When I was listening to Tracie McMillan’s keynote address about her new book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table at the Natural Products Expo West, the name of another writer popped up in my mind: Barbara Enrenreich. Both are bestselling authors who pointed to class issues through immersion journalism. Tracie McMillan went undercover for her book and Barbara Ehrenreich infiltrated the working poor for Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting by in America.
While I can’t help to wonder whether McMillan has read Nickel and Dimed before she started her project, it is likely that she was inspired by other works of immersion journalism such as Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin, Lowest of the Low by Gunther Wallraff, and Ehrenreich’s other book Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream. However, Nickel and Dimed appears to be most similar with The American Way of Eating.
Both books look into the lives of low-wage workers, only to find that those people who “live on the wages available to the unskilled” actually have to be highly skilled at what they are doing. In the last chapter, “Evaluation”, of Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich confessed, “You might think that unskilled jobs would be a snap for someone who holds a Ph.D. and whose normal line of work requires learning entirely new things every couple of weeks. Not so. The first thing I discovered is that no job, no matter how lowly, is truly ‘unskilled’” to which McMillan also commented, in the keynote address, “it takes skills to run the food system.”
Both authors revealed their vulnerabilities when experiencing poverty from a middle-class perspective. They both felt incompetent and exhausted throughout the process. While moving from Florida to Maine to Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked as a waitress, a hotel housekeeper, a housecleaner, a nursing home dietary aide and a Walmart sales clerk. She quit jobs because of overwhelming workloads, the fear of repetitive stress injury, being yelled at by the supervisor, deplorable living conditions, and unreasonable opinion surveys and personality tests. McMillan, on the other hand, worked as an industrial farm laborer in California’s Central Valley, a produce clerk at Walmart in Detroit, and a server at Applebee’s in Brooklyn. She viewed herself as an educated, middle-class, white woman who felt helpless in the fields while looking at the bruises on her legs, who was astonished when her produce supervisor at Walmart couldn’t differentiate plantains from bananas, and who was ready to fight when she discovered she was paid lower than the minimum wage by the garlic company.
Interestingly, both authors “cheated” in the fieldwork process by preparing themselves emergency money. Ehrenreich paid herself “a typical entry-level wage for eight hours a day”, charged herself “for room and board plus some plausible expenses like gas”, and totaled up “the numbers after a month.” The fund made sure she would never be carless, homeless, or hungry. In McMillan’s case, she also allowed herself one month of full-time minimum wage after tax. Even with that additional money however, she had to live with up to 17 roommates at one point to make ends meet.
Although Ehrenreich took a broader look at how the 1996 Welfare Reform Act affected the low-income population, she briefly discussed her and her co-worker’s American way of eating, which is the focus of McMillan’s book. Wheat Thins, Monterey Jack, cider and doughnuts, egg muffins, tiny cracker sandwiches, and Applebee’s (for celebration). This diet is not so different from what McMillan and her coworkers in the food industry ate 11 years later. Ironically, when asked about what she found about Applebee’s in the Q&A session after the keynote address, McMillan said she was surprised by how few fresh fruits and how much frozen food were used by the world’s largest casual dining chain.
Last but not least, both Ehrenreich and McMillan were awarded for taking the initiative to experience, firsthand, what the working poor, and some members of the working class, live with every single day. However, the disconnect the authors and their readers felt from the lower-income population is alarming; the people who are studied in the books not only get nothing, but are constantly referred to as “they”. The United States is a country where people tend to think they belong to the middle class. When books like The American Way of Eating and Nickel and Dimed came out, astonishment and sympathy naturally became the most common reactions. Nonetheless, when most members of American society still consider natural and GMO-free foods fancy or unnecessary, the ubiquitous use of plastic shopping bags perfectly fine, sleep and exercise deprivation inevitable if one wants to succeed, and sustainable development a political issue instead of a personal one, then the class gap is not that big.
Social class is traditionally confined as a person’s relationship to the means of production, which usually translates into incomes or amounts of wealth and may or may not include degrees of occupational status and years of education. As a result, in order to ascend the social ladder the pursuit of economic interests at the expense of healthy and eco-friendly lifestyles appears to be unavoidable. It is time for us to incorporate the awareness of sustainability into the concept of social class so we can face the fact that until we change our relationship to our food, bodies, and the environment, we are not that different from each other.