Three years ago, I went to work undercover in America's food system. To the extent that I was motivated by journalistic intrigue, I wanted to see how the country's vast industrial food system worked. But more than that, I had a bone to pick with foodies.
The breaking point came at a post-conference party in California, when a young man I'd noticed photographing his artisanal cocktail earlier started chatting me up. When I said I wrote about food and class, he told me that if poor people would just make food a priority, their lives would be better. I asked what he suggested for people earning $8 an hour, and he replied that poor people had cable television. Perhaps they could get rid of that.
I'd had a couple cocktails myself, and so maybe that's why I blurted out, "What, are you giving up your precious iPhone to buy heirloom tomatoes?" Then I delivered what, in my tipsy haze, I probably thought was a scathing coda: "People like you are why everyone thinks good food is elitist!"
I stalked off; I imagine the guy was befuddled.
My anger--inappropriate at a professional gathering, not to mention pointless--telegraphed my upbringing. I was born to working-class parents in Michigan, infuriated at East Coast snobbery while I went to NYU on scholarship, and--once I secured a rent-stabilized apartment, keeping rent affordable--had ended up working as a reporter covering welfare reform and low-wage jobs in New York City. I grew up without much money and spent my days reporting on the lives of people who had even less: welfare clients, child care center patrons, teenagers who'd dropped out of school and didn't have jobs.
It drove me mad when I started to hear foodies wax rhapsodic over local produce, going on to imply, not-so-subtly, that to buy it was a measure of character and moral standing. I grew up eating processed food during the week, fresh stuff on weekends--that's how it works when you're being raised by a working, single dad--but that didn't mean my family didn't care about food; it was just what was easiest. And the families I now reported on? They cared about their meals and health, but they were mostly eating what was easy--readily available, affordable, tasty. My family and the ones I reported on weren't immoral. We were just broke and stressed.
So, really, when I started reporting The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, I was a woman on a mission. Yes, I wanted to see how the food system worked from farm to plate; but and that was a ruse to explore, as a journalist, how our food system works--or doesn't--for the families I grew up with and the ones I met in my work.
Here are nine things I learned:
The idea that America's working class wholly prefers junk food to fresh is a myth. A recent study backs this up, finding that 85 percent of 1,500 low-income families surveyed said eating healthy food was a priority. I saw evidence of this again and again in my reporting, and found the clearest example of it in Detroit, interviewing SNAP clients who used a matching-funds program at the farmer's market called Double-Up Food Bucks. There, I met Patti Good, a K-Mart cashier who had driven in 13 miles to get an extra $20 for produce. "You can't afford stuff like that all the time," she said of oranges. Patti looked like most of the women I'd grown up with. She was pale and blond, her long hair straight and unstyled. No makeup; loose jeans and sweatshirt and sneakers. When I asked her what she had bought with the coupons, she rattled off a long list: Honeycrisp apples, potatoes, onions, brussels sprouts, a pineapple. What was keeping her from eating well wasn't a lack of interest in her food, but too few wages to make good on it. That, too, was backed up by the study mentioned above: Of families who thought healthy eating was important, 60 percent said they usually failed to eat healthily. Why not? Time and price.
Just about everyone, from Michael Pollan to Eric Schlosser to Barbara Kingsolver, who urges Americans to buy local food tells us to spend more money on our meals. This is not unreasonable in spirit, and it's a fine rhetorical point--but it is wholly impractical for a relatively large share of the American public. Bureau of Labor Statistics data put Americans' food spending at about 10 percent of their post-tax income in 2010, but that percentage is an average, and it shifts rather dramatically if you examine the income spectrum. In 2010, the poorest Americans, households earning from $5,000 to $35,000 a year, spent 16 to 35 percent of their income on food. The upper class--households earning $70,000 a year or more--spent 8 percent.
We all know Americans need to eat better, but here's one thing that makes it tough: There aren't enough fruits and vegetables grown here to make it possible. The U.S. food supply contains less than 60 percent of the vegetables required to meet recommended daily allowances for Americans, and less than half of the fruit. To change that, the U.S. would need to more than double the acreage devoted to fruit and vegetable crops. We'd also probably want to re-visit our agricultural subsidies. In 2008, we spent 42 percent of the nation's $18 billion in farm subsidies on commodity crops, most of which are the grains that get turned into sweeteners, animal feed (and therefore meat), and, well, grain--and just 5 percent on fruits and vegetables.
When I picked garlic in California fields, I was paid $1.60 for every 5-gallon (and 25-pound) bucket I could fill with heads of garlic; the highest wage I earned as a picker was $3.40 an hour. This was entirely illegal and, from what my co-workers told me, a common experience. In my later job at Walmart, I stocked garlic from the Garlic Company, whose name appeared on tags in one of fields after our harvests were complete, it cost $3.38 a pound. That's roughly fifty times what I had been paid to harvest it, or 2 percent. Economists estimate that increasing farm wages by 40 percent would raise the average household grocery bill by about $16 a year in the U.S. Even if wages went up for everyone--via a minimum wage hike--the USDA estimates that food prices would increase by less than one percent.
Food companies don't want us to know it, but most of the convenience they are selling us is an illusion. When I attempted to make a from-scratch version of Hamburger Helper, I expected it would be faster, and it was: by one minute. In fact, a study of dual-income families' cooking habits found that those who use convenience foods don't save any time on meal prep. But what really shocked me was the price comparison. Making Hamburger Helper from scratch saved me 69 percent off the cost of the box, and 42 percent on the overall price of the meal. (Full disclosure: From-Scratch Tuna Helper is more my style.)
The most consistent predictor of how much time someone spends in the kitchen is gender. Women cook more than men, and that's particularly true if they have a partner at home. Depending on income level and how many hours they work, partnered women spend up to 52 percent more time cooking than their single counterparts. Heading into the workforce changes things, too, since women have less free time. Women who go to work full-time spend 36 to 48 percent less time in the kitchen than their colleagues who lead domestic lives.
Walmart is now so big that, to a degree, it only has to be cheap when it feels like it. As the largest grocer in the U.S., Walmart controls one-quarter of the nation's food retail, not to mention most of the logistical empire it takes to move that food from farm (or factory) to plate. It got there by leveraging massive economies of scale, but here's the thing: Those economies of scale require industrial food, boxed stuff that can sit around without going bad. Healthy food like produce simply can't be made as cheap--and if you compare fresh-food prices at Walmart with other stores', produce can be cheaper than you'd expect at a smaller store. When I lived in Detroit and worked at an exurban Walmart, produce was cheaper at my local supermarket than at Walmart# by 8 percent, and the meat cheaper by 17 percent. The overall grocery bill was higher--just not for the healthier stuff.
When the first supermarket--King Kullen--opened in Jamaica, New York (now Queens) in 1930, it was building on the industrial agriculture and food processing that had come into their own over the preceding two decades. These new models for growing and preparing food meant there was a new way to sell it, too: Cheaply, and in massive volume. Food stores initially competed to win customers--and boost profits--by lowering prices. Sixty years later, in the 1990s, Walmart's entry into the grocery market spurred an industry-wide shift in strategy, and stores looked to increase profits by lowering costs. By 1998, 49 of the nation's 50 largest grocery chains handled their own distribution, the logistical infrastructure that connects farm to plate, saving up to 60 percent on operations costs to do it. (What's more, distribution is something only massive chains can afford, pushing the industry toward consolidation; marketing experts call this a 'natural oligopoly,' where not only is the market controlled by a handful of players, but it wouldn't work any other way.) The result: Supermarkets, explicitly designed to sell industrial food, are almost the only way we get food into neighborhoods.
One of the most common exhortations among the food-focused is that we, as consumers, need to shift our spending to support better food. As an example, many suggest we look at France: In 2007 (the most recent year for which I could find comparable statistics) the French spent 19 percent of their household budgets on food, whereas Americans spent 13--a difference of six percent. The thinking seems to be: The French have got their priorities straight. Well, possibly. Or it might be something else: The French government subsidizes child care after age one, requires employers to provide five weeks of vacation, and subsidizes housing, education, transportation and communication enough that the French spend six percent less of their budgets on that, freeing up money to spend on food. And even if you're opposed to government taking that active of a role in aiding its citizenry, minimum wages in France are nearly two-thirds higher than ours, at around $12 an hour for French workers, compared to $7.25 for Americans.
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