Saturday, October 13, 2012

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan



The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table
by Tracie McMillan
Scribner, 2012
336 pages
source: library book

Book Description:

When award-winning (and working-class) journalist Tracie McMillan saw foodies swooning over $9 organic tomatoes, she couldn’t help but wonder: What about the rest of us? Why do working Americans eat the way we do? And what can we do to change it? To find out, McMillan went undercover in three jobs that feed America, living and eating off her wages in each. Reporting from California fields, a Walmart produce aisle outside of Detroit, and the kitchen of a New York City Applebee’s, McMillan examines the reality of our country’s food industry in this “clear and essential” (The Boston Globe) work of reportage. Chronicling her own experience and that of the Mexican garlic crews, Midwestern produce managers, and Caribbean line cooks with whom she works, McMillan goes beyond the food on her plate to explore the national priorities that put it there.

Fearlessly reported and beautifully written, The American Way of Eating goes beyond statistics and culture wars to deliver a book that is fiercely honest, strikingly intelligent, and compulsively readable. In making the simple case that—city or country, rich or poor—everyone wants good food, McMillan guarantees that talking about dinner will never be the same again.  (from amazon)


My thoughts:

From California farm fields, to the produce department of a Detroit Walmart, and an Applebee's in Brooklyn, Tracie McMillan lives the lives of those who labor to put food on our plate. She experiences their struggle to eat healthy, fresh food (especially produce), on a paltry salary and shows why processed convenience foods are almost always cheaper and easier. McMillan also details her experiences, including practices and procedures encountered, at two American icons.

 The book is very well-written and I appreciated McMillan's weaving background information and facts together with her undercover experiences in food-related jobs. Overall, The American Way of Eating made for some interesting reading but, after bingeing "food books" a couple of years ago, I found nothing particularly groundbreaking here. It does provide plenty of food for thought (pun intended) and makes me even more thankful for readily available fresh ingredients (thank you Wegmans), as well as the time and money necessary to serve my family healthy, well-balanced meals.

An Interesting Statistic:
"Today, about 16 cents of every dollar Americans spend on food ends up back at the farm; the other 84 cents goes to the system that got it on our plates in the first place. The transportation, the packaging, the delivery, the supermarkets, even the cooks at the restaurants, get everything else. If we manage to free up just a few cents of that dollar - something that would be easier to do if we had affordable, public food infrastructure - it stands to reason that we could pay farmers more, and in turn give farm-workers reasonable wages, without seeing our food costs skyrocket." p.240
A Disturbing Conclusion:
"Geography and the minute variations between the lowest rungs of our economy change the details, but the healthiest route through the American foodscape is a steep and arduous path most easily ascended by joining its top income bracket. So far as I can tell, changing what's on our plates isn't feasible without changing far more. Wages, health care, work hours, and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the paces at which we shop." p. 231
My rating:
3.5/5 stars

My daughter, Carrie, reviewed this book, too. Read her thoughts over at Fitness and Frozen Grapes.


Weekend Cooking, hosted at Beth Fish Reads, is open to anyone who has a food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, fabulous quotations, photographs. If your post is even vaguely foodie, feel free to grab the button and link up over the weekend.

44 comments:

  1. I've been wanting to read this. Based on your review, I think I'll check it out of the library instead of buying it, though, because there isn't a lot new.

    On the other hand, I'm fascinated with the idea that McMillan went undercover to experience those jobs firsthand instead of just interviewing.

    I wonder if convenience foods really are cheaper. It seems to be that you're paying a lot for that convenience--not just in money but in health.

    Definitely good food for thought!

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    1. BethF - This book is definitely worth reading, but I think borrowing it from the library is the way to go. The Walmart and Applebee's sections were definitely my favorite.. not much actual 'cooking' happens at Applebee's.

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  2. I'd be interested in reading this... but what I really want, now, is a binge on food books! There are so many on my mental reading list. Have a great weekend - is your foliage at the wonderful stage?

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    1. Audrey - I highly recommend a food book binge - Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, Animal Vegetable Miracle, In Defense of Food, etc. Our foliage is at peak now, maybe even a little past. Snow in the air yesterday!

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  3. Thanks for featuring this -- will add it to my TBR list. Interested to read all about her findings :).

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    1. Jama - McMillan is a very good writer and she leaves the reader with plenty to think about. I'm glad I read this one!

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  4. I have seen this book, I appreciate your thoughtful review. And I'm envious that you have a Wegmans. Sigh, I miss Wegmans.

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    1. Diane - Wegmans is definitely the best, but NYC is SO exciting! Trader Joe's will be opening a store in Rochester soon, unfortunately they've decided to bypass Syracuse :-(

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  5. This certainly is a meaningful and much needed project, sharpening our awareness of the food we eat and the diet of a nation. Thanks for reviewing the book and informing us of the vast data presented there. I'm just wondering, are there any comparisons of data across countries?

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    1. Arti - Unfortunately, I don't recall much in the way of data comparisons with other countries, but I do think it was a worthwhile project.

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  6. Living in an ag state, I am often surprised by how many of the books about food policy and practices do not make it to the local library.

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    1. Fay - That is surprising! Wonder if you can borrow through interlibrary loan or request your library purchase certain titles.

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  7. I too am intrigued by the 'going undercover' aspect of the book, but am a little disappointed that there's nothing 'new.' I think, like Beth, I'll be checking this out of my local library. Thank you for sharing your thoughts!

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    1. Cecelia - It probably seemed like nothing much new to me because I have read so many food books recently. The undercover aspect at Walmart and Applebee's were fascinating!

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  8. Impressive that she went undercover and I'm sure that adds to the book. I'll look for it, I really haven't read much on this, I tend to go for cookbooks.

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    1. Carol - I think the undercover aspect added an interesting twist. You might like this one!

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  9. Thanks for this -- love the quotes. I had this title checked out of the library and sent it back because it seemed to cover familiar ground, but I still want to read it, just after I've read some other things.

    Joy's Book Blog

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    1. Joy - It definitely covers familiar ground (especially if you've done any reading on the subject), but her presentation and the undercover aspect still made it an interesting read.

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  10. I enjoy reading books like this - they always make me eat healthier, for a while anyway.

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    1. Kathy - Wish we could find a way to make it permanent ;-)

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  11. I shall look for it.
    This is a most important topic, for the health of our families, for the prevention of diseases, for our attitude toward cooking for ourselves.
    I'm offering cooking classes to the local school children at my home. The class (4th and 5th graders) come with their teachers and some parents, get to prep food, cook, bake, prepare a real meal in the two hours they are with me, and get to eat it too.
    We need to train our children, and they will develop a palate that will recognize good food when they taste it, become better shoppers, and their own health will improve not just for one day, but for the rest of their lives.

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    1. Rosaria - What an important project! So many kids grow up not knowing how to cook or what to do when faced with whole, fresh food (like a butternut squash, for example). I seem to have lost the link to your blog and can't get there from your google plus page.. would you mind sending it to me? Thanks.

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  12. sounds like an interesting take on an important subject.

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    1. Caite - It is a topic we, as a country, need to find answers.

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  13. It is important to know where our food comes from and especially the costs associated with not eating locally or in season--sounds like a really interesting, well-written and well-researched book. Will probably get it for my sister-in-law for Xmas, and then borrow it from her!

    Great review!

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    1. JaneGS - Good thinking, lol! I probably should have rated it a 4 instead of 3.5.

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  14. It sounds like the food version of Nickel and Dimed. Which I still need to read.

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    1. Softdrink - I kept thinking of Nickel and Dimed as I was reading.

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  15. sounds like an important read - I have tried to become more aware of the route my food takes to my plate so it would be great to have some more information on the topic.

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    1. Booksnyc - It's an important topic for all of us. Hope you get a chance to read this one.

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  16. Those undercover books are always a good read, just because you get an insight from a side you normally don't se. Interesting!

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    1. Rikki - The undercover aspect is what drew me to this one. I just love things like that!

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  17. This sounds like an interesting premise to start a discussion from.

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    1. Marg - Now you have me wondering if I should suggest it for book club... hadn't thought of it before. Thanks!

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  18. I think this sounds like a great book, and like it makes some really useful points. it's so much harder to eat well, for all kinds of reasons, when you're poor. healthy food is just not always that affordable or easy. important stuff!

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    1. Marie - Exactly! This book lays out the problem, but it's up to us, as a country, to come up with some solutions.

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  19. the excerpt that Carrie highlighted really tells it all!!! Many people with low income have a very fixed area that they can travel. Especially with gas fluctuating between 3.80-4.12 here in my part of Michigan. Who can afford to run all over to get the best food? On top of the fact that food prices are on the uprise, while many of us haven't had a pay raise in over seven years!!! Excellent post!

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    1. Staci - So true! Gas has been over $4 a gallon here for ages. McDonald's are everywhere, their food is cheap and Wegmans is a 25 minute drive. There is a smaller grocery store in tow, but their produce and meat is never as good, and it's MUCH more expensive. It's easy to see how low-income families struggle...

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  20. It always really upsets me that healthy food is more expensive than junk. And the politicians all drone on about how important it is that everyone eats well etc etc - but food prices make that impossible!

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    1. Joanna - Oh, I hear you! The situation is very frustrating and I don't see any easy solutions for the short term.

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  21. Sounds like this one makes some good points. Healthy eating is tough when good food can cost so much.

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    1. Carol - True, and in some cities, it's even tough to buy fresh produce when you HAVE the money.

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  22. Because of my gluten sensitivities and recent allergies to cottonseed and palm oils, I have had to re-evaluate everything that goes into my body. The organic option, GMOs, etc. This sounds like a perfect book for me.

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    1. I do think you would enjoy this one, Ti.

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