Three years ago, I went to work undercover in America's food system. To the extent that I was motivated by journalistic intrigue, I wanted to see how the country's vast industrial food system worked. But more than that, I had a bone to pick with foodies.
The breaking point came at a post-conference party in California, when a young man I'd noticed photographing his artisanal cocktail earlier started chatting me up. When I said I wrote about food and class, he told me that if poor people would just make food a priority, their lives would be better. I asked what he suggested for people earning $8 an hour, and he replied that poor people had cable television. Perhaps they could get rid of that.
I'd had a couple cocktails myself, and so maybe that's why I blurted out, "What, are you giving up your precious iPhone to buy heirloom tomatoes?" Then I delivered what, in my tipsy haze, I probably thought was a scathing coda: "People like you are why everyone thinks good food is elitist!"
I stalked off; I imagine the guy was befuddled.
My anger--inappropriate at a professional gathering, not to mention pointless--telegraphed my upbringing. I was born to working-class parents in Michigan, infuriated at East Coast snobbery while I went to NYU on scholarship, and--once I secured a rent-stabilized apartment, keeping rent affordable--had ended up working as a reporter covering welfare reform and low-wage jobs in New York City. I grew up without much money and spent my days reporting on the lives of people who had even less: welfare clients, child care center patrons, teenagers who'd dropped out of school and didn't have jobs.
It drove me mad when I started to hear foodies wax rhapsodic over local produce, going on to imply, not-so-subtly, that to buy it was a measure of character and moral standing. I grew up eating processed food during the week, fresh stuff on weekends--that's how it works when you're being raised by a working, single dad--but that didn't mean my family didn't care about food; it was just what was easiest. And the families I now reported on? They cared about their meals and health, but they were mostly eating what was easy--readily available, affordable, tasty. My family and the ones I reported on weren't immoral. We were just broke and stressed.
So, really, when I started reporting The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, I was a woman on a mission. Yes, I wanted to see how the food system worked from farm to plate; but and that was a ruse to explore, as a journalist, how our food system works--or doesn't--for the families I grew up with and the ones I met in my work.
Here are nine things I learned: