It took journalist Tracie McMillan five months and 115 phone calls to line up the job she was striving for: a produce stocker at Walmart.
For her new book, "The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table," McMillan took an inside look at our country's food systems and their systemic problems, tracing them all the way from farm to table.
She started her on-the-scene examination as a California farmworker and ended up as an expediter in an Applebee's kitchen in Brooklyn. But along the way, she also spent some time in the food-selling business as an undercover worker at an undisclosed metro Detroit Walmart.
McMillan explained why she felt the need to take a broad look.
"People weren't talking about how getting food into cities works," she explained. "Detroit is a rich place to explore that, not because it gets talked about as a 'food desert,' but because there's so much going on rethinking the way the food system works."
McMillan's reasons for coming to Michigan for the book were also personal. The Holly, Mich., native didn't spend much time in the big city growing up, but Detroit had always fascinated her.
"There's a real willingness to work and scrappiness that isn't just about being in a city with a lot of city services lacking, but just comes from midwest, Michigan culture," she said. "There's a very deep connection to things being practical."
In "The American Way of Eating," McMillan recounts the challenges Detroiters face fetting good food, but spends more time focusing on initiatives -- like Peaches and Greens and Eastern Market -- that in some ways make Detroit a model to start imagining how food distribution could work differently.
"[Eastern Market President] Dan Carmody understands Eastern Market ... as a piece of infrastructure and a locus of power in the food system," McMillan explained, "something he can leverage to change the food landscape in the region."
While McMillan made a point to explore food alternatives in her off time, she was also working full weeks at Walmart. "The American Way of Eating" gives background on the workings of the corporate giant, but in the produce aisle, McMillan was picking out spoiled vegetables and talking to her coworkers about eating and food habits.
"The people who work in the food system are the working class," she said. "They're the ones who are struggling to get by on their wages."
"If I really want to understand how people make their decisions about food, I had to go see for myself," she added.
The one thing that McMillan drives home throughout the book, which blends overarching statistics with anecdotes that explain her personal experiences with food (for example, making ceviche with her roommate in southwest Detroit), is that structural problems with the food system trump individual choices.
"Everyone accepts the idea that good, healthy food is for rich people," McMillin explained. "That we accept that as a matter of course seems, to me, weirder and weirder."
Tracie McMillan will be at newly-opened downtown restaurant COLORS Thursday from 6 to 9 p.m. to discuss "The American Way Of Eating" at the first night of the restaurant's Talk Soup Series, which combine conversations about food and social justice with $5 soup dinners. COLORS is located at 311 E. Grand River, Detroit. For more information see the Facebook event.
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