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
On processed foods ...
MT: And when you say "junk food," you would include fat-free processed food as well?
McMillan: Yes. I think of processed food as junk food.
MT: Because of the sugar, salt, and fat content.
McMillan: Yeah. Sugar, salt and fat and artificial sweeteners. Our bodies aren't designed to metabolize that stuff. Maybe science will figure it out, but I honestly just feel like if I eat the things that my body as a human has been eating for a really long time, like, millennia, I'll probably be OK. And not that you can't have any refined sugars and things like that, but I find that once you stop buying cookies at the store and limit it to when you feel like making cookies at home, I can eat as many cookies as I want — because I don't really have the patience to make them a whole lot.
MT: But store-bought cookies have what is called "shelf stability."
McMillan: Yes. Shelf stability was like this insane thing got invented in the '20s and '30s with industrial agriculture and food processing. It totally changed the American diet. And I feel that, up until the advent of processed food, food didn't really make you sick. Maybe if you were William Howard Taft and ate way too much of it, OK. They would have just said of processed food, "Oh, here's another way we can make food." Nobody would have thought it made you sick. I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time to industrialize all this stuff. You create shelf-stable products, your food doesn't rot, you have foodstuffs for the long haul — great! And fast-forward to 2012, and ... not so great. There's a lot of problems with having that kind of a diet: diabetes, obesity, chronic heart disease, all these things that are related to diet, and almost all of which you see correlated with the incidence of processed food, heavily industrialized processed food, the Americanization of diets. These are the things that are driving diet-related disease around — really around the globe at this point.
Looking past the table at what drives typical people's food choices ...
MT: It's interesting how often we frame the discussion as one of "nutrition" — and your journalistic work puts it in the context of everyday life.
McMillan: Yeah, the more that I worked on the book, the more I came to be flummoxed by the fact that all of our public and journalistic work to change how people eat has been aimed at nutritional information. To say, "If we just tell people the right mix of fruits and vegetables, the right thing to do, they'll do it." And I would argue that we've clearly been pursuing that path at least since I was a kid and it hasn't worked out very well. So maybe we need to take a broader view of how people are actually making decisions about their food. Not what they know in a general sense, which is salad is good, burger is bad. I would argue you can have a burger every once in a while. But you know that people understand that ... so it's not a matter of getting them to figure that out, much less the seasonal, local stuff. I feel like the seasonal stuff is really easy to make an argument. Eat food when it's cheap.
MT: When there's the most plenty.
McMillan: When there's the most of it. Eat tomatoes when they're in season. Don't worry about them when they're out of season, they'll be incredibly expensive. We've got to move away from saying, "Eat this, not that," and more toward saying, "OK, how do you decide what to eat and what's shaping that decision?" And in my reporting I found what's shaping those decisions is wages. Work life. Home life. A friend of mine was saying, "You know, telling people to cook presumes that they've got a really functional family that they like being around." And I grew up in a pretty rough household and I was like, "Oh, that's totally true." It wouldn't be fun to be home and cook if one of my parents was freaking out. I wouldn't want to do that. That's something that's really important and most, I would argue, most difficult family situations stem from wages and economic stress more than any sort of deep character flaw in people usually.
MT: That's one of the things that interested me most about your book was the way nutritional choices aren't presented as a lifestyle choice but as the way we live as a society.
McMillan: I really feel like how we eat really reflects the bigger choices that we're making in terms of what we want America to be like — and we've made it really, really easy for people to eat poorly and not exercise and not have time with their families. That's sort of the de facto state that we've built in the U.S., and if we want people to be able to spend more time on their food, we've got to figure out some things that we can change about the way American life works right now. I keep coming back to wages. It's really interesting if you look at what Americans vs. the French are spending on food as a portion of their income — so this isn't comparing dollar prices. When you're comparing overall budgets, the French do spend about 19 or 20 percent of their budget on food and Americans spend about 12 or 13 percent. So depending on how you line up the numbers it's roughly a 6 or 7 percent difference, and if you look at the overall budgets, we spend that 6 percent less on food — but we spend 6 percent more on health care, education, housing. And all of those are things that the French government subsidizes and takes out of their tax base and puts back into communities. The French spend ... I think it's 28 percent of their GDP on social programs, and we spend about 15 percent.
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