Nonfiction has held a greater draw for me the last few years, particularly when it deals with food, farming, inequities in the food distribution system, the cost of our ever-growing reliance on processed food, and the effects these systems and choices have on agriculture, health, and the environment. So when I stumbled upon The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table by Tracie McMillan, I knew I wanted to read it.
McMillan inserted herself at three points in our food system: in the farm fields of California picking produce as a farmworker, in a Detroit Walmart as a produce handler, and in a Brooklyn Applebee’s as a meal “expediter”. Although the accounts of her personal experiences were interesting, the real draw for me was insight into the evolution of the industrial agriculture complex and its role in manufacturing, transporting and distributing food products. I also appreciated her clear and sympathetic telling of the challenges of the working poor in finding, affording, and preparing food, particularly fresh, healthy food.
McMillan’s research is thorough and complete. Some of the information makes you stop in your tracks:
Today, Walmart’s market power is so great that it can essentially tell its suppliers how to make their products, and what price will be paid for them. (p. 118)
. . . roughly one of every four dollars Americans spend on fresh produce ends up at Walmart. (p. 150)
Most of the processed food we turn to in lieu of cooking is so high in salt that it accounts for about three-quarters of Americans’ sodium intake. (p. 158)
By 2010, researchers found that nearly every dinner Americans prepared at home involved a convenience food product, a category that included everything from bagged salads to frozen dinners (but excluded basics like canned beans and plain bread). (p. 210)
I found McMillan’s description of Applebee’s assembly line of prepackaged, pre-portioned, plastic-bagged food–which is nuked in the microwave before being plated–completely unappetizing.
McMillan makes a strong case for home-prepared meals and food/cooking literacy, comparing the cost of a sirloin steak meal at Applebee’s ($16.99) and the time it takes to get the meal (45 minutes) to the cost and time it would take to prepare the same meal at home ($3.72 prepared in about the same amount of time)–a discount of almost 80%. It’s a matter of how one choses to spend time, energy and money. Education and training play into those choices.
My biggest complaint about the book is the abundance of footnotes, which appear in teeny-tiny type and are sometimes completely unnecessary (do readers really need to know that capoeira is a mix of dance, sport and music that originated in 16th century Brazil?!).
In emphasizing the connection between farm and plate, McMillan quotes Wendell Berry: “eating is an agricultural act.” In doing so, she pointed to my next nonfiction read: Berry’s Bringing It to the Table: On Farming and Food.