone I worked with at Applebee’s had gone to culinary school, at least not one of great standing. FOlks might have gone to a culinary program at a local community college, even if I didn’t know it.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

But a job at Applebee’s is like a first step into a culinary career. In fact, that’s how I explained my application: “I’m thinking about going to cooking school and I want to see if I like working in kitchens before I do that.”

masaccio May 6th, 2012 at 2:28 pm

I was in France for several months, and I went regularly to the weekly markets around Paris. The food came in fresh from the farm. I specifically remember buying carrots from a guy from Normandy, still coated with dirt, and so tender that we didn’t even have to peel them.

The cheeses were made on farms and sold from trucks by the makers. The butcher shops had an array of meats and charcuterie that would shame my Whole Foods.

I have pictures of fields in Burgundy, rolling hills with a few dozen sheep and a few dozen cattle ruminating around a tree covered stream.

The French pay more for food, including a large VAT, but it is worth it.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:29 pm
In response to masaccio @ 47

Masaccio, thanks for bringing up France, because I think it’s a really important comparison.

TBogg May 6th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

It doesn’t seem like much training when it’s pretty much grill this and microwave that. I guess all they learn is the pace.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:29 pm

That’s an interesting take – a lot of criticism has been placed at the doorsteps of America’s working moms – “if you were taking the time to cook a decent meal, we wouldn’t have (pick your issue – obesity, divorce, violence..).” But you are saying that what you saw were people who were giving themselves a treat. So, it isn’t convenience or lack of time.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:29 pm
In response to masaccio @ 47

That kind of food system isn’t just because “French people like food.” I”m pretty sute it’s also because there’s public support, in terms of funding, to help those markets happen.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:30 pm
In response to masaccio @ 47

From an economic standpoint – do you have a feel for what percentage of income the French pay for their food?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:30 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 50

Hi Toby, I think Applebee’s in particular is a treat — it is NOT cheap.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:31 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 52

I believe the French pay about 20 percent of their income on food — at least that was the case in 2007, which was the last year I could find comparative numbers for.

Phoenix Woman May 6th, 2012 at 2:32 pm

Tracie, if you plan to write further on this, may I suggest bringing rural areas into the discussion? It’s astonishing how much of farm country is a “food desert”, as explained here: http://blog.lib.umn.edu/draeg001/regionalpartnerships/2012/02/everyday-heroes-behind-the-sce.html

With various “get big or get out” pressures on rural America — towns that are “too small” risk losing their post offices just as farms that are “too small” can’t get USDA loans — it seems as if there’s a push favoring Big Ag just as we’re finding that Big Ag is hazardous to our long-term health.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:33 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 55

Hi, yes rural areas are a really key part of the discussion — about food, and about just about anything about American development. Our rural areas are really struggling right now, especieally because the mid-size farms that can provide a living have been squeezed out.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

On an individual item basis, I have the feeling that the French are getting much better food for their 20% than a lot of families in this country are getting, no matter how ‘cheap’ it is.

Peterr May 6th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Tracie, I’m only halfway through your book, and it seems as if each couple of pages there’s a new nugget that grabs me.

In some places I’ve lived, I’ve done most of my produce shopping at a produce market. St. Louis has Soulard Market, and Berkeley has the Monterey Market. In other places, however, produce has been a supermarket purchase — and even there, it’s been hit or miss.

When I move to a new place, one of my measuring sticks for a new store is whether their produce people actually know anything about what they are putting on the shelves. Similarly, I’m stunned when I go to the checkout line at the supermarket and the clerk has to ask me “what’s that?” in order to ring me up.

Even so, your book has been an eyeopener. Thanks!

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Hi Tracie, thank you for writing The American Way of Eating and for spending time here today.

I’ve worked in food production for quite a long while (starting on the cooking/serving end in college and over the years working backwards to the soil/seed end). Your book is a great read on such an important topic. I appreciate your efforts.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:35 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 57

Toby – I did look for better comparative info about France vs. US and food, but the data is just really scant. Particularly something around ‘quality.’ But even around price.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:36 pm
In response to Peterr @ 58

oh, wow, thanks, Peterr.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

And thanks to you, too, gunsbeforebutter.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:36 pm

Tracie – I live in Upstate NY and one of the things we see up here is that dairy farmers (who have been the backbone of Upstate NY agriculture for a long time) are abandoning DairyLea and other co-op groups to sell direct. There is a lot of competition for milk now here (courtesy of Chobani which basically has soaked up all liquid milk production within about 50 miles of their production facility. I’ve heard several stories of farmers going back to installing their own bottling plants to sell either direct to consumers or direct to restaurants, little grocery stores and so on.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:37 pm

One more thing about France vs. US:

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:38 pm

I haven’t been able to find comparative data on *real* pricing for food, i.e. a pound of Spinach in France vs in the U.S. I suspect that food may be around the same or cheaper in France, it’s just that their annual avg income is lower. But I have no proof for that as of yet.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:39 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 63

So, Toby: Is that dairy trend good or bad? Are local prices going up? Does it create more stability for dairy farmers?

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 2:39 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 55

Interestingly the National Resource Conservation Service (NRCS)has an overabundance of dollars available to help small farms, especially organic farmers, but for (many) reasons those funds go unclaimed…

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:40 pm

We’d have to ask Masaccio but one of the questions is what percentage of floor space in a French ‘super-marche’ is devoted to convenience foods (frozen prepared items etc.) versus fresh items? The advice we’re all being given in the US these days is to shop the perimeter of the store – which basically leaves at least half of the floor space in prepared foods.

masaccio May 6th, 2012 at 2:41 pm

There is tremendous support for French farming, even at the expense of Free Trade (suppressing a gasp). The French have many family farms, real farms. They now have some factory farming, but as I remember the figures, over 70% of farms are still relatively small operations.

Some of the best food in the world is in small towns in the Dordogne Valley, where our ancestors from the Magdalenian culture lived for thousands of years, feasting off the local produce. We ate at a hotel once where you could see the white and green asparagus fields out the window. You could see wild asparagus in the valleys below the caves where our ancestors produced stunning cave paintings.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:41 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 68

One really interesting thing about the AMerican supermarket is that it was developed explicitly to sell industrial food

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:42 pm
In response to masaccio @ 69

Right, the support for agriculture in France — both in terms of popular opinion and public funding — is pretty key.

TBogg May 6th, 2012 at 2:43 pm

There is a chain of supermarkets (about 35 stores) that has opened in Southern California called Vallarta’s which caters to the overwhelming Hispanic market. What I have found is their produce is fresher and their meat is way better with actuall butchers on hand and, best of all, their prices are about 20% less than Ralphs/Krogers/Vons in the area. They also have a fresh bakery on hand as well as a tortillaria. The stores are immaculate and very well staffed with knowledgeable people.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Selling direct (that is, having their own dairy stores) is something that was pretty prevalent in Upstate NY until the early 60s, when the ‘we’ll buy up and market your milk for you and you’ll get a consistent price’ movement took over. What dairy farmers have faced is that the costs of production never are less than what the Co-op is willing to pay them. And if they can sell milk to consumers at the same price that consumers are paying in the grocery store, they can make money. And if they produce auxiliary products like cottage cheese, yoghurt, and ice cream, then this is all to the good. we have a dairy farm that sells all sorts of cheese at our local farmers market – she is getting a good dollar for her cheese and this is up here in our little metro – she is not looking for shelf space in Gristidi’s in Manhatten.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:44 pm

Back to the supermarket: One of the most fascinating things for me to find out was that supermarkets, as an industry, rely on processed food. ANd that’s really how/why Walmart has been able to build so much market share.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:46 pm
In response to TBogg @ 72

We tend tot hink of supermarkets as following the basic rule we all learned in elementary school economics: Each product is sold at a price that makes a profit above what it cost to produce it. But supermarkets do NOT work like that.

Peterr May 6th, 2012 at 2:46 pm

I love the way the book bounces seamlessly between the narrative of working and getting by, the narrative of the legal/political system, and the overall context of how produce fits into the larger economy.

For instance, in telling about country of origin labeling on the shelves, Tracie notes that her supervisor Randy remarks that you can get a $25,000 fine if you don’t have it up. A well-crafted footnote includes the observation that since the introduction of the law in 2008, not a single retailer has been fined. Oh, and the fine is $1,000, not $25,000.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:46 pm
In response to TBogg @ 72

pssst — it’s a secret, TBogg — now everyone will want to go. But you are right – smaller groceries that cater to specific markets are usually much better and people pay more attention to detail. We have a small grocery that started up locally that is owned by a family from the Middle East. They carry all sorts of specialty foods, produce and meats. They also do a big business in fresh baked goods.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:47 pm

Because supermarkets have so many different products, they can take a loss on some items and make a killing on others, so long as they maintain a healthy overall profit.

masaccio May 6th, 2012 at 2:47 pm

My anecdotal data: in Paris, a lot depends on where you live. In the pricier neighborhoods in the 16th and 17th Arrs., the food is about 30% more than I pay at the Kroger Store in Nashville, but that includes the VAT of about 15% or so. In the everyday neighborhoods of the 14th or the 11th, it isn’t so expensive. In the market we went to in the 20th, based on one day’s shopping, it is less than Nashville pricing, and the spread of choices was fabulous. I can’t say much about quality in those markets, but in the stores in the 17th where I shopped quite a bit, the quality was excellent.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:48 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 77

One of the lesser-known truths about supermarkets is that SMALL markets can be very competitive on fresh produce and meat. Those things spoil so they don’t line up into the same economies of scale as processed foods that never go bad.

Phoenix Woman May 6th, 2012 at 2:48 pm

Yup, largely because these programs aren’t well-known even to experienced farmers.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:49 pm

So, when I compared a market basket of goods from my local grocery store in Detroit and the Walmart I worked at outside of the city, the produce and meat were decidedly CHEAPER at the small market in Detroit.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:49 pm
In response to Peterr @ 76

Very interesting, Peterr — because there is a lot of trouble with that for imported food products now since there are some countries (ahem) which tend to trans-ship products to other countries, have them repackaged with new country of origin labels and sent on to the US. Big problem with Chinese honey which has been stored in drums with lead solder or which have been used to store other things which contaminate the honey.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

But on processed food, Walmart blew the Detroit store out of the water.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Tracie – do we know who ‘invented’ the supermarket?

Peterr May 6th, 2012 at 2:50 pm

Tracie, when talking about your in your work in the Central Valley, you note the importance of irrigation. Was there ever any discussion around you about the water battles between the western states, and the fact that climate change is making water an even scarcer commodity there?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:51 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 83

One thing that I saw again and again in doing the book was that (1) companies are worried about getting sued/fined for laws, but (2) there’s hardly any danger of that happening because enforcement is so lax

Phoenix Woman May 6th, 2012 at 2:51 pm

Hence the big push given to carbohydrate-based foods: They don’t spoil in a week or two.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:52 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 85

Ah, the invention of the supermarket. The Smithsonian credits it to King Kullen, which is what I go with — Michael Cullen was the one who applied industrial economies of scale to food and I think that’s the real innovation. Piggly Wiggly campaigned for the title, too; they invented self-service and wheeled carts.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:53 pm
In response to Peterr @ 86

Hi Peter, so about the water — farm workers don’t really talk about that stuff very much. But there were (and still are) big signs along highways saying “Federally Imposed Draught” because of some of the water battles.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:54 pm
In response to Phoenix Woman @ 88

Precisely — and also sugary and salty ones. Sugar and salt are the original preservatives (Marc Kurlansky and Sidney Mintz are the ones to go to for that) and that’s part of why they are so prevalent in our processed foods.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:56 pm

ANd honestly, it really just blew my mind that so much of our food is tied to irrigation. THere are tablets from the later periods in Mesopotamia talking about how they would see salt crusting on the ground, and I saw that happening in fields in CA.

TobyWollin May 6th, 2012 at 2:57 pm

Tracie – it looks as if we’ve got a good conversation going now. I have to step out and make dinner for my family – I appreciate your being here today!

Peterr May 6th, 2012 at 2:58 pm

I wasn’t expecting a kind of “let’s all chat about Al Gore’s Nobel prize” kind of thing, but was wondering if there was more down-to-earth chit-chat about farms losing out/shutting down because of heat overwhelming the land, or the problems of persistent drought that make it harder for anyone to find work these days, as opposed to 20 or 30 years ago.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 2:59 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 93

enjoy dinner!

Peterr May 6th, 2012 at 3:00 pm
In response to TobyWollin @ 93

I’ve got to go as well — but before I do, let me say once more that I highly recommend this book to anyone who is even mildly curious about the road that garlic took to get into your home.

You won’t look at a produce section the same way ever again.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:00 pm
In response to Peterr @ 94

Peterr, I haven’t seen much about the link between drought (esp. in the U.S.) and diminishing farming. Water and heat are real problems, though, particularly with conventional ag, which requires a fairly consistent climate etc. — it’s just not a very flexible, rapid-response system.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:02 pm
In response to Peterr @ 96

thanks, Peterr.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:04 pm

How many different farms did you work on? All in California? Different crops?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:04 pm

OK, all, so: I got an hour left. Whaddya want to know?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:05 pm
In response to BevW @ 99

I worked at about 4 different farms, all in CA. I started with a day in grapes outside of Bakersfield; did a few days of hoeing/weeding in the Central Valley outside of Coalinga; spent a couple weeks sorting peaches in the Central Valley outside of Kingsburg until I got heat sick; and spent the most time cutting garlic in the Salinas Valley.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:05 pm

It was the driest summer I have ever seen.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Did you plan your research originally to track the food production -starting at the farm, or did your research take you there?

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Did you live in the community, with the laborers? What is their lives like?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:09 pm
In response to BevW @ 103

I wanted to follow the basic path of food: farm, store, plate. Originally I was most interested in the store part — really looking at food retail — but I also wanted to write a book that was interesting. ANd I thought that meant going broader than just the supermarket.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Did you find a lot of injuries in the fields because of the hard physical labor?

Mauimom May 6th, 2012 at 3:09 pm

Sorry for the late arrival.

Tracie, I just wanted to tell you how much I LOVED this book!! Besides the content, it is SO beautifully written.

The material I highly was your remark about the low “percentage” of our food dollar that goes to food workers.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:10 pm
In response to BevW @ 104

Farmworkers make very little money and yet need to send it back to Mexico, so they economize wherever they can, and mostly that means housing. So I shared a 2 BR house where there was a family of 7 in one room, a family of 4 in another, I had a cubby off the living room, and then there were 4 or 5 guys living in the garage.

tuezday May 6th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Tracie, do you have any sense of how much our apathy toward food, and where it comes from, has to do with the fact few of us have any ties to farming? And, hence, no idea what food should really look and taste like.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:11 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 107

Hey, thanks for coming on with us. ANd for the kind words — that’s really quite appreciated!

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:11 pm

Did you get the opportunity to actually follow the food from the fields to the distributors? How is the food handled at the distribution points?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:13 pm
In response to tuezday @ 109

Our relationship to food/farming has a really close tie to the value we place on food. I ran across some interesting research showing that the biggest predictor of valuing organic/sustainable production is whether you know anything about food production.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:14 pm
In response to BevW @ 111

I did find one of the garlic brands I had picked for — at $2-$4/hour — being sold at the same Walmart at which I worked; I saw another brand I’d picked for on sale at Whole Foods.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:15 pm

You covered the history of the supermarket, did you research the history of food / cooking training in the US over the past century? I remember Home EC in High School, and there was not a lot of eduction on food prep.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:15 pm
In response to BevW @ 111

And in terms of distribution points: Right now, using Walmart as an example, Walmart makes a contract with, say, The Garlic Company. Then Walmart usually will send a truck to pick up garlic, and then the truck picks up enough garlic to supply one of the WM distribution centers, and then other WM trucks come and pick up food to take out to individual stores.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:17 pm
In response to BevW @ 114

There’s very little social science on food literacy and cooking skills. One interesting thing is that, according to the AMerican Society for Home Ec (or something similar), about the same share of students take Home Ec now as in the 60s.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to BevW @ 114

I think it’s around a quarter of students take home ec, though what’s really shifted is the gender balance. In mid-20th century it was almost entirely female students; today it’s more like a 60-40 split, though I’d want to check the data on that.

Elliott May 6th, 2012 at 3:18 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 107

they are disposable

masaccio May 6th, 2012 at 3:18 pm

I’m really sympathetic to the discussion about Applebee’s, and the sense that eating out is a treat. Work is hard for so many people, and an inexpensive meal out is so refreshing, not just because you don’t have to cook, but because you don’t have to clean up, and you get some good time with your family, without all those irritating interruptions you get at home.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:19 pm

Did you work on any Organic Farms or in Organic Stores? I would think the level of food education is higher and the patrons are more demanding of quality produce.

tuezday May 6th, 2012 at 3:19 pm

valuing organic/sustainable production is whether you know anything about food production

Which is why I find any product sold in the supermarket as “organic” to be suspect; however, few others seem to have my reservations. Do you get into big agra’s gaming of the organic label at all in your book?

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:21 pm

Is there a standardized/recommended curricula? or is it taught by the free teacher that period?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:21 pm
In response to masaccio @ 119

Yeah, I was really surprised by how much I’d internalized this idea that there were all these lazy poor people out there not bothering to cook — and there’s recent social science showing that it’s middle- and upper-class people who go out to eat, esp fast food, not the poor.

Suzanne May 6th, 2012 at 3:21 pm

sorry to be arriving late – thanks for writing this book. i’d like to echo what others upthread have said about how well written and easy to read it is.

i’m still reading it so forgive me if this is in the book but what was the most unexpected thing you learned about the why of the american way of eating?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:22 pm
In response to tuezday @ 121

I do’nt really get too into labeling and organic specifics — so many reporters have done that work so much better than I ever could. I’d really recommend Organic Inc. by Sam Fromartz.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:23 pm

There was a reference to people watching more Cooking Shows on tv, but doing less cooking at home. Could you expand on this?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:23 pm
In response to BevW @ 122

Home ec curricula really depends, I think, on how the school manages it — like everything else. I remember in high school we lost a history teacher for some reason and the PE teacher taught history for a semester; it was a lot of coloring in maps for four months. I suspect Home Ec is similar : if you get a good, trained teacher it could be awesome. If you don’t, it might be really lame.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:25 pm
In response to Suzanne @ 124

Hi Suzanne, so I deal with that surprising thing a bit up top, but one bit I didn’t really articulate: Everyone wants to eat well. I think the main reason people eat crap is that we’ve made crappy food easy, cheap and everywhere. And I think we need to have a conversation about how to make healthy food easy, cheap and everywhere.

Mauimom May 6th, 2012 at 3:26 pm

What’s been the “reception” to your book, Tracie?

And have you been back to see any of the folks you worked with?

I grew up in the initial days of Cesar Chavez. It’s shocking to see how little has changed for farm workers. It’s wonderful for you to remind Americans of that.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:27 pm
In response to BevW @ 126

I do think that all the cooking shows on TV do a real disservice to home cooks — it makes it seem like you have to be a celebrity to cook well. And it makes the kitchen really intimidating.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:28 pm

Did you interview any Professional / Commercial chefs about their thoughts on the food system. Did they give any recommendations as to where they find their fresh produce?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:28 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 129

So, reception has been really mixed. What’s really flattering, as a writer, is that most reception has been consistent about it being well-written and engaging and respectful of the people I met. (Most, but not all.)

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:29 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 129

At the same time, reception around the political undercurrents in the book has been pretty intense. The Wall Street Journal loved the writing and then spent most of the review disagreeing with the politics of it (no surprise there); Rush Limbaugh talked about it for 40 minutes online.

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 3:30 pm

I’m seeing/working with a few CA producers who are moving some operations to OR (where I live) not just because of water regs but because they are witnessing first hand the effects of climate change. They’re trying to “ride the wave” north….

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:31 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 129

Traditionally liberal and progressive folks seem to really take to the book, which is great – but also feels a little weird to me, just because I wasn’t trying to write a liberal book. I wanted to write an honest one.

And yes, I’m still in touch with the farm worker families I lived/worked with, but it’s difficult. My Spanish is horrible at this point, they live in fairly remote parts of California, and I don’ thave enough material resources to visit frequently.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Do you have any recommendations on how we can take the fear of the kitchen out of cooking?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:32 pm

That is really interesting; I hadn’t heard that before. Can I ask what kinds of crops are moving north like that?

Mauimom May 6th, 2012 at 3:32 pm

Well, I read a lot and am also a former English teacher. I found it one of the best-written books I’ve read in a long time. And with the knock-it-out-of-the-park content, it’s winner all around.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:34 pm
In response to BevW @ 136

This sounds a little hokey, but I think cooking with friends can be really fun. I’d like to say ‘pick up a cookbook and get going,’ but it’s hard to do it if you don’t already know how to cook.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:34 pm

There are some innovative school programs and local programs that are trying to educate grade school children by having them grow produce and then eating it – finding that it tastes better when you grow it yourself / locally, and they are eating vegetables and liking it!

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:35 pm

And ASKING friends who know how to cook to show you how to make something can be a good way to do it, too. I dont think you can learn cooking well without watching someone.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:35 pm
In response to Mauimom @ 138

that’s really thoughtful of you; thanks.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:36 pm

That is a great idea. I like having friends over, and like most people, we all end up in the kitchen talking – so I hand them a knife and some produce and let them be part of the process. Everyone enjoys it.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:36 pm
In response to BevW @ 140

Oh, right, if we’re talking things outside of our at=home lives: Get good home ec into schools. Something wher eyou learn the basic elements, how to fix a dish that’s gone awry, etc. That would be HUGE. And there are a lot of small programs cropping up around the country like that.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:38 pm
In response to BevW @ 143

Yes, now that I”m back in my apartment full time in Brooklyn I am trying to launch a little cooking club of sorts.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:41 pm

In your time around the Walmart and other supermarkets, did you see cooking demonstrations for the shoppers, that were “pushing” certain products, not just good cooking / food prep. Like the cook books in the markets that have all Kraft products in them.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:42 pm

In your time around the Walmart and other supermarkets, did you see cooking demonstrations for the shoppers, that were “pushing” certain products, not just good cooking / food prep. Like the cook books in the markets that have all Kraft products in them .

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:42 pm
In response to BevW @ 146

Totally. There was a guy who’d come in on weekends and do “cooking” demos for stuff like sprayable I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:43 pm
In response to BevW @ 146

What I found strangest about this was that the guy was dressed as if he worked at Walmart — same logos, branding — but he was actualy employed by a company that just contracted to do that kind of work in stores. But it LOOKED like he was Walmart.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:44 pm
In response to BevW @ 146

But I also had this little epiphany, like: What if we just had that kind of demo for healthy food all the time? Wouldn’t that be awesome?

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 3:44 pm

You did write an honest one!

Because I’m being lazy I’d like to copy/paste a part of a comment I wrote when TBogg initially mentioned you’d be visiting FDL to chat:

Over the years I’ve seen a lot from the inside of our food production system. I’ve seen farming families fall apart and others survive and thrive when the odds were against them because they worked their butts off. I’ve seen immigrant families start small farms of their own with the help of churches and grant money and make those ventures profitable while still working other jobs. I’ve seen a small produce distribution startup become a major force in the market. I’ve seen people who love brewing beer in their garages start their own small-scale hop yards and end up with contracts for more hops than they can possibly grow, giving them hope in a fucked up environment. I’ve witnessed ICE raids going after undocumented workers and have seen the collateral damage. I know immigrant crews who have worked for the same organic producer for nearly 20 years because they are paid well, respected and have a stake in the good and the bad. I know people who’s lives have gone sideways, gone to prison, come out and started their own small fresh market veggie farms and are doing pretty ok. I know people who have sued Monsanto and not yet lost.

Tracie’s book is a good read. Our large scale food production system is fucked up and, just like Wall Street, is rigged and unhealthy in a multitude of ways.

What concerns me greatly is the treatment of workers. I’d suppose you’ve read TomatoLand (and the great story of the Immokalee workers gaining) and you’ve been on the receiving end of getting ripped off wage-wise. What, as everyday consumers, can we do to raise awareness and apply pressure? I encourage people to buy local/eat local/know your food producers, but I’m fortunate to live in Eugene, OR, a local-food mecca, where that is easy….

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Where to you see the trends of the food system going now, with fewer small farms and Ag Business dominating the production? Will it continue or has it stabilized?

tuezday May 6th, 2012 at 3:44 pm

Unfortunately, home ec is getting cut. A SIL taught home ec in one of the high schools here for close to 30 years before the program was cut. She was then moved to a county program that teaches cooking to adults, half of whom wear ankle bracelets. That said, they are getting real world experience as they do catering and event planning for the county, which I think is fabulous. It’s just too bad kids in high school can’t get the same education, unless they spent their nights in jail.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Right now, the easiest thing people can do to bring labor issues into the discussion is to JUST ASK THE FARMERS you buy from how they handle labor. And ask specifics. Make it clear that this matters. Because some people do pay attention as employers, and some do not.

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 3:48 pm

Wine grape varietals were the first that drew my attention.

I was at a presentation by the head of research for the USDA and he talked for a while about their data tracking the ability to now raise crops further north into The Dakotas than previously possible. Much of the data was based on super weeds moving north also into warmer climates along with plant diseases….

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:50 pm
In response to BevW @ 152

There is a growing attention to the problem of losing mid-sized farms; the USDA, to some extent, is paying attention to this, and that’s good. But the overwhelming trend has been for bigger and bigger farms to grow more and more of our food.

BevW May 6th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

As we come to the end of this Book Salon,

Tracie, Thank you for stopping by the Lake and spending the afternoon with us discussing your new book and the American food system.

Toby, Thank you very much for Hosting this great Book Salon.

Everyone, if you would like more information:

Tracie’s website and book

Toby’s website (Kitchen Counter Economics)

Thanks all, Have a great week.

If you want to contact the FDL Book Salon: FiredoglakeBookSalon@gmail.com

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Tracie, did you have a chance to follow chef Karl Wilder’s blog while he was living/cooking on a food stamp budget?

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:52 pm
In response to tuezday @ 153

Well, I love the idea of more/better home ec — but public educaiton in general has been under attack, and the strength of the anti-government libertarian movement that questions the wisdom of any/all public services certainly complicates that. I mean, frankly, home ec is probably not the top priority in fixing America’s schools — but it’s probably on the top-level for battling obesity etc.

Tracie McMillan May 6th, 2012 at 3:53 pm
In response to BevW @ 157

Thank you so much for having me, Bev and Toby!

tuezday May 6th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Thanks for another great book salon everyone!

karenjj2 May 6th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

Thank you so much for the illuminating discussion, Tracie.

I found this comment very interesting and wonder if you think the salt intrusion you observed may confirm that drought is under way.

karenjj2 May 6th, 2012 at 3:57 pm

Oops! too late, good evening and thank you for visiting Tracie.

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 3:59 pm

Thanks Tracie.

I downloaded the audiobook version of Eating the American Way the other day as a refresher. I thought the reading was very well done/entertaining and sent the link off to a bunch of folks that I know do audios….

Cheers!

meepmeep09 May 6th, 2012 at 4:02 pm

Great discussion, and very informational for this uninformed lurker. Thanks for having this discussion!

It is probably beyond the scope of the book, but I wonder how much the existing agribusiness structure presumes availability of (relatively) cheap transportation costs, and what would – or more likely, IMO, will – happen to agriculture if/when those costs rise.

Maybe hydrofracking will keep transportation costs low for a lot longer; too bad about all that environmental destruction of groundwater quality, though. And by the way, does hydrofracking ever take place near or on agricultural lands, and if so, is there evidence for contaminated water affecting the plants?

Thanks again for doing this, Tracie!

gunsbeforebutter May 6th, 2012 at 5:19 pm

Tracie, don’t know if you’ll revisit this thread or not, but, another issue I’ve talked with smaller OR fresh market growers about is their concern of corporate farms moving north due to upcoming Good Ag Practices (GAP) regs and the quality (or lack thereof) of CA irrigation water, especially “processed” human wastewater, going onto farm ground and the concern of workers’ harvesting tools inadvertently contacting soil and transferring potentially harmful organisms/pharma-products to edible crops (i.e. shears cutting garlic leaves after coming into contact with soil flood-irrigated by waste water).

Sorry but the comments are closed on this post