Under the table
After spending more than two years investigating America's food system, Tracie McMillan talks policy, class and 'foodie elitism'
Published: March 28, 2012
Full disclosure: We at Metro Times were fortunate enough to host Tracie McMillan in our office, under an unofficial Metro Times fellowship, while she finished her new book, The American Way of Eating. The book chronicles her time spent undercover as a produce picker in California, as a kitchen employee in an Applebee's, and as a produce stocker in a suburban Detroit Walmart — all while living and eating on those salaries. (And we're grateful to her publisher for allowing us to run a 2,500-word excerpt.) But the book is more than a journalist's stunt: It also has some solid policy analysis, and an up-close and affectionate look at Detroit's food systems, from the city's produce terminal to Eastern Market to even small community gardens. The book came out last month, and was received well, getting positive reviews everywhere from The New York Times on down.
And then Rush Limbaugh went ape-shit on her.
Not content to call Sandra Fluke a slut, Limbaugh spent the better part of a show complaining about McMillan, calling her an "overeducated," not "intelligent" "authorette." Suddenly, back here at the office, we were watching video streams of her on various talk shows defending her work. She took time out of her busy book tour to speak with us from Oakland, Calif.
On Rush Limbaugh ...
Metro Times: So what's up with Rush Limbaugh?
Tracie McMillan: I have no idea how he found out about the book or why in particular it irritated him so much. It's certainly been helpful for me because it drew a lot more attention than I would have otherwise gotten, so that has been really great.
MT: You've been thrust into the 24-hour news cycle.
McMillan: Yeah, which was great. I mean, after getting on Rachel Maddow, my book numbers spiked for a day-and-a-half, which is wonderful for sales. Obviously, Rush Limbaugh has millions of listeners, right? I really enjoyed sitting down and having an excuse to deconstruct his rhetorical style, because I haven't done that before. So I listened to him. I usually couldn't get through a whole lot of it because I find it somewhat confusing. I realized after sitting down and deconstructing it that he's got this really interesting, incredibly powerful verbal style of attack, which is that he states true facts and, without explaining, summarizes them with a completely different conclusion than you would come to from those facts. So he spent most of that broadcast talking about my book, not just about me. And almost all of the critique, if you can call it that, of the book was just that he would summarize actual points such as "food is the only basic human need that we've left entirely to the private market," which is true. It's just true. Or the distribution, which we've left to the private market. That's a total fact, there's nothing you can assail about that and it's also true that we have millions of Americans who live in neighborhoods with insufficient food supplies, so I would suggest that that means that the private market is not solving every problem correctly. Maybe we need to think about other tools we have at our disposal to fix that. The primary one being, the public sector, right? These are not radical suggestions. Rush is just like, "She says this thing about private enterprise. This is a war on freedom! This is a war on private enterprise!"
On the food choices of working families and the poor ...
MT: And he concludes that the government will want you to eat your Wheaties and your vegetables.
McMillan: Right, and I'm like, I think everybody mostly wants to eat healthy. I honestly believe that the only people who think that poor people don't care at all about their diet — and only eat fast food because they're too stupid to know any better — are people who don't any poor people, that have never actually talked to working people about how their meals work and how their lives work and what's important to them and their families. Working people are not running around screaming, "I want diabetes! I think it would be awesome and I'm not going to eat anything but McDonald's and soft-serve ice cream because that would be cool." I think that more than there being a divide over private enterprise or public sector, I think there might be this profound division about how we view humans. I think that most people — not all, because we all know idiots — but most people are reasonably intelligent, and if given the right tools, they'll make decent decisions about how to move forward in their lives and we can trust that. The basic rules of good nutrition have been the same since I was a kid and since my grandma was a kid: Eat fruits and vegetables; don't eat a lot of fat; don't eat a lot of salt; don't eat a lot of sugar. Those are really basic and they've held true. I think we can trust that most people will follow them if it's relatively easy for them to do that — and instead we've built this whole society that doesn't make any of that easy. No wonder people are eating junk. But I really think that you can trust people, on the whole, to make smart decisions if they're given the tools to do that. I would argue that somebody like Rush probably doesn't trust people very much, probably thinks they're really stupid and that they don't care about their lives or their families, because that's sort of the takeaway. "Oh, we all want to be eating junk food!" Well we all know junk food is bad for us. We all know that it shortens your life if you eat too much of it and that it can lead to diabetes — and that means losing limbs. Nobody wants that. So if people are making choices that lead them to that path, there's more going on than just "personal choice."
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