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Q&A with Tracie McMillan: Going Behind the Scenes to See How Americans Eat

Q&A with Tracie McMillan: Going Behind the Scenes to See How Americans Eat

american way of eating, tracie mcmillan, food policy, nutrition, obesity, william heisel, reporting on healthTracie McMillan's first book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, received an unexpected boost from Rush Limbaugh when he spent the bulk of a show attacking the book. She was surprised that anyone with Limbaugh's reach had actually read the book, let alone felt the need to respond to it in a broadcast to millions of Americans. McMillan hopes the book's notoriety will lead to similar lines of inquiry by other reporters locally and nationally. She gave a ton of great tips for approaching the topic and for reporting undercover in our recent interview.

I reached McMillan in Oakland, California during her book tour. The interview has been edited for space and clarity. The first part appears below.

Q: From reading about you, it seems your drive to write about the working poor comes from your own experience growing up in a family where money was a constant concern. What about the book itself? What led to you writing this book specifically?

A: I wanted to start engaging with this discussion we're having in America about our food, and I wanted to see if there was a way to have that discussion that included the voices and concerns of middle class and lower middle class working families, families that don't' have a ton of disposable income and are juggling a lot of different demands on their time. A lot of families, certainly folks I reported on, sort of ignore the whole foodie world. Many of the people I grew up with don't know who Michael Pollan is. But that doesn't mean that they don't care about food.

Q: You grew up near Flint, Michigan.

A: Right. And I wanted to see how food works for these working families and see whether there is a way to have a conversation about food that isn't directly tied to economic class. Everyone knows that foodies can be annoying. I find it particularly annoying that we are told that we should spend a lot more money on food without talking about wages or work life.

When talking about where to place blame for our obesity problem, there's a mix of personal responsibility and structural inequality, just as there is with everything in in American life. But foodies too often fall into this trap of only looking at personal responsibility and consumer choice and not really looking at what is shaping those choices. There's this idea that we should pay the true cost of food, that farmers need a better price, and they do, obviously. But saying that we need to pay farmers well is divorced from the reality of most of the people buying their food.

Q: That's one of the things I liked about your approach, how you took the snobbery out of the topic. This is something I have written about before. There's a tendency to just tell people they should eat locally grown, organic food or that they should grow their own gardens or raise their own chickens. Do you think journalists, most of whom are not living below the poverty line no matter how much they plead poverty, too often vilify fast food and chain supermarkets as evil places where dumb people shop and work?

american way of eating, tracie mcmillan, food policy, nutrition, obesity, william heisel, reporting on healthA: It's not just journalists. There's a really strong thread in the culture -- in coastal cities in particular. There tends to be a real disdain for people who shop at Walmart or people who go to McDonald's. The thought is that these people really don't care about anything.

It was a little jarring for me when I had my book launch and called together a panel of what I kind of thought as anti-foodie foodies. The topic was basically "Do you have to be a hipster to care about food?" There was an audience question saying, "Those people who shop at Walmart aren't very thoughtful," and someone on my panel just reflexively said, "Yeah, those people at Walmart don't care about their food." It reminded me what a bubble most people in New York live in.

A quarter of America buys their groceries at Walmart, and less than 2 percent of food spending is done at farmers markets. If people are really concerned about making big change, maybe we should look at engaging with the 25 percent of America who shops at Walmart and spend less time focused on the 2 percent who shop at farmers markets. I love farmers markets and love fresh food. Low-income people love fresh food, too. But there are all these other reasons that getting fresh food for them is quite difficult.

Q: What sort of initial research did you do before deciding where to focus your undercover work?

A: I went to an agent and said I wanted to do something about food. My initial idea was an investigative history of supermarkets. And my agent, who is much smarter than me when it comes to these things, said "Don't you want to sell some of those books?" This was early 2008, before the economy crashed. I gave her this big earful about foodies and how it's not that low-income families don't care about their food. We came up with Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich, which every reviewer so far has mentioned, but about food.

Q: And I assume you had read it and liked the book?

A: Oh yeah. I read it as soon as it came out. So for every publisher, we were saying this book would be like Nickel and Dimed meets The Ominivore's Dilemma.

Q: So what kind of initial research did you do for the book?

A: I wanted to look at how Americans eat and what shapes the American diet other than what we're eating. What happens before we make that choice? Not just what's going on with agriculture. Not what's the marketing telling us to do. But what's going on with people's heads?  I needed to understand how the system works, particularly when it comes to fruits and vegetables.

I didn't want to go to an idyllic, small-scale farm. Everybody has already heard about those. And so much already has been written about corn and grain subsidies and meat production. If we want people to eat more fruits and vegetables, how would that work?

So I thought I had to go California. The Central Valley grows at least a third of the produce in the country. And the Salinas Valley is considered the Salad Bowl for the country because of all the vegetables produced there. So I decided I was going to go and figure out how to get work as a picker on an industrial farm.

Q: What steps did you have to take to accomplish that?

A: Most of the help came from California Rural Legal Assistance. They helped me figure out a place to stay and try to find work. They don't have media resources, so they just said, "Go talk with a community worker for an hour and good luck." And, through a community worker, I met friends of friends and was able to find work and a place to stay. The supermarket section of the book was meant to explore what happens to the food between farm and plate. We talk a lot about the farm to the table but nobody understands what happens between the farm and the table.

Walmart made sense because such a huge percentage of the population shops there. I decided to go to Michigan because that's where I'm from and because I didn't want the book to be just about the coasts. A lot of people don't know this, but Michigan has an incredibly diverse agricultural economy. It produces lots of fruits and vegetables. And Detroit is a really fascinating city going through a really interesting time right now. It's known throughout the country as a food desert, and so I thought that would be a good place to understand how food distribution works.

Q: And then you went to Applebee's, which I thought was interesting because, for a book like this, writers usually focus on McDonald's or KFC or Burger King.

A: Eric Schlosser covered that territory really well. I wasn't going to cover anything new. I wanted something that would get at cooking and kitchens and the plate part of the equation. I wouldn't be interested in writing about me in my own kitchen, and finding someone to be the iconic American family seemed too problematic. So I looked at the numbers, and Americans were spending just under 50% of their food budget eating out. I wanted to know what it looked like when you go out for a nice family dinner.

My family used to go struggle financially, but we weren't on any public assistance. My nuclear family was really broke, but my grandparents were more comfortable. So there was always a safety net for us, and we sometimes would go to Applebee's. My grandfather, who was in banking in Ann Arbor, loved Applebee's. Often, if you're traveling around, it's really the only place that you can go to that is not junk food.

Q: For a lot of people, it sounds like it will be a healthier choice, too. I have run into this while traveling in Kansas and Missouri.

A: Yeah. You can get industrial but relatively healthy food at Applebee's. But I didn't really understand what was going on behind the scenes at Applebee's. I had worked at a Big Boy in high school and knew what that back room looked like. And that was powdered eggs for breakfast. And for dessert, it was premade pie crust with giant cartons full of syrupy glop that was the consistency of hair gel. You sliced strawberries into the crust and put the gel on top, and that was pie.

Q: I have had that strawberry pie at a Big Boy in Great Falls, Montana.

A: Applebee's ended up being a step up from Big Boy, but not as much as I had expected. Almost everything that came in was premade. All the meat comes in frozen, and then is defrosted. So I wanted to understand what we are trading when we go out to eat at places like that. I'm a really competent home cook. I know what's good for me and have a good concept of nutrition basics. If there is anyone who can eat well on a budget, I'm a really good candidate.

In writing this book, it would have been a really clean and easy narrative to say I ate really well the whole time on a budget. But I would have had to work at it. I wanted to be careful about not working beyond what I would if I thought nobody was looking. That's what most Americans are doing. They are doing what they feel like doing, and they think that nobody is paying attention.

Q: What do you bring with you when you go undercover? Do you bring a recorder? A camera? A notebook? Nothing?

A: I brought a notebook, a tiny Dell laptop I bought for $300, a camera and an audio recorder. It's kind of amazing to think about, but in 2009 smart phones weren't the way they are now. By the time we got to the point where I was doing promotional work for the book, (publisher) Scribner said, "Do you have video?" I didn't have a smart phone that could do video three years ago. The same farm workers I worked with then now have crappy little phones that can do video.

Q: Wouldn't it have been logistically hard to do video anyway?

A: Not really. In the fields, nobody is paying attention to you. Nobody gives a crap about these workers. It's not like they have a really big problem with undocumented workers giving them trouble out in the fields.

Q: Wouldn't video have complicated things ethically, though?

A: There's a whole ethics around using video and photos when you're undercover. I was basically just using the camera to document things to help me remember. Kate Boo did this really interesting thing with her book Behind the Beautiful Forevers. She gave flip video cameras to kids in the slum and had them run around and film their lives.  I think that's really great and works perfectly for her book.

Q: How did you actually take notes, though? Weren't people wondering why you were scribbling things down? Or snapping pictures?

A: For the farm work, I have the best notes because I was driving to and from work sites often by myself, and I would just narrate into the audio recorder. I took tons of really short audio notes. Instead of just one long one. That really helped me with the transcription later.

Q: I imagine there were some specific things, though, that you wanted to note right in the moment, like things people said. When you were surrounded by people, in Applebee's or Walmart, that must have been difficult.

A: The kitchen at Applebee's was the hardest. I would work a 12-hour shift in the kitchen, and I couldn't remember everything that happened. I was taking the subway, and I'm not the kind of person who feels comfortable talking to myself on the subway. The only reason I was able to make that work was because of luck. I had met William Finnegan from The New Yorker maybe five or six years ago and said, "Could you look at my clips and help me figure out what to do because I just left my job?" He paged through who knows how many thousands of words of welfare stories and gave me some advice. So I had remained in touch with him. I knew that Bill Buford did phenomenal job writing about what goes on in a kitchen in Heat.

So I got in touch with Finnegan, and he put me in touch with Bill Buford. He had this method of keeping track of significant events through the night. You boil something that happened down to a headline and you assign it to a finger. He said, "I can usually keep five to seven in my head, and when I go home, I write those down. They will work as a little string sticking out of a sweater; you pull it out and you'll find that everything comes out with it." I tried it, and he was right.

Q: What did you do once you had gathered all of your material?

A: I have had this idea of putting my original source material online. I used Document Cloud. I have this total reporter dork daydream that people could be reading my book and could be on page 98 and say, "I wonder where this came from" and click on a link and pull up every page of original source material for page 98. Nobody has done this level of socioeconomic reporting on food before. And I want to see people do more of it. I have these pictures of inventory sheets from Walmart where there are cost margins, and that's really fascinating stuff that could lead to all kinds of stories.

Q: Are you worried about the legal repercussions of posting internal Walmart documents, though?

A: I used that material in the book.

Q: Right, but Walmart could always say you made that part up or tell their shareholders or critics that you are just a crank who snuck into their store and tried to make them look bad. With a document like that, you are making it much harder to brush away.

A: I do love the idea of causing trouble, but I don't like the idea of Walmart suing me because I don't have any money. My lawyer at Scribner said, "I was really worried when they told me about this project, but you are very fair throughout it."

Q: I notice that you rarely use quotation marks in the book. Is that because you are signaling to the reader that these are paraphrases rather than exact quotes?

A: That was a nuance that I picked up from Frank McCourt who wrote Angela's Ashes. All of his dialogue is recalled and so none of it is in quotes. There are some places where I did do formal interviews, and there I used quotation marks. Another issue is that I am still learning Spanish; I didn't use a translator in my book reporting, but I've done so since and  there's always this problem where I think I understood and then the translator tells me something different.

And remembered dialogue is always translated, even in the same language, because you're remembering what you heard, not necessarily what someone said. So I thought the best thing I can do here is skip quote marks. The intangibility of truth was difficult here because I really wanted to get things right. I'm still new enough of an author that I go and read all the comments on websites about my book, and it's almost inevitable that people have said "Where are the quote marks?"

Q: Do you answer those critics?

A: I do answer some of them. I did on Good Reads because I thought that people might actually read the comments there.

Next: How McMillan's reporting took her somewhere she never expected: a police station

Home page photo credit: Andrew Mager via Flickr

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