Tracie McMillan on why conversations about food aren't just for foodies

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First aired on Q (02/04/12)

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We are living in a "foodie" moment, celebrating the local, artisanal and organic -- and there's no shortage of good food writing, either. But as Tracie McMillan points out in her new book, The American Way of Eating, our cultural conversation about food is ignoring a huge slice of the population, including people who can't afford to spend $9 on heirloom tomatoes, no matter how good they might taste. McMillan decided to find out why, and she spoke with guest host Brent Bambury on Q earlier this week about how she went undercover to live, work and eat with America's working poor.

McMillan is a magazine editor who lives in New York, but she grew up in blue collar Michigan, and her decidedly non-foodie background is a big part of what inspired her to write this book. "I really wanted to have a conversation that made sense for the families that I grew up with and the families I frequently report on," she said. McMillan freelances now, but she used to edit a magazine about city politics and policy. "I [often] went around talking to people on welfare about how the system was or wasn't working for them and I really felt there was such a loaded conversation happening about the importance of healthy food, which is something that makes the most sense in a lot of ways for folks that have a limited income because food can make you healthy in a really easy way."

McMillan wanted to root the "foodie" conversations in the experiences of people who were being talked to about food, but weren't actually part of the conversation. McMillan grew up surrounded by the attitude that anyone who took food and eating too seriously was a rich snob. "I felt like there was this interesting thing going on where my grandmother and people like her do care about food, and do care about health, but because the conversation about food has tended to come from a very high class, high culture segment of the population, they felt like conversations about food weren't for them," she explained. "And that's crazy, because everybody eats, and everybody in their own way takes food seriously...I wanted to play with that tension."


So McMillan went undercover, working in three different jobs: a farm in California, a Walmart and an Appleby's. She found extraordinary empathy from the hard-working immigrant farm-workers in California, she witnessed jaw-dropping waste in the produce section at Walmart ("more so even than at traditional grocery stores," she said) and witnessed first-hand the extreme mark-up of garlic. "The garlic from the farm where I was paid $1.60 per every 25 pounds I picked was being sold for $3.38/lb," she said. "It was this really good lesson...when you look at the cost of food, so little of that is going to farmers, and even less is going to farm-workers. You could increase wages on the farm without making our food more expensive."

One of the more shocking statistics that McMillan came across in her research is that a quarter of all the food Americans buy is sold through Walmart. So does Walmart have a responsibility to help Americans eat healthier? "There's a mix of private enterprise and public responsibility," said McMillan. "We might want to start thinking about healthy food a little bit more the way we think about water, in that everyone deserves it, everybody needs it to live. It's something that we might want to make sure everybody can get to."