Q&A with Tracie McMillan, Part 2: Examining The American Diet While Undercover
This is the second part of my interview with investigative reporter Tracie McMillan, author of The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table. The first part appeared on Monday.
Q: Some critics have said that the book reads like a novel. The struggle for narrative journalism is to represent life factually while imposing a dramatic structure. How did you strike that balance?
A: I really looked at the book as having an easy narrative because I was going on this journey. Between the transcribed verbal notes and other notes, there is a lot of documentation. From the farm work I had 400 pages typed. Every day, I would finish work, and I would spend two or three hours at the library typing notes.
Q: Why the library?
A: Because I needed to be out of the place where I lived because the people I was living with didn't know I was a journalist. I would go with my little laptop and headset and transcribe the audio. And this is a tactic that most narrative journalists use. I read about Jessica Mitford's process. She would type a letter to her husband about what she had done that day. So I used that same idea: How would I tell my friends about my day? As the reporting went on, my notes got more sparse because I was getting exhausted. And with the Walmart stuff, I just ended up in a foul temper. It wasn't fun to write about that.
Q: Why was that?
A: The worst job for me was the night shift at Walmart, and not because they would take away your overtime. It was hard because that was where I was from, and those were people who could have been me had I not had the opportunities I've had. That made me really grumpy, and I didn't like writing about it.
Q: When did you start telling the people you worked alongside that you were really a reporter?
A: I didn't tell everyone. Just the folks I naturally would have kept in touch with. The families I had lived with and worked with. The woman who had befriended me in the grape fields. One of the women said, "OK. But do you still need work? I need help in oranges next week." She took me out to McDonald's, and we just talked.
Q: So nobody accused you of being deceptive or tricking them?
A: No. One family, in fact, said they had thought I was an inspector for the government, and they were even more excited to find out I was a journalist. "Now everyone will know about what goes on." What's really heartbreaking is that the government does not typically send out spot inspectors even in work places where it's pretty well known that there are abuses.
When I found all these abuses in the field where they were growing garlic going to Whole Foods, I called up an investigative magazine and the editor called me and said, "It's not really news when that stuff happens to immigrants. Maybe if you wanted to write about it you could write about how to shop responsibly for garlic." I said that for a feature I would preempt my book but I wasn't going to preempt my book for a shopping column.
Q: Did you tell anyone at Walmart and Applebee's that you were a reporter?
A: At Walmart, I didn't tell anyone. Primarily because it's such a corporate behemoth that I didn't befriend anyone. I didn't do the thing where you give two weeks' notice. I just said, "I'm not coming in." The main reason is that I was worried that if I said anything it would trickle up somehow and get into the press department. And at Applebee's I got sexually assaulted at the end, and so I said, "I'm not talking to those people."
Q: After you wrote about that in your book, has anyone from Applebee's contacted you?
A: I haven't gotten any reaction from Applebee's, and I'm not sure they feel the need to respond. You could get on them for having drinking at work. But every restaurant has drinking on the line late in the evening. That's messed up and really irresponsible, but it's the culture. And I wasn't actually assaulted by a coworker, but by another asshole.
Q: I haven't seen much in the book reviews or stories about your book about this, even though it had to be the most traumatic thing you went through in reporting the book.
A: Most of the press mentions of it have been just really brief and skimming over it. Sexual assault is an incredibly uncomfortable topic. There's this narrative we have that sexual assault is when a terrifying man in a mask jumps out of a bush. What happened with me was a lot messier. I had been drinking, for one, and I blacked out in bed in someone else's house. When I reported to the police what had happened, the cop said, "If you don't remember anything then maybe you assaulted this guy."
Q: What did you say?
A: I said, "I don't remember what happened, but I talked with this girl who was there and she said a guy had crawled into bed with me and was taking my pants off and assaulting me." She apparently told him stop and then fell back asleep. All of these kids were like 21, and the whole situation was just stupid.
Q: Did the girl testify on your behalf?
A: She did. She went and was really helpful. She's way more street smart than me. I thought I had made out with one of my coworkers, and she said, no, that it was this other guy I didn't even know. She told me, "You need to call the guy who's house you were at and ask him what happened." So I did, and he just put this guy on the phone, the guy who had assaulted me.
Q: That had to be unsettling. What did you say to him?
A: I said I didn't know what happened, but I had been told that he had assaulted me and what did he have to say about it. These guys were just spinning me. He said, "I have sisters and a mother and I respect women." I was really uncomfortable. It's not a really fun conversation to have. "I think you were touching my vagina" is not a sentence I have ever had to utter before. I got back on the phone with the girl and she, again, was very street-smart about all of it. She said, "What? Rapists don't have mothers? They think you stupid or something?"
Q: What finally prompted you to report it?
A: I didn't do it lightly. Inviting the criminal justice system into the life of a man of color is a serious matter. So the first thing I did was call this guy back and say, "I think what you did wasn't cool." And he said, "Alcohol is an aphrodisiac." That's when I realized that these guys have this talk with girls all the time, and usually they're dealing with someone who they can talk out of going to the cops. Then I talked to a lawyer friend who said, "Given what happened, at a minimum, he probably will get arrested and have a record."
Q: And what did happen?
A: I went and made the report and they arrested him and brought in his friend and the girl for questioning. That's when I actually found out the most about what happened. I had crawled into the bed and passed out, and the girl crawled into bed and went to sleep, too. So this other guy comes in and starts taking off my pants. And they actually argued over whether I was conscious for a few minutes.
It would almost be funny if it didn't actually happen: "Tracie?" No answer. "Tracie?" No answer. "Tracie?" No answer. And, so I said something like, "You think you're slick." That's not consent. I was narrating. I don't remember any of this, but no one says I consented. If you have to argue over whether a girl is conscious, then they can't possibly be giving consent. But these kids are still figuring out those boundaries.
Q: Did he end up going to jail?
A: The kid got arrested and released. For a month, I thought I must have gotten wasted off three drinks. I could usually have three drinks and still be standing and not black out. Maybe I have blacked out once in my life. I had become really fond of this cook, Hector, who I write about in the book; he had just moved into an apartment after being a homeless shelter. I was leaving New York, and I called him and said, "Can I give you some furniture?" And I took him the furniture and was hanging out with him in the apartment with his kids. He asked me about that night and said, "I was really worried after I saw what this other cook put in your drink."
I was so shocked that I didn't have anything to say. What had happened was a bunch of us left the restaurant together and went back to one of the servers' houses. This cook who had put something in my drink and his cousin wanted to take me to a different house. And this girl said, "Tracie looks messed up" and she kept them from taking me with them. And the guy who assaulted me actually used that as a defense. He said, "You are lucky we didn't let you go home with the cook," Just because I didn't get gang raped by the other dudes doesn't make what you did less disgusting.
Q: In this whole discussion, none of the people are named or, if they are, you only identified them by their first name. The use of anonymous sources often comes under criticism, both from journalism purists and from people who don't like the main message of a work. Did you anticipate that and, what did you do to guard against that criticism?
A: The basic thing is I don't think it's fair to use someone's real name if they didn't give me permission to. I wouldn't appreciate that as a private person. I felt a very strong responsibility to respect their privacy. There are a handful of folks in there who knew I was a journalist, and I used their real names.
The rule I sort of set up for myself was that I could conceal my actual job in any situation where it endangered my ability to do the work. In situations where I wasn't living with people I worked with, I just waited a little bit to make sure nobody's aunt was a manager at Walmart or was working at another Applebee's and then I would be straight and say, "I'm a writer, and I'm doing a project."
Q: Were you concerned beyond the privacy about the fact that people might try to pick apart your work and you wouldn't have named sources who could corroborate it?
A: I'm not going to reveal people's lives like that if they didn't agree to it from the get-go. I am more concerned about being fair and just to the people I was reporting on.
Q: And you haven't had a challenge to the accuracy of the book?
Q: What other sorts of criticism did you anticipate?
A: I expected there would be push back from food circles saying, "You got this wrong, and we just need to tell people what to eat." That's been the conventional wisdom for a really long time.
Q: Did you expect things to get political? For some reason, I was surprised to hear Rush Limbaugh get involved and go after you and your book. I'm not a regular listener of his show, but it seemed a little far afield for him, no pun intended. How did you hear that you had been criticized on his show?
A: I do actually listen to his show intermittently because I do a lot of cross country driving. I usually can't follow his rhetorical style, but it is powerful. He is someone with a lot of followers, and so it is useful to understand that.
Q: So did you hear him live?
A: No. I was about to sit down and turn off the internet because I needed to start writing on another project, and I got a tweet from someone saying, "I just heard about @tmmcmillan's book on Rush Limbaugh," and then I got a direct message from a reporter at Forbes saying, "Do you want to talk to me about Rush Limbaugh attacking you?" I emailed my agent and said. "What's going on with Rush Limbaugh?"
I was really shocked to see anyone grab onto the political strands in the book that quickly and that viciously. Because those strands are there. In fact, most of the reviews that have been very critical usually say it's such a good story but then say, "She doesn't understand how the world works." One writer wondered if I knew that the Soviet Union had famines. Frankly, as a first-time author, you don't think that people in general are going to pay that much attention to your book. Everybody was telling me to manage my expectations. "You're going to finish the book, and that nice, chilled-out feeling that you will have is the calm before the calm." As a book author, I'm basically an unknown quantity. I really had no idea why Rush Limbaugh felt that I was worth attacking, but I'm glad he did. It was very helpful for my sales.
Q: It was? How much so?
A: Our sales spiked for a week, and we almost made it back onto the best seller list. I had been on the list for one week when the first book came out. And when Rush Limbaugh did that show, we actually sold more books than we did when we first got on the list, but other books sold even better, so my sales weren't enough to get me back onto the list. Rush also really helped with the media exposure. I have booked a lot more radio since then.
Q: During any of these interviews, have you been asked a stumping question?
A: I did get a question from a high school student in the Coachella Valley: "Would you go out and work in the fields again?" And that really made me pause.
Q: What did you end up saying?
A: I said, "The short answer is probably not and the reason is not because it's hard and hot work, because I can do hard and hot work, but because it pays so badly and it's really dangerous. If you were getting paid factory union wages, that could get me interested. I could see picking up a few months of work in the summer, particularly because it's flexible. You just show up that day and start working. There's something really fluid and nice about that. If I was earning $30 an hour doing that for a week and could take off the rest of the month to do writing, that would be great.
Q: You say early in the book that it costs less to eat bad food. Journalist Mark Bittman has written that junk food being cheaper is a myth. What led you to come down where you did on this question?
A: A lot of the research that Mark Bittman cited is research that has come out since I was doing the writing for this book. Junk food is really cheap, and processed food is really cheap. You can't dispute that. But that doesn't mean it's cheaper than cooking from scratch. In terms of just grabbing food and eating it, it is cheaper. Taken an orange versus a bag of chips. You can get 50-cent bag of chips that would cost less than an orange.
Q: Obesity expert Dr. Yoni Freedhoff and I corresponded a bit before this interview, and he said something that I wanted to ask you. He said that many folks do indeed believe that eating healthfully is complicated and perhaps that perception leads people to not want to spend the energy they perceive to be required to do so. What do you think about that?
A: I would say that's definitely the case. I would say that I do that. And I definitely saw that with the folks I worked alongside. Not so much with the recent immigrants. But with everyone else there is a perception that eating healthy is really complicated, that cooking is really complicated and that doing these things takes a lot more time. Which it really doesn't if you know what you are doing. That study that Bittman talks about shows that low-income people are cooking at home.
And there's the American Time Use Survey. There has been some analysis of the survey that shows that families on food stamps spend twice as much time cooking as upper-income families. One of the easiest ways to get people to not listen to you is to give them advice that doesn't take the realities of their lives into account. Maybe instead of lecturing people about what they should be eating, we can take a look at why they're eating the way they are. If the end goal is we want Americans to be eating better, healthier diets, how do we get there? We need to have a practical conversation about wanting to get to point X and taking the steps to get us there.
Q: So many books like this end with a blueprint for change. I don't want to give away the ending of your book, but you don't conclude with a specific, point-by-point plan for how to change the way America eats. What do you hope people do with this book?
A: I would be totally happy if we just had a lot more fresh food in low-income neighborhoods and really good cooking classes for people. As I move out of book mode and into freelance mode again I will be writing about food access and urban agriculture. You'll hear that there is no demand for good food in low-income neighborhoods. Do you really think that poor people don't want fresh food?
Photo credit: Walmart Stores via Flickr