May 18, 2013
Would You Like Sugar and Fat With That?
Posted on Mar 22, 2012
By Jane Black
The truth is, not everyone who eats fast food is like Vanessa, the Bronx student who sent McMillan on her yearlong quest for answers. Over the last half-century, we have created a food culture in this country that glorifies cheap prices and convenience. (McMillan of all people should know that. It’s what her grandmother told her growing up.) Over time, that emphasis has trained many American palates to appreciate the sugary, salty taste of processed food. Even if workers were paid a fair wage and the produce at Walmart were pristine, there’s no guarantee that more people would buy it.
McMillan does try to connect the dots by stepping back and putting her on-the-ground reporting in historical and economic context. She traces the rise of supermarkets and demonstrates how Walmart came to dominate not only food retail but distribution, too. She argues that, in certain neighborhoods, that can lead to higher, not lower, prices. She explains how and why restaurants now gobble 41 percent of the average family’s food budget, up from just 15 percent in 1940. These passages provide an excellent introduction to the complicated and contentious debate about how to reform America’s food system. But without acknowledging culture, they too cannot satisfactorily explain the “American way of eating.”
The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table
By Tracie McMillan
Scribner, 336 pages
What McMillan does succeed in showing us is that the choices that Americans make each day about what to eat have far more to do with larger failures in American society than the way our food is produced and distributed. To thrive, workers need a bigger share of corporate profits. Families need health care and subsidized child care. Otherwise, shopping for and preparing a proper meal will always be a luxury.
“So far as I can tell, changing what’s on our plates simply isn’t feasible without changing far more,” she writes in her final pages. “Wages, health care, work hours and kitchen literacy are just as critical to changing our diets as the agriculture we practice or the places at which we shop.” But by the time she reaches that conclusion, her adventure is over. All she can do is close with a wish list of progressive social policies and a call to make eating well easy. Which, as she has proved, is much easier said than done.
Jane Black, a former Washington Post staff writer, is working on a book about a West Virginia town that is trying to create a healthier local food culture.
© 2012, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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