It is often assumed that you have to be affluent in order to care about food and good eating. Apparently, though, that this is just one of the many commonplace beliefs that doesn’t stand the simplest test of all: number-checking.
Tracie McMillan, a Michigan-born journalist living in New York, spent two years investigating the food culture in the U.S. from production to consumption. She worked undercover in the fields, at Walmart and Applebee’s; she talked to a number of American families. The result is a book, The American Way of Eating, which seems to reverse the notion of a junk food-loving country portrayed in Eric Schlosser’s ground-breaking Fast Food Nation from 2001.
“Like all myths, the idea that only the affluent and educated care about their meals has spread not because it is true, but because parts of it are”, writes McMillan “Healthier food is more expensive; that is true. It can be hard to find in poor neighbourhoods. Yet it requires a leap of logic to conclude from these facts that only the rich care about their meals”.
Schlosser’s classic famously began with a description of Domino’s Pizza deliveries reaching the heart of the Air Force base of Cheyenne Mountain, Colorado, passing security checkpoints and a defence system designed to resist a nuclear assault. That, the author wrote, epitomized the pervasiveness of the fast food culture in the US. Drive-through along the streets, airports, schools, malls, colleges, stadia: there isn’t a burger-free corner on American soil.
While not disagreeing, McMillan is aware of a study by Share Our Strength according to which 85% of 1,500 low-income families claim healthy eating is a priority; conducting her own research, she met recipients from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program who drove an extra dozen miles to find better produce; she saw their shopping lists and found them dominated by fruit and vegetables. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, she adds, say that the poorest Americans spend up to 35% of their income on food; the middle-to-upper class spends only 8% to eat.
Schlosser noted how the US expenditure on fast food soared from $6 billion in 1970 to $110 billion in 2000: more than Americans spend on higher education and personal computers. More than books, papers and magazines, movies, music – combined. On any given day, one out of four American adults visits a fast food restaurant.
Is ready-made food really faster and cheaper, McMillan wonders. She makes exactly the same dish twice: once from a pre-packaged version, then from scratch, using fresh ingredients. The result: not only is it slightly faster than the pre-packaged version, the freshly-made one is half as expensive. Convenience food, she claims, is another myth to de-bunk.
McMillan’s research in the food production systems is also striking. As a garlic picker in California, the maximum she could make was $3.40 an hour, well below the legal minimum wage. Working for Walmart, she found out that her salary as a garlic picker represented only 2% of the cost of one pound of garlic to the consumer.
She clearly agrees with Schlosser on one thing though: food is a great way to talk about the state of the nation and the issues of low-income America. “Food is this universal experience we've all had”, says McMillan. “Everyone's been hungry, even if it's a very safe hunger where you just haven't had time to eat yet, so people can identify with the idea that being hungry would really suck”.