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
MT: So the point is that without higher wages or a vigorous public realm we're not going to be able to eat better as Americans?
McMillan: There are ways to eat better as Americans without going that route, I would think. I don't think you can get away from higher wages unless you wanted to create the equivalent of a universal food stamp program dedicated to healthy food. Then I think that would shift consumer demand really quickly. I've been on food stamps, and I found that when I got matching coupons to use at the farmers' market, I used those and I ate tons more vegetables and fruits. Because it wasn't just that I had free money, but I had free dedicated money and it didn't have to pit it against my other expenses. So having food stamps first of all means you don't have to pit your food stamps against everything else. Because sometimes you'd really like those fancy greens or that ice cream, but then you think, "Is it worth $4? Because rent is coming due, and I could use those $4 toward rent." When you have food stamps, you don't have to make that calculation because you just have $200 a month, and this is when you're getting enough food stamps to cover your food cost, obviously. So when I was getting $200 a month, which for a single person is not luxurious, but doable, I was able to say, "OK, I can make these decisions about my food budget in a much more practical way because the only thing that I am weighing my food cost against is other food. I'm not weighing it against all the other things I have to pay for." And particularly when you get coupons at the farmers' market, to match up with your food stamps, you get these coupons where you can buy fruits and vegetables only ... I just went crazy at the farmers' market. I bought all kinds of fruits and vegetables and was eating off of them because I didn't have to worry about putting it against the rest of my grocery bill.
How government and corporations help drive unhealthy food choices ...
MT: But the way that food stamps are structured, there's no way to guarantee that the rewards go to small growers, produce production, or fruits and vegetables, roughly.
McMillan: Right, I think something that's really promising about these matching programs is that they're experimenting with subsidizing a very particular kind of demand. I think that there are ways in which that could really be a win-win on a number of levels. It would encourage people to be eating fresh and healthy food and would be subsidizing market demand in a way that could shift production without creating these perverse incentives that you create when you subsidize at the farmer's end. So if you're creating a really healthy market of demand for fresh produce, farmers will grow that because they can make money on that. When you're subsidizing the production end, you just create all these incentives for farmers to grow more stuff than anybody's actually going to buy and then they just get paid for the surplus. That's one of the problems that we have with corn and soy is we've been subsidizing those crops' production for so long that you have these entrenched interests that don't want to see that money go away — and so you just end up with this really perverted system of agricultural subsidies. Whereas if you were creating real market demand for something, you could shift production without convincing farmers to grow stuff that nobody needed and to have them producing food that would make us healthy instead of stuff that makes us sick.
MT: People like Rush Limbaugh may talk about a nanny state making you eat your veggies, but isn't the government really driving what we grow in America with these subsidies — as opposed to giving people a choice and letting the market, the actual public, decide what they want to get?
McMillan: Yeah, well, right now neither government nor the private sector are making sure that Americans can eat well. That's not happening. I think it's important to remember that both private enterprise and the public sector are tools that the American people can use to get what they need, that's what those things are for. Neither one of them are engines of themselves, they're means to get to a point. I would argue that one of the points we need to get to is where Americans are healthy and they're eating healthy diets. Food production is something that by its very nature is collective. We don't all grow our own self-sufficient diets in our back yards, particularly because we have a lot of urban development. I live in an apartment. It's physically impossible for me to grow my own food. I don't think Rush Limbaugh has a big backyard garden to create all his food. Those are things that we've generally decided have to be done in an organized and collective fashion. That's OK. There are ways to use both government and the private sector to make that really efficient and to keep stuff affordable — but it's a mix of the two, and figuring out how to do that is a really important question, instead of just leaving it to private business for the most part. Yes, the government is really involved in terms of incentivizing certain kinds of production, and I would argue that they mostly are supporting the wrong kinds of production. But it's that distribution between farm and plate that is entirely in the hands of private enterprise. And that's the biggest stumbling block to getting food into communities, because we talk about food deserts and supermarket access. Really, what we're talking about, though, is access to food, and that's a problem of distribution — that it doesn't have to be through supermarkets. That's the model that we've used and there are ways that you could build or structure markets to make them much more conducive to getting good food onto American dinner tables. And that's the thing. All that infrastructure is private right now, and what we've got is a lot of supermarkets, mostly full of junk food, which is part of their historical legacy.
Why lecturing people, especially the poor, to eat better won't work ...
MT: Given the furor over health threats like smoking, why isn't there an outcry, even as deaths from diabetes and obesity mount?
McMillan: Well, I think there's an outcry from some corners. People are starting to point out the problems with this kind of a diet. And I do think it's incredibly personal for people — like, what we decide to eat every day is a really personal decision. I feel like a lot of the way that we communicate about food and nutrition in the U.S. is very lecture-based, and that it often can feel like people are talking down to you. It's a small thing, but meeting people where they're at and having respect for what their lives are like, and talking to them from that point, that's far more effective than saying, "You clearly don't care about yourself because you're eating like this."
MT: You come up with some pretty interesting statistics, such as the French may spend 20 percent of their income on food, but when you were working in the fields of California you spent more than a quarter of your income on it.
McMillan: Right, well, this is really interesting to me, because there's a lot of discussion about the cheapness of American food, and how Americans don't spend enough on their food. One of the touchstones of the local food movement has been rooted around getting farmers a fair price for their product, which I certainly support, but the solution proposed by most local food folks is for consumers to pay higher prices. When they point out how Americans spend so much less on their food — which is true on an average — it's really different depending on what part of the economic spectrum you're in. The top third of American households, in terms of income, which would be households earning $70,000 a year or more, those folks are spending about 8 percent of their income on food. The most recent statistics show about 12 percent of Americans' budgets go to food. But what really shocked me is that when you looked at the lowest third, the bottom third of households, which I believe is those earning $35,000 or less, those folks are spending 25 percent to 35 percent of their income on food.
MT: And still not eating better than the French?
McMillan: I didn't find any good academic data showing how diets broke down by class. There's a lot of discussion that poor people eat badly because poor people have more health problems, therefore it must be that they are eating McDonald's. There's actually a study recently indicating that most fast-food is consumed by middle-income consumers, not by the poor, because going out to eat is still more expensive than cooking at home. Anyway, it was just shocking that this is easy data to get and nobody had bothered to look for it before. Either no food person had looked at it before, or they went and they looked and they said, "No, that's too complicated, we're just going to say 12 percent, so that we can get everybody to think about spending more on their food." And that particular data point, I think, is a really good clue as to why people who talk about food and food policy keep getting tagged as elitists. If you're telling people that they're not spending enough on their food and they need to spend more, that is an argument that only really makes sense for those people spending 9 percent of their income on food. Sure, those people can totally spend more on food. But that is a very specific and targeted argument, not a universal one, and it's one that only makes sense for economic elites. And I would argue that whatever is in your heart, and however you think about the world, your vision of social change, of how you fix the food system ... if you don't think about what it's like for "normal" people in the country, it's going to seem like you're out of touch — because you are. Only people with a lot of disposable income can spend $7 a pound on tomatoes.
MT: And many of those food policy people are snugly ensconced in upper-class lives.
McMillan: But also, I have to be really honest, their work is what makes mine possible, because you have this discussion percolating along at that level, and then you have people like me who tell the other part of the story. Most people want and care about food, and would be totally down with the idea of getting farm-fresh food if they had the means to do that. So if you really care about people eating well, you have to talk about wages and work life, you have to talk about how life works for typical American families, not about how it works for very well-intentioned, very intelligent, talented chefs and food writers.
MT: So it's a problem of understanding what life is like for a typical American?
McMillan: Yeah. I was at a food conference a few years ago with a bunch of sustainable food-type people, it was a slow-food event, and I was talking to people and said, "I write about food and class," and these younger people, probably college-aged people — so you need to be fair, people are still learning a lot when they're in college — were like, "Well if these people really cared about their food, they could spend more money on it." And I said, "Well, what if you're making just $8 an hour?" And this kid was just like, "Well, poor people have cable television, why don't they get rid of that?" I was like, "You have an iPhone! Are you trading in your iPhone to eat better food? No!" So I just got really irritated — people can be judgmental jerks sometimes about what it's like for someone who's poor, about what kind of decisions they're making about their lives. So that makes me really upset. When I was working in the fields in California and living with immigrant families, that was really interesting because a lot of the families that I worked with were really recent immigrant families, so they were still eating and cooking a lot of very fresh food, food that they got from a food bank. So we ate homemade tortillas, flour tortillas, we had chicken and parsley and stew, they would gather the parsley out of the fields they were working in because it's a weed.
MT: These are people who don't need to be told by Michael Pollan to "eat like their grandparents."
McMillan: They have no idea who Michael Pollan is. But they're eating like their grandparents anyway. They're still eating whole foods and stuff that is real food.
On writing the book ...
MT: Can you describe what goes on at Applebee's, behind the kitchen doors?
McMillan: At Applebee's, the kitchen has a lot in common with other commercial kitchens: It's incredibly raunchy, it's really hot, it's really fast, hard work, and it's a very macho environment, so all that was really fun for me, for the most part. What is not the same as at a high-end restaurant is the way that the cooking is done, and that's to say there isn't that much fresh cooking done on-site. So if you go back into the walk-in, which is a cooler the size of a room, almost all the shelving is dedicated to processed food, or meat that's come in and is then defrosted and is sitting in there, all the sauces and soups come in cartons, they're pre-made off-site in some food factory, fresh produce is really minimal, the only things that come in whole and not pre-cut are heads of lettuce and tomatoes, basically, and some cilantro, which would be used for pico de gallo, which is made on-site there. But pretty much everything else comes in pre-cut and really big, pillowy bags; there's very little fresh food. So say, the mashed potatoes are made on-site with whole potatoes, those potatoes are just rinsed, they're not scrubbed of their dirt, they're steamed, then they're mashed by hand — they are mashed by hand — and then they're mixed with garlic milk, which is some white liquid that comes frozen in a plastic bag; it's defrosted and then poured into the potatoes, mixed in. Bagged portions of mashed potatoes and broccoli sit in a cooler for the cooks, then when they get an order for mash and broc to go with the steak, they throw those in the microwave and then after they've been nuked they put the baggies onto the plate; it sits under the heat lamp until the dish goes out. Right before the dishes go out, I would squeeze the mashed potatoes out of the bag, I would empty the broccoli, and often what would happen is the plastic bags would flake out onto the food because the plastic has been microwaved and has been sitting under a heat lamp and so it's degrading through that process. And so we'd send food out; I'd wipe the flakes off if I could, but you can't pick them off the food, they just sort of melt onto the food, and so that would go out, and people would eat that.
MT: That doesn't sound very appetizing.
McMillan: I wouldn't say that that's necessarily unusual for those kinds of restaurants, because any place like Applebee's or Chili's or IHOP — IHOP is owned by the same corporation as Applebee's — any of those companies, the way that they streamline their costs is by streamlining all the distribution and industrializing stuff as much as possible. And it was just really underscored for me after I was at Applebee's; I started crunching numbers on how much the steak and the ingredients on a plate cost, and I found that to make that steak with potatoes and broccoli, that would be $3.50 if I were buying that at the store, and it would take me 20 minutes in the kitchen. I'm not spending $18 to have someone cook something for me that I could do in 20 minutes — that's ridiculous. So now when I go out to eat, I make sure I go somewhere that people are cooking something that's better than what I can do. And I would argue that very little at Applebee's is better than what most Americans can do at home out of their freezer.
MT: To take off for two years and write this kind of thing, that must require a certain amount of capital to do that. Was that a book advance?
McMillan: I got a book advance, which was fairly modest. I got my contract in April of '09, it took basically two-and-a-half solid years of reporting and writing.
MT: I'm going to guess that the advance did not tide you over all that much.
McMillan: No, it didn't. I can't talk hard numbers, because my publisher wouldn't appreciate that, but it was not sufficient to equal, I think, minimum wage for a year. So there was a point when, working at Wal-Mart, I was like, this is really ridiculous. I was making more money at Wal-Mart than I did from the advance. And at Applebee's, they were saying, "You could be a manager!" I'm like, that would be so much more money than I make as a writer! I had some savings when I went into the project; those have all pretty much disappeared at this point. And I'm in debt to family and friends now.
MT: It's notable because at certain points in the book, especially during the time when you're on the farm, you make the observation that you could leave any time you want, but it's not as if your life weren't precarious already.
McMillan: Right, I mean this is a difficult thing actually to figure out as a writer, because, on the one hand, I want to be really honest with the reader about where I'm at and what my life is like, but you don't want to sound like you're whining about the fact that I struggle a lot as a writer. I have to pay for health insurance out of pocket. I don't have a spouse. I don't have a trust fund. And so I think that there's places in the book where I obscure a little bit how much I struggle as a writer, just because it seems almost like that would be talking down, to pretend like, "I'm like one of you," and I'm not, right? I have education, I have a lot more opportunity and flexibility, and that's the thing that's really different. I am broke as hell all the time, but I'm not poor because I have other options. But at the same time it's like, I don't have that much money either.
MT: Has the experience of living on limited means changed you?
McMillan: Oh, my gosh, I've gotten so much better at budgeting — more, I would say, from the way I had to live while I was working on the book, writing the book, than when I was reporting it. I just really had to learn how to hustle really fast, and learn how to sort of pare down my expenses, so now I'm really good about, like, my pantry is all stocked, and then every week I just buy fruits and vegetables.
MT: Talk a little bit about your pantry. How well-stocked is your pantry? I saw the picture. It reminds me of the kind of thing my Depression-era relatives might do.
McMillan: Yeah, so my pantry is sort of overstocked. I make sure that I have every kind of bean that I might want to cook, and I have every kind of rice. I've got lots of grains, a lot of canned fish. I've got a bunch of different oils and vinegars, because I want the building blocks so I'm able to cook well when I feel like it. Yeah, I have corn meal, whole wheat flour, white flour, white sugar and brown sugar, molasses. I have all these things because the secret to being able to cook well with fresh ingredients is a) having really good condiments and b) learning how to use everything that I eat, and not throwing things away. For instance, onion skins are really good to keep in the freezer, to put away to make stock with when I need to make veggie stock.
MT: So maybe the answer to our national food problem is everyone has to be poor for two years?
McMillan: [laughs] That would definitely change people's diets, I think. But a lot of the tricks that I've learned as a home cook and as someone who doesn't want to pay for something that I make really easily — such as chicken stock — you really need some time to do it. When I come home, I just put the stock on the stove, that's one of the things that I do. I take the time with that, because then I get to eat really, really well, and, for me, eating well is like this secret form of wealth. Maybe I don't get to go to the movies, or buy nice clothes or fancy shoes very often, but I get to eat well all the time, and it's something I can do affordably if I put a little time into it. For me, that's one of the luxuries of my life. I have the luxury of doing something I love with my life and eating well, and knowing how to feed myself. And basic food literacy is hugely important. Cooking may be super easy for me 'cause I've been cooking since I was 7, and I got all the screw-ups out of the way by the time I was like 12. But I think that for people who didn't learn that, it's really stressful, and it makes a lot of sense to eat processed food, 'cause if you don't know that you can cook better than that, why waste the time and the energy? So I have a lot of respect and appreciation for people who are out there evangelizing about cooking being really important, 'cause I think it's a crucial part of self-sufficiency — and it's something that in a lot of ways, we've sort of just let private food companies take over. But I'm just as terrified of a private nanny as Rush Limbaugh is terrified of a government one. And I certainly don't like the idea that some big company is going to tell me what to put in my body and what's healthy — they're going to tell me what they can make money off of.
Tracie McMillan will appear from 6 to 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 3, at the Holly Township Library, 1116 Saginaw St., Holly; 248-634-1754.
McMillan will also appear from noon to 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 4, at U-M Dearborn's College of Arts, Science and Letters, 3035 CASL Building, Dearborn; 313-593-5490.
At 6 p.m. Thursday, April 5, McMillan will kick off the new Talk Soup series, a series of conversations with food system and social justice thinkers, dreamers, and doers open to the community and public at Colors. Colors is at 311 E. Grand River Ave., Detroit; 313-496-1212; colors-detroit.com.
Michael Jackman is associate editor of Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.
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