Book Review: The American Way of Eating

The American Way of Eating
McMillan, Tracie
Scribner, 2012

The title seems wrong – “The American Way of Food” would fit the contents better in my opinion as the focus isn’t so much on eating as on food production and distribution. Moving along….

This book begins with an admission, hidden not as a preface but boldly as a “Before You Read This Book” page, that it was written as undercover journalism amongst people with whom the author did not share that she was a journalist, names and details changed, her background story resembling but not entirely the whole truth. Then the dive into the corporate world of food begins.

First stop: the irrigated fields of California’s central valley and the semi-migrant communities of farm laborers who make the harvests happen. Working in the grey area as a hired hand, existing in the margins of labor laws among many who have more to fear than to trust of their employers policies, she finds a community bonded by their common poverty and hard work. Seeing her time cards altered to reduce an 8 hour day to only a couple of hours in order to match the piecework rate of her production to a minimum wage; being offered shady proposals for a chance at better work if she’ll meet an unknown man at a dark gas station at 4:30 AM, suffering heat exhaustion and an injured elbow – that was her experience on the working level of the industrialized harvest, where contract labor companies bid to harvest nameless corporate farm fields and see the boxes loaded on trucks and driven down the road.

Next stop: Into the stores. Stocking boxes of baking mixes at midnight before an early morning “lunch” of vending machine chips and soft drinks in one of the nation’s largest chain of grocery stores. Peeling off the rotting outer leaves of a head of lettuce before dunking it back in water to crisp up the remaining leaves, or tossing out a crate of sweet corn that has gone moldy in storage. Occupational injuries among a staff of mainly part time employees for whom no benefits are offered. Relative to the fields it’s a big step up the ladder to at least have documentation of hours worked and minimum wage based on those hours.

Final stop: In the restaurants. She works in the back of a major chain sit-down restaurant, taking the plates from the cooks, adding the garnish and condiments, and passing them on to the servers. In the process she learns to pre-portion things to warm up in the microwave before squeezing out on a plate; match menu items to pictures, and generally assemble a meal as if it were no more than playing a game of memory.

Along the way, she lives among the people she works with – ignoring the fact that her journalism career gives her other options, a salary, benefits, a place to move back to, she spends roughly 2 months in various roles among the stops living paycheck to paycheck. She uses a few local contacts to set up places to live for a night or two while she finds a room to rent, be it a “housesit” for a trailer in a rundown trailer park in the desert or a room in an urban household constantly abuzz with the comings and goings of myriad relatives and friends of the person she is subletting from. She establishes a certain level of community both among the people she works alongside of and with her neighborhoods, and as part of that finds opportunities to pick up on food cultures and habits in the various settings.

In between episodes of her narrative, she fills the reader in on how the various systems actually function. How landowners contract with growers who contract with harvesters to fill the contracts with distribution companies. How a store originally not known for groceries became the dominant player in the supermarket industry, and the ramifications of that in terms of choice and competition among growers, distributors, and consumers. How some people, in neighborhoods passed over by the profit driven food suppliers for locations in what are seen as more lucrative areas, are finding creative solutions and turning those back into opportunities for others.
Combining these elements, the book is a very readable meander through an introduction to the problems of the US food industry and some opportunities for improvement. Each chapter could be expanded into multiple books on it’s own, and many of those have indeed been written. What is unique in The American Way Of Eating is bringing it together as an interconnected system.

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