Author and journalist Tracie McMillan went undercover along the American food chain—as a picker in the garlic fields of California, a stocker in a Detroit-area Walmart, and a kitchen worker at a Brooklyn Applebee’s—to write her myth-busting book The American Way of Eating. Her astute observations about our food system got our attention well before they rankled Rush Limbaugh, who attacked her book on-air. Here she shares with us her top 10 American food myths, in her own words.
Only the affluent and educated care about their meals; the higher your income, the more you will know about, and care about, what you eat.
The desire to eat well is universal. In a recent survey of low-income families, 85 percent said eating healthy food was a priority. Despite achingly low wages and long work days, sometimes at two jobs, the people I lived and worked with found creative ways to supplement their diets with fruits and vegetables—traveling long distances to farmers’ markets where their food stamps were doubled on produce, or through meal-sharing, or small gardens.
In America, the land of plenty, we grow more than enough food for everyone to eat nutritiously. If we could distribute it more evenly and make it affordable, we could all eat well.
We all know Americans need to eat better, but the truth is 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, 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.
The price of produce is directly proportional to farm worker wages; lower prices mean lower wages, and vice versa.
The bulk of food costs are tied to transportation, processing, and marketing—a full 84 percent. A very small portion goes to farm labor. And the sad reality is, many farm employers routinely cook the books to underpay workers, recording fewer hours than were worked in the field to give the illusion that workers earn minimum wage. When I picked garlic in California, the highest wage I earned was $3.40 an hour. This was entirely illegal—and entirely common. If wages went up for everyone—via a minimum wage hike—the USDA estimates that food prices would increase by less than one percent. Similarly, if the wages of farm workers alone increased by 40 percent, the average American family would see this as a $16 per year increase in their grocery costs.
Rich people spend more on food than the poor.
Poor and working-class families spend a much larger share of their paychecks on food than the affluent. In 2010, households earning from $5,000 to $35,000 a year spent 16 to 35 percent of their income on food, whereas those earning $70,000 a year or more spent 8 percent. Imagine spending a third of your income on food! Our current food system makes eating healthy very difficult for a lot of Americans.
Finding nutritious food is as easy as going to the supermarket; if you can’t afford organic food, grocery stores offer abundant conventional produce options. It’s a matter of choosing good food over junk food.
All over our country, but especially in urban areas, there are communities where the primary grocery options are in liquor stores and convenience stores. Produce, if it’s offered, is often paltry and past its prime. People living in these “food deserts” spend a great deal of non-work time driving (if they have a car; and gas is not cheap) to get to a supermarket. It’s hard to believe if you live in an area where there are plenty of grocery stores that there are communities where they don’t exist. But it’s true.
Like water and electricity, real food—not processed, packaged food—is a natural resource all our communities should have ready access to.
Convenience foods—like Hamburger Helper—are time and money savers. Eating healthy is more expensive than eating junk food.
Food companies don’t want us to know it, but most of the convenience they’re selling us is an illusion. When I tried 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.
Most of America’s produce is grown in the Heartland.
Farms in the Midwest are primarily dedicated to growing commodity crops like rice, wheat, soy, cotton, and corn. In 2008 we spent 42 percent of the nation’s farm subsidies on these crops (used primarily for sweeteners, fuel, animal feed, and grain) and just 5 percent on fruits and vegetables. Our fresh produce is grown largely in California or overseas.
Small farmers are the backbone of our agricultural system.
Farming has become an industrialized process, and most communities are fed by a shrinking number of very large farms, rather than a vast network of small, independent ones. Today, 6 percent of farms, at an average size of more than 2,200 acres, generate 75 percent of farm sales, making the 2010s an era of unparalleled economic concentration in agriculture. The vast scale of these farms is no accident: As supermarket chains consolidated in the 1990s, creating huge demand centered at one company, farmers had to get big, too. After all, a chain of 200 stores doesn’t need just one pick-up full of green peppers, but several semi-trucks’ worth. And those who couldn’t get big simply had to get out.
Walmart is the best solution to food deserts.
Walmart got to be our country’s largest grocer by leveraging massive quantities of scale, but here’s the thing: those economies require industrial food, boxed stuff that can sit around without going bad. Healthy food like produce can't be made as cheap. And though one in four American dollars spent on produce is at Walmart, it’s not necessarily the cheapest place for it. When I worked at Walmart, produce at my local supermarket was cheaper by 8 percent, and the meat cheaper by 17 percent. Walmart may draw you in with deals on the processed stuff – these are called loss leaders – but as soon as you start putting the fresh stuff in your cart, you may actually end up spending more.
Restaurants serve meals prepared from scratch, using raw ingredients and recipes.
Many restaurants do, of course! But just as many, from the least to the most expensive, and to varying degrees, are food assembly lines where workers simply heat, arrange, and serve food delivered to their back doors frozen or in bags. Chefs I worked with at Applebee’s lamented the time when they actually cooked food!
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