Koeppel Journalism Fellow Tracie McMillan shared her perspective on food as a social issue during her lecture on April 22 in Downey House. During the two-hour talk, McMillan spoke about her experience with investigative reporting, her New York Times best-selling novel “The American Way of Eating,” and her personal connection to the food industry.
After starting her career as a freelance writer, she noticed that she gained the most professional traction when her story pitches dealt with food. McMillan began by focusing on the issue of food access in New York City in 2003, and her published article received several national reporting awards.
McMillan’s next project was even more involved than her previous one. In an effort to unearth the inner workings of the food industry, she took on three undercover jobs: one as a field worker in the California farms, one as a kitchen employee at an Applebee’s in New York City, and one as an employee in the produce aisle at a Walmart near Detroit. McMillan selected these positions specifically because she felt they were most representative of the average American diet.
These jobs not only allowed McMillan to experience different aspects of American food and food service, but also gave her an opportunity to experience the living conditions of full-time employees by surviving off the low wages she earned during her undercover stints. After gaining insight into the lives of these workers, she was better able to develop her own ideas for social reform in the industry, stressing the need to subsidize demand as opposed to supply.
“Food is the only basic human need where we’ve left the distribution of it entirely to the private market,” McMillan said. “The market logic doesn’t work with the uncertainties of agriculture. The subsidy stuff makes a certain kind of sense if you’re just thinking about, like, how do you keep these farmers in business, and then once you start subsidizing them, there’s a reason to keep doing it for the farmers so they can keep producing.”
However, McMillan believes that shifting the system so that it responds to a demand for healthier, local foods could be a potential problem solver in the ongoing farm subsidy debate. If subsidies for healthier foods were implemented, she believes that low-income families would have more financial power to demand nutritious foods, and would be drawn toward healthier out-of-pocket purchases that are not funded by government agendas like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
As far as issues relating to genetically modified products, McMillan thinks that Americans are better off devoting their attention to problems surrounding waste and sustainability.
“We could make a pretty good argument that if we worked a lot on food waste, and that if we invested in figuring out how to farm sustainably, we could get really close to being able to feeding everybody with what’s available land-wise,” McMillan said. “There’s a problem with global hunger, but the problem with global hunger is not that we don’t have enough food; it’s completely a distribution problem. That’s about politics.”
McMillan argued that there exists a conception that quality food is a privilege reserved for the wealthy, and she emphasized the importance of changing this mentality. Once this has been accomplished, she argued, we would be a step in the right direction toward making healthy foods affordable for the whole population while still allowing for general market success and proper labor conditions.