Journalist goes undercover to rip the lid off America's food culture

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Tracie McMillan remembers sitting in the trailer outside of Bakersfield, Calif., giving herself a pep talk before opening the flimsy door. She’d been told she’d have to chat with others in the trailer park to find work in one of the nearby grape fields. It sounded easy at the time, but reality was different.

“I sat there telling myself I had to do this, I can do this,” McMillan says in a phone interview.

A journalist living in New York City, McMillan had spent the past decade covering the city’s lower income population. She didn’t consider food part of her repertoire, so when she was told to cover a cooking class hosted by a youth services agency, she didn’t want to go. The city was filled with other stories, more important stories, than teaching local youth the importance of fruits and vegetables, or so she thought. Plus McMillan grew up on Hamburger Helper, and she was OK with it.

Her outlook changed, however, when McMillan realized that the country’s food conversation wasn’t exclusive to America’s upper class. Individuals of all income levels, from the family that struggles to put food on the table to the middle class single parent who chooses convenience first, had food concerns, too.

Only their voices were muted by those monopolizing the pulpit.

“Honestly, I was just so irritated by the tone when talking about food in the U.S.,” McMillan says.

Those who preached that people who really care about health are going to spend more time and money on food weren’t aware of how other populations struggled to do just that. New York City’s lower income neighborhoods didn’t have access to high-class supermarkets or farmers markets. Even if they did, McMillan says, paying $20 for a pound of tomatoes wasn’t possible with their budget.

Wanting to give the silent a say, McMillan set out to open the discussion, writing “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table” (Scribner; Feb. 2012).

McMillan spent a year working covertly in three facets of food production. She was a farmworker in California; a Walmart grocery store employee in Detroit; and prepped food in the kitchen of a New York City’s Applebee’s. The goal, she said, was to investigate why America eats the way it does. She wanted to know why — despite the plethora of information — most food habits remain the same, and what it would take to change things.

I’d heard about some of McMillan’s experiences months before her book was released. We had met years before as recipients of a University of Maryland Journalism Fellowship in Child and Family Policy and stayed in touch after. She spent the night on my couch during a cross country drive from New York to California in the fall of 2011, a visit that earned me a thank you in her book’s acknowledgments. McMillan shared aspects of her undercover adventure over grilled burgers and pudding pie, but the written narrative exposed much more than our casual conversation.

“The American Way of Eating” explores how our country is the land of plenty and not enough at the same time. We have so much food, but the way in which it’s delivered and marketed to different classes affects how it is perceived. McMillan isn’t ashamed of her tacos-from-a-box background, but she also knows that making healthy meals isn’t as time-consuming, or as expensive, as the affluent food culture wants us to believe.

In the 18 months that have passed since McMillan’s book was released, she has traveled the world, engaging in dialogue with anyone who wants to talk. “The American Way of Eating” made “The New York Times” best-selling list and has been adopted into university curriculum across the country. McMillan was named a “Food Visionary” by Whole Living magazine and was a finalist for the James Beard Journalism Award.

“What’s surprising to me is how many people want to have this conversation with me,” McMillan says. “You don’t have to have an Ivy League background to care.”

Author events

Tracie McMillan, author of “The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table” (Scribner; Feb. 2012), will be at the University of Iowa and the University of Northern Iowa this week for several events.

Cedar Falls

  • What: McMillan will attend a performance of “The American Way of Eating,” an original adaptation of her book by Matthew Weedman. A book signing will follow. The show will run through Oct. 20. Other dates and times, as well as ticket information, can be found at: uni.edu/theatre/swt
  • When: 2 p.m. Sunday
  • Where: Strayer-Wood Theatre, University of Northern Iowa
  • Cost: Open to the public; ticket prices vary.

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  • What: Reception and book signing
  • When: 3 to 4 p.m. Monday
  • Where: Great Reading Room, Seerley Hall, University of Northern Iowa

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  • What: Reaching for Higher Ground
  • Keynote: Tracie McMillan
  • When: 7 p.m. Monday
  • Where: Lang Hall Auditorium, University of Northern Iowa
  • Cost: Free; open to the public

Iowa City

  • What: A View and a Voice from the Fields: Writing Investigative Nonfiction/Journalism. McMillan will lead a discussion of her professional career as a writer of investigative nonfiction and journalism.
  • When: 10 to 11:30 a.m., Wednesday
  • Where: Gerber Lounge, 304 English-Philosophy Building, University of Iowa
  • Cost: Free; open to the public

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  • What: Food Systems and Sustainability: Strategies for Change––Bringing Justice and Common Sense to Our Tables. McMillan will read short excerpts from her recent and current investigative work into America’s food systems.
  • When: 1:30 to 3 p.m., Wednesday
  • Where: Gerber Lounge, 304 English-Philosophy Building, University of Iowa
  • Cost: Free; open to the public

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  • What: A public reading and discussion; book signing to follow.
  • When: 7 to 8 p.m. Wednesday
  • Where: Congregational United Church of Christ, 30 N Clinton St., Iowa City
  • Cost: Free; open to the public.

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