Tracie McMillan showed rare courage as a young journalist delving into the American food system to write The New York Times bestseller The American Way of Eating (Scribner, 2012). Now in paperback, her debut book continues to earn rave reviews and was even referenced in congressional hearings on farm labor practices.
McMillan will deliver the Natural Products Expo West keynote address from 9:30 to 10:45 a.m. on Saturday, March 9, in Platinum Ballroom 6 at the Anaheim Marriott. McMillan talked with Natural Foods Merchandiser about her examination of U.S. food economics.
Natural Foods Merchandiser: From your research, what surprised you about supermarket food prices?
Tracie McMillan: The biggest surprise was just how important infrastructure, distribution and logistics are. As a consumer, it had never occurred to me that we are paying for more than farm labor. It’s difficult to remember that we also pay for the infrastructure—the system that moves food around the country.
NFM: Supermarkets are the main places consumers interact with their food, and they often compare prices from store to store. Why do average Americans monitor their food budgets so closely?
TM: Because they don’t earn much money. For me, it started to make sense when I sat down and looked at the distribution of American income levels. If you divide the economy into thirds, you see that two-thirds of the country makes less than $70,000 per year, and they are supporting families. I don’t fault them for watching their food budgets, especially because the bottom third earns less than $35,000 and spends as much as one-third of their income on food. Price affects buying habits when you consider the percentage they earn compared with the percentage they spend on meals.
NFM: You write briefly about organic food. How has your perception of organic changed since you started your book? What do you see as its values and the barriers to buying organic?
TM: What really shifted for me after writing The American Way of Eating was my understanding that organic is a very narrow definition of how food is grown and which chemicals aren’t used. I had a very idyllic, idealistic view of what organic meant before I wrote the book. Working in the fields for a short time revealed that organic farm workers are not always paid more. When I can afford it, I certainly buy organic, but the premiums are often high, so that can make it difficult. But I’m a member of a Brooklyn, N.Y., co-op, where I get a lot of organic produce priced on par with conventional produce.
NFM: After your brief stint working in the Walmart produce department, can you accurately identify fresh food in other supermarkets?
TM: I do pretty well now with identifying fresh greens. If it’s a really short bunch of parsley or cilantro, it’s been cut down, or if it’s slimy at the stems or yellowed, it will rot a lot more quickly at home. I also learned to take a really close look at produce at the store. Nobody ever taught me how to shop for produce, but our parents’ generation wasn’t taught either. So I’ve also learned how to keep herbs and greens fresher at home by trimming the stems and submerging them in water.
NFM: How have you changed your buying habits since writing the book?
TM: I’ve gotten a lot more strategic about stocking my pantry with good building blocks so I can cook fresh food more easily. The problem I would run into before was wanting to cook a great meal but not having all the ingredients or knowing how to substitute with items I did have on hand. I’ve had to learn how to do this, and I don’t waste food like I did before. I am able to use all of my fresh food before it spoils. I have a much greater appreciation for the work that goes into getting that food ready for me. Before, I knew there were people working in the food system, but I now really appreciate the privilege and luxury of being able to lead my lifestyle as a writer and a reporter, not because I work harder or am more intelligent than anyone else, but because there is an army of people working across the globe to feed me. That has been very humbling. I don’t want to disrespect the work of so many people who are feeding the world.
NFM: What do you want natural foods retailers to learn from your Expo West address?
TM: There is a market for natural foods in low-income communities. They can make money by figuring out how to serve low-income neighborhoods because there is a lot of demand for fresh, natural food. I agree this isn’t easy, but doing so in a sustainable way is possible. By working with governments, food retailers can determine the best areas to establish new stores and overcome some of the barriers they think make this impossible.
I have gained such an appreciation for people who work in retail. It’s such an important job, and they play a really big social role in our food system.
NFM: What do you wish retailers would do better?
TM: Figuring out a distribution model that works across income levels would be best for neighborhoods. I am also really heartened by the idea of marketing good food. I think making healthy food seem hip and cool to kids is something that could be done better. It’s powerful to see kids cooking and understanding ingredients. We all know kids are very susceptible to marketing, and if marketing to them is how companies make sales, why not figure out how to make healthy food cool? And if all Americans can see the value and cool factor of higher quality food, you’ll notice that most families do have some degree of disposable income to spend on food. But it’s tricky. Healthier food must be all at once accessible, affordable and convenient.
I also think cooking should be taught in schools—not that I know how to make that happen—because getting kids to understand what goes into their food and how they can make it themselves would cause a huge shift in what moms shop for.
NFM: What occupies your mind right now?
TM: I’ve been thinking about food, cooking and self-reliance. The most appealing things about cooking for myself are the sense of self-sufficiency and feeling of empowerment. So I am really interested in exploring that ethos. You see that in the work of Michael Pollan and even far more conservative people like Ted Nugent. I want to have a say and some control over the food I put in my body.
NFM: What’s next for you?
TM: I’m looking into writing another book, likely about food and self-sufficiency. I’m also exploring the possibility of a television show that involves talking to people about food and what they are cooking. There are a lot of possibilities, but currently I am working on my two fellowships—Schuster [at Brandeis University] and Knight-Wallace [at the University of Michigan].
Photo courtesy Bart Nagel