When Did Healthy Food Become a Luxury Product?

In an exclusive interview, the author of a book on how America eats describes the many, many barriers to a good-for-you diet.

In her book on how American eats, Tracie McMillan describes a food system that puts barriers up between many Americans and fresh, healthy food. (Photo: Scribner)

Shari Roan is an award-winning health writer based in Southern California.

Tracie McMillan remembers the day well. She was working in the fresh produce section of a Walmart near Detroit. Part of her job was to rotate foods to keep the produce fresh. But it was a challenge. Her 20-year-old manager, who had transferred to produce from the electronics department, had no training in managing fruits and vegetables. And one of the store's produce coolers had a leak, throwing humidity levels off and causing food to rot easily.

One day, the staff threw out 200 pounds of what had once been fresh, delicious, and nutritious asparagus. "This was straight-up mismanagement," says McMillan, an independent journalist who was working in the store in order to research a book on the industry. The manager, she says, "wasn't somebody who should be in charge of the fresh-food supply for half the town—for 2,000 people. I had to ask myself: If this is the kind of produce people are offered, can I blame them for eating processed food and junk food?"

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Those are the questions raised by McMillan in her book, The American Way of Eating, which was published in late 2012 and has since triggered a growing debate about why healthy foods seem so inaccessible to so many people. "It's really been interesting to me to realize that people want to have the conversation with me about the American way of eating," says McMillan, the keynote speaker at the Natural Products Expo, held recently in Anaheim, California. "We're at an international crossroads with the way we think and talk about food. We are just beginning to have a conversation that having truly healthy food is not a luxury product."

McMillan, a senior fellow at Brandeis University's Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, calls her book "an investigative look at what it might take for America to eat well," she explains. "I wanted to understand how our food system works. It was important to me to get at the whole of how we eat when time and money are at a premium."

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To research the book, she worked in the Walmart near Detroit because the area served lower-income people, who have the most difficulty eating healthy, and because Walmart is the largest grocer in the United States.

McMillan also spent time harvesting garlic in California's Central Valley and worked in the kitchen at an Applebee's near Brooklyn. The jobs illustrated how tough it is for people to improve their diets if they don't have much money. "One of the big lessons I learned was that everybody wants good food," she says. "The second big thing I learned is it takes an incredible amount of skill to run the food system, to feed America...I think there should be an advanced degree for produce management. We never really think about how critical the work in a grocery store is. The way grocery stores are run really matters."

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In the Central Valley, she witnessed the huge discrepancy between what farm workers are paid for harvesting foods that Americans pay a premium for in grocery stores. While labor laws in California are supposed to protect workers and guarantee minimum wage, McMillan found she could only make $2 to $3 an hour, "even though this is incredibly skilled work."

"People say food would cost more if we paid workers more," McMillan says. "For every dollar we spend on food at the store, only about 14 cents goes to the farmer. We probably don't need to look at squeezing the farmer. We need to look at squeezing the other 86 cents."

One study showed that a 40 percent increase in farm workers' wages would cost the average U.S. family about $15 a year, she says. "Every single farmer I've talked to says there is no way you can cheat someone out of wages that are so regulated. [But] I saw it all the time," she notes. "If you're really committed to the idea that healthy food is important...then you're arguing for the minimum wage to go up."

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At the Applebee's where she worked—which she selected because it was the largest casual dining operator in the United States—she was stunned to learn that the only whole, fresh foods in the kitchen were potatoes, onions, lettuce, and tomatoes. Other fruits and vegetables used in the meals were prepackaged, and sometimes the quality of those foods was questionable. She writes about having to heat packets of broccoli and mashed potatoes; sometimes the plastic would disintegrate on the food in flakes that appeared to be salt, "but was actually plastic," she says.

The problem, McMillan says, is that healthy food is really only easy to access for people who have sufficient incomes. "We've treated healthy food as a luxury product."

Tactics to address child and adult obesity in the United States have focused on educating people on how to eat healthier. But for most people that's not just hard, it's nearly impossible. And what we've tried so far is simply not making enough of a difference, she argues. "I've met a lot of people who say, 'I know I should eat well but it's hard,' " she says. "The food that will keep us healthy is out of reach, and we act like that is normal.”

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Lower-income parents have a particularly hard time feeding their children, as McMillan witnessed while sharing a house with several families of farm workers in the Central Valley. Meals were based around cheap and filling foods: beans, rice, tortillas.

It's not much different for kids in low-income urban areas. The book idea, in fact, was sparked by McMillan's encounter with a teenager in a poorer section of New York. The girl ate mostly junk food, such as meals at a nearby fast-food restaurant, even though she admitted that she knew it was unhealthy. When McMillan asked her why, she replied: "Because it's easy and it's right here."

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Meanwhile, food manufacturers, grocers, and restaurant operators are aiming for the more affluent customer, she says. In fact, she adds, "there's a huge, untapped" business opportunity for someone who wants to get fresh, healthy food to people at prices they can afford.

In the meantime, she has a message for those people who run America's complicated food system: "Take your work seriously. You are responsible to make sure we are fed not just profitably, but well."

What do you think should be done to increase access to healthy foods in low-income neighborhoods?

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