Nonfiction — print. Scribner, 2012. 336 pgs. Received from PaperBackSwap.
Subtitled “Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table”, McMillan’s book is very reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed as McMillan goes undercover to work among the working poor of the United States picking and sorting grapes, peaches, and garlic in California; selling baking products and produce at Walmart in Michigan; and working in the kitchen of America’s largest sit-down chain restaurant, Applebee’s, in New York City. The book looks at food not in the abstract as conventional versus organic but as a product of those who work hard to produce, sell, and cook the food we eat.
The goal of McMillian’s book is actually to discover why food costs the way it does and why so many people are consigned to eating processed food despite our abundance of produce and fresh foods. Instead, the book becomes rather muddled in it’s examination of the American food system. Workers — citizens and non-citizens alike — are cheated of wages or work for well-below minimum wage, which of course dictates the choices they have available to them for food. But McMillian rarely looks beyond this to examine the systemic reasons why processed foods are cheaper than produce. Nearly rotten produce can be sold for everyday low prices, but McMillian fails to take into account that centralized transport networks and a lack of local sourcing mean most food must travel
The facts and figures are all well and good, but distract from the personal narrative she is trying to provide. There are also several instances where I wanted to scream for her to check her privileged — her lamenting over how she cannot pay her rent because she went out for sushi with her sister or how she must accept charity from people with far less than her the two most glaring examples. And her complaints about how many of the farm workers live — dirty bathroom with no toilet paper, shacks built in the backyard — are written in such a way that I wondered if she wasn’t doing more to promote stigmatizing and stereotypes than break them down. I felt like Ehrenreich did a much better job explaining what it is like being a member of the working poor while admitting to her privileges.
I shouldn’t be too harsh because for all its problems, there were many interesting sections. I wanted her to go beyond cross-store comparisons because that’s something I did for my own thesis and I was hoping to get more out of her research, but I imagine someone without this background would find it rather fascinating. The age old question of why the food at Applebee’s is so bland was answered (hint: the microwave you have at home is just as effective). The sections about urban agriculture and food deserts in Detroit were particularly interesting and seemed to fit in best with the goal of her book. Overall, lots of facts, figures, and interesting antidotes but a little too broadly written to be a reference or earn on a spot on the keep forever shelf.