In America, it’s not just eating well that’s solely for the rich. Increasingly, eating healthfully is something only the well-off can do as well. That’s in part because the country’s food system is set up to produce exactly that outcome, says Tracie McMillan, who explores how Americans eat in her new book, “The American Way of Eating,” out this past week from Scribner. McMillan did a yearlong stint working undercover on the nation’s desert farms, mega supermarkets and sit-down fast-food restaurants to explore what keeps Americans from eating well.

Her conclusion? By and large, it’s meager pay, long work hours and isolated neighborhoods that the working poor must deal with—and not a lack of interest—which make eating healthfully so difficult. McMillan works alongside undocumented immigrants harvesting grapes and garlic in the fields of California’s Central Valley and with Walmart lifers stocking the baking and produce aisles in the midwest before ending her tour of America’s food system in Applebee’s, the world’s largest casual dining chain, trying to make ends meet on the same wages her coworkers make. Even as a short-term controlled experiment, from beginning to end, just being able to afford the bare basics is a daily challenge for McMillan.

McMillan chatted with Colorlines.com about her new book, the immense food system, and the actual solutions to the country’s pressing food access and public health issues. Healthy food shouldn’t be a luxury item, she says. And with appropriately applied political will, it doesn’t need to be either.

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What has changed about your relationship with food since you wrote this book? 

I have so much more appreciation and respect for the fact that the reason I get to be a journalist is that there are thousands and millions of people working around the world to feed me, which is a creepy thing, and which brings up all sorts of questions of empire and all that. But, that, I don’t get to hang out and go to college and become a journalist just because I’m so awesome, but that part of the reason I get to do that is because there are a lot of people whose job it is to feed me. It underscored for me how much labor there still is around food.

You talk at length about how farmers use threats of mechanization to silence labor organizing, but it’s also more than that. Can you also talk about the ways in which people’s immigration statuses end up being used against them?

It was interesting for me to start dig into this work because far more of the folks I talked to say: you’re giving a voice to the voiceless. And after having spent the better part of the year working with immigrant workers in restaurants and in the fields I wanted to argue with them and say: immigrants are not voiceless, we just don’t listen to them.

And because their status in this country is dependent on them being quiet they stay quiet. I saw that most explicitly in the fields because it was not that people didn’t understand that they were getting screwed, or that they were getting paid less wages than were fair. And they largely know they’re not being paid legal wages and they know they probably won’t be able to find work easily again if they complain.

And so that’s a huge part of what keeps those wages low. And the threat of mechanization is part of that.

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How can people make sense of the idea that cheap produce in America depends on the exploitation of undocumented immigrants?

One thing I do try to pull out of the book is I don’t actually think affordable produce is contingent on exploiting farmworkers to the extent that they’re being exploited now. Farm labor makes such an incredibly small percentage of the store price of produce typically. So, farm market share might make 25 to 30 percent of fruit, and labor is anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of a farmer’s costs. There’s an economist from UC Davis, Philip Martin, he’s looked at this question quite a bit. And his calculations are that raising farmworker wages by 40 percent—and this is still not to, like, great wages, but from $10,000 to $14,000 a year, given the economies of scale, could make an appreciable difference in the lives of farmworkers—would cost the average American family’s average grocery bill to go up by $16 for the entire year. So, like this idea that if we paid farmworkers a decent wage we wouldn’t be able to afford food is pretty much a myth. You hear it again and again: if we raise wages, no one can afford to eat, but the economic research says that’s not really the case.

You have to figure out how to create a system though so that if you were paying more at the store it actually gets back to the worker, like the Coalition of Immokalee Workers deal, and not to middle men or to the profit margin.

So much of your book is about the systemic design of how we get our food. But for people who are interested in doing something, what can folks do?

One really important thing people can do is cook more. I think that’s really important if we’re talking about more small scale stuff. Also, when you’re shopping at the farmers market, ask your farmer what they’re paying their workers and where their workers are from and what their relationship with them is, because that doesn’t get asked. The only way you know is if you ask. And the only way farmers know it matters is if you ask. Because some of this is just holding farmers accountable a little bit.

There has always been a very deep rift in the organic community, especially in the organic certification conversation, about whether or not to include labor standards in that. And most growers argue against that because yes, organic farming is better in terms of pesticide exposure, but it’s a lot worse in terms of musculoskeletal injuries because you’re having farmworkers do all this work by hand.

You have instances in California of organic farmers telling their workers to use the short hand-held hoe that’s been banned since the 1980s and was considered a landmark victory for farmworker rights because it’s a tool that requires you to bend over full at the waist so your torso is almost parallel to your legs and hobble along a row while you use it. It will literally cripple you. I talked to a legal advocate who knew some workers on an organic farm and they had been told to use the hoe and organic growers have said, “But I’m an organic grower and organic growers get a hand-weeding extension.” And as far as the grower is concerned he should be allowed to use the tool because it’s very efficient tool if you don’t consider the impact it’s having on the human body.

That’s a really easy thing for anybody who’s sort of already on the local and sustainable bandwagon to do. Just start asking those questions and include those as part of the discussion because right now farmers sort of get a free pass when it comes to labor.

Something that is a little more rhetorical is to understand that the reason why the food movement gets charged with being elitist is not because good food is elitist, but because the arguments being made in support of it only make sense to people in an elite economic class. So if the way you are telling people that they can participate in a sustainable food movement is by paying more for food, that is something that only makes sense to the top third of America. Rich people, and I don’t even mean the top 1 percent, but people who we think of as middle class but are really upper middle class can spend an extra 20 bucks a week on produce. Nobody is upset with the idea that those people should spend more, but what happens is that most families don’t have those kinds of resources and they’re being automatically excluded from the discussions because of it.

Being told in moralistic terms that they don’t care about their diets and that’s why they can’t participate is elitist, and that’s not a very useful argument. If you want to say the way to fix it is we pay more, then just be straight up and say: the way we change society and the way things work in this world is we get the top 20 percent income people in America to change their shopping habits. If you really think that’s what will change the country, fine. If you’re only talking about change by and to elites, that by definition is elitist.

Your book is a really forceful document of the way that class affects people’s access to food. Where does race fit in as a dimension for how access to food is structured?

Race is rarely, rarely explicitly addressed in terms of the food sytsem, particularly when you’re talking on a broad scale. I think the real obvious undercurrent is the idea that you have a bunch of overweight urban black and brown people who don’t care about their health shoving their faces full of McDonald’s. And the counterpart to that is you have well-dressed women with sparrows embroidered in their blouses and bearded men with glasses doing their little local food thing, and those are the two poles of the food system.

Sparrows embroidered on their blouses? For a second I wasn’t sure where you were going with that but I completely get it.

Hipsters! And granted, like, there totally are annoying hipster people the same way there are black people in Bed-Stuy eating crappy food. There are all these structural reasons [around that]. But you get these caricatures and there is this middle in between.

Most people understand and care about eating fruits and vegetables, and whats holding them up is it’s a lot easier to eat crappy food instead. It’s not just that it’s hard to find fruits and vegetables, the problem is much more that we have made it so easy to eat crap. We make it really really easy for people to make bad dietary chocies and we make it pretty difficult to do otherwise, to go in the other direction.

To me it feels really impractical and a little heartless to act like people eating crappy food in American are getting what they asked for because we’ve made it so easy for people to eat crap and so difficult to eat well, it’s shocking to me that anyone thinks it should be the other way around. We put a lot of time and energy into building a food system—from distribution and economies of scale and what we’re subsidizing—that is really good at turning out a potato chip and not so efficient at making sure that high quality produce gets into neighborhoods.

There is an element of having faith here. Not to be too touchy feely about it but it’s a question of, like, what do you think is the human race? Do you think we’re all selfish lazy idiots who have no interest in building a livable space for our kids? Or do you think that most people work hard at keeping up with what they’ve got? If we can make it easy for them we can trust that they’ll follow that.

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