Thursday, August 22, 2013

The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan (2012)

I started reading this book after being intrigued a Salon piece written by a journalist (Tracie McMillan) who goes undercover to investigate the field-to-plate journey of food in America. I enjoyed Nickel and Dimed and I found the article well written and intriguing, so I was looking forward to this deeper picture of America’s relationship with food this book would provide.

However, I wish I had not wasted my time. White female privileged smug middle-class journalist Tracie McMillan decides to go investigate three aspects of the food industry – agriculture, distribution and preparation – by pretending to be a poor person and working as a labourer, at Walmart and in the kitchen at Applebees. This is similar to  what Barbara Ehrenreich did in Nickel and Dimed. The difference between Ehrenreich and McMillan’s books is that Ehrenreich acknowledges her privilege and states on a number of occasions that she understands that what she is doing is at best an imitation of the life of an actual poor person. McMillan not only doesn’t seen to understand her privilege, her poverty tourism actually causes harm to the very people her book seeks to give a voice to.

For example, McMillan’s first job is working in the fields in California. She concocts a not-very-believable reason for why an educated, well-spoken white woman is looking for manual labour and then proceeds to find a job, aiming to live on the money she earns from her own labour. The first problem with this is that the first two places she lives in are owned by friends or acquaintances of hers and she doesn’t have to pay rent. Her privilege, as evidenced by her strong social network, is already providing an (unacknowledged by her) benefit to her that the people whose lives she is investigating do not have. Through her neighbour, who lives with six other people in a two-bedroom trailer that she pays rent for, she finds a a job picking grapes. In this job, pickers work in groups of three and are paid on the number of boxes (cajas) of grapes the group can pick. Due to her inexperience, McMillan can only fill nine boxes, meaning her group members earned over 30% less than they normally would. Even though she did picked fewer grapes than others, the payment is divided three ways equally. She says: “There’s only one word to define what just happened: charity. And I know I am in no position to refuse it.” YES YOU ARE! You have an education and a strong social network and a well-paying job and an apartment that you live in on your own in New York City. It is reprehensible that your little games of poverty tourism literally took food out of the mouths of people who need it much, much more than you do. Tracie McMillan, you should be ashamed of yourself.

It doesn’t get any better. To study the distribution of food, McMillan gets a job at Walmart. She manages to find a place to rent where the landlord provides her with food staples – more free stuff. She comes up short on her rent because she has been going out for sushi, so she puts the difference on her credit card. Heads up, Tracie, the reason you were able to go out for sushi is because you are able to do things like put the rent on your credit card and then pay your credit card using your regular job. Actual poor people don’t do things like that, because if they did they would actually get evicted and not be able to call on their extensive social network for free housing or to just, you know, return to their NY apartment. When McMillan’s sister gets cross at her when Tracie says she “can’t afford” to go to a Christmas party which involves baking two dozen cookies, I had to stop reading for a while until I calmed down in order to prevent me throwing the book at the wall. McMillan’s sisters are a lot more refrained with her than I am with mine – if either of them had pulled that crap with me I would have sat them down and had a serious conversation with them about privilege and being an obnoxious dick. After the cookie party, McMillan decides she’s had enough of playing poor and quits her job and I quit reading the book.

Investigative journalists are important. They can provide a window into another way of life and expose, like Ehrenreich did, the appalling conditions some people work under and the human cost of the first-world consumer life we live. Tracie McMillan is a talented writer and the research in this book was excellent. But her particular type of privileged poverty tourism that caused harm to those she was aiming to write about is appalling. I give this book one star.

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