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….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.