Subtitled “Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table”, McMillan’s book is very reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel a...moreSubtitled “Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table”, McMillan’s book is very reminiscent of Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed as McMillan goes undercover to work among the working poor of the United States picking and sorting grapes, peaches, and garlic in California; selling baking products and produce at Walmart in Michigan; and working in the kitchen of America’s largest sit-down chain restaurant, Applebee’s, in New York City. The book looks at food not in the abstract as conventional versus organic but as a product of those who work hard to produce, sell, and cook the food we eat.
The goal of McMillian’s book is actually to discover why food costs the way it does and why so many people are consigned to eating processed food despite our abundance of produce and fresh foods. Instead, the book becomes rather muddled in it’s examination of the American food system. Workers — citizens and non-citizens alike — are cheated of wages or work for well-below minimum wage, which of course dictates the choices they have available to them for food. But McMillian rarely looks beyond this to examine the systemic reasons why processed foods are cheaper than produce. Nearly rotten produce can be sold for everyday low prices, but McMillian fails to take into account that centralized transport networks and a lack of local sourcing mean most food must travel
The facts and figures are all well and good, but distract from the personal narrative she is trying to provide. There are also several instances where I wanted to scream for her to check her privileged — her lamenting over how she cannot pay her rent because she went out for sushi with her sister or how she must accept charity from people with far less than her the two most glaring examples. And her complaints about how many of the farm workers live — dirty bathroom with no toilet paper, shacks built in the backyard — are written in such a way that I wondered if she wasn’t doing more to promote stigmatizing and stereotypes than break them down. I felt like Ehrenreich did a much better job explaining what it is like being a member of the working poor while admitting to her privileges.
I shouldn’t be too harsh because for all its problems, there were many interesting sections. I wanted her to go beyond cross-store comparisons because that’s something I did for my own thesis and I was hoping to get more out of her research, but I imagine someone without this background would find it rather fascinating. The age old question of why the food at Applebee’s is so bland was answered (hint: the microwave you have at home is just as effective). The sections about urban agriculture and food deserts in Detroit were particularly interesting and seemed to fit in best with the goal of her book. Overall, lots of facts, figures, and interesting antidotes but a little too broadly written to be a reference or earn on a spot on the keep forever shelf.(less)
I should preface this review by stating my bias against bananas. They taste rather like how I imagine cardboard would taste, and I can barely tolerate...moreI should preface this review by stating my bias against bananas. They taste rather like how I imagine cardboard would taste, and I can barely tolerate them in smoothies let alone in baked goods. But bananas are one of the most popular fruits in the United States and this book, subtitled “How the United Fruit Company Shaped the World”, ended up on the list of books I wanted to read for the Honors Project. Unfortunately, I had a difficult time sourcing a copy of this book until now so I missed the opportunity to learn more about one of America’s favorite fruits.
Not that it would have helped in my thesis or helped further my understanding of this American industry that exists outside the geographic bounds of the United States. Chapman attempts to create intrigue about the banana by framing it in the context of the suicide of the United Fruit Company’s CEO in the 1970s. In fact, this is the precise event that got him interested in writing about bananas for his thesis. (The writing is pretty low for a thesis; more like the first draft of a paper.) The term ‘banana republics’ refers to a politically unstable country dependent upon the export of a single product such as Honduras and Guatemala, and Chapman’s book sets out to explain how these countries were largely manipulated and ruled by the United Fruit Company and response people like Fidel Castro had toward this company.
Except all this book manages to do is skim the surface of this topic; so poorly that I cannot even call it a primer on the issue. I finished the book and felt like I had gained nothing from the time I spent reading it. Rather than focus on the role the United Fruit Company really had on the countries it was operating in, Chapman wanted to explain how the company operated outside of the United States’ jurisdiction much to the country’s politicians chagrin, but it’s such a hard connection to make in such a brief little book. Conspiracy theories abound!(less)