Tracie McMillan. (Photo by Bart Nagel.)

Before she wrote The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, Tracie McMillan was a welfare and poverty reporter in New York City. She grew interested in food and food access when a reporting project led her to a cooking class with Bryant Terry. She decided she wanted to learn, firsthand, how food is produced, distributed, and consumed in the U.S. She went to work undercover, as her book’s title suggests, in the farm fields of California, at a Walmart in Michigan, and at an Applebee’s in Brooklyn. In the book, she interweaves these experiences with a tremendous amount of research that sheds light on the country’s food system, as well as on the roadblocks and cultural attitudes that keep us from fixing it.

We spoke with McMillan about the book, the immersion she did to write it, and the recent attention she’s received from Rush Limbaugh.

Q. What drove you to start working on this book?

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A. When I first started doing food access reporting about eight years ago, there was no real understanding that where you lived wouldn’t just determine the kind of school you might have access to, but that it would affect your diet. The conventional wisdom was, if neighborhoods don’t have grocery stores, it’s because the demand is insufficient — which sounds reasonable until you start looking at what that really means. It’s saying that nobody in that neighborhood wants food. The Wall Street Journal just reviewed the book, which is great, but one of the critiques was that people in those neighborhoods don’t have sufficient demand. My response is, they still have water, they still have electricity. We still make sure those communities have those resources no matter how blighted they are.

Q. In the book you point to the lack of public infrastructure for food distribution. Can you talk more about that?

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A. When we talk about supermarkets, really what we’re talking about is a distribution system for getting food into neighborhoods. The food desert problem isn’t a retail problem, it’s an infrastructure problem. What I came to believe after doing this reporting is that while a food desert is a failure of the private market, it’s more an indictment of the government for entrusting such a vital resource to the private market.

Q. Do you want to say more about the perspective you gained on cooking from writing the book?

A. The more reporting and research I did, the more I came to think of cooking as a form of self-sufficiency. I’m not against people using convenience foods. I’m just against the idea that you can end up with a generation of adults who basically think of cooking as a luxury lifestyle choice. Cooking skills are vital in the same way that changing the kind of food that’s available is.

Q. Can you talk about the things that surprised you over the course of reporting for this book, especially from your work in the fields?

A. I really was shocked to find not only that people weren’t getting very much money, but that they weren’t getting anywhere near minimum wage. It wasn’t so surprising when I worked in grapes — it was a one-day thing, we got paid in cash, it was really informal. What shocked me was the garlic [picking]. This company was documenting every step of the way that it was cheating its workers, and clearly had no compunction about what it was doing, and no fear whatsoever of getting caught.

That, too, that suggests that there is nobody minding the store out there. Government is not providing any oversight on labor in the fields.

There’s been this really interesting development in the last couple years with domestic fair trade certification getting off the ground for farms in the U.S. Which initially sounds great, until you remember that the whole reason fair trade started in the first place was because you had no guarantee of labor conditions if something was made outside the U.S. But if something was made in the U.S., the presumption was that people are paid decent wages and aren’t being exploited terribly.

The amount of staffing that’s required for the Labor Department to enforce the law is pretty significant — and there’s not a significant enough penalty to growers for cheating workers. The average fine that gets invoked when there’s a labor violation is something like $342, and the maximum fine is $1,000. I was there for three or four weeks and they underpaid me by $450. So they’ve already more than proved that it’s a worthwhile investment for them to just cheat workers.

Q. You say that a quarter of America’s food is bought at Walmart. What exactly is wrong with that?

A. A lot of free market advocates would say that’s efficiency at work, and that’s true. I think it’s also really dangerous to trust something that’s as vital as our food supply to one massive institution like that. And particularly, a private corporation whose only accountability is to its shareholders.

It’s important to understand that Walmart’s market share nationwide is 25 percent, but people don’t shop nationwide. Food markets are only competitive in a regional, and really in a neighborhood sense. Walmart holds more than 50 percent of the market share in something like 29 metropolitan areas. And those are larger metropolitan areas that show up easily in statistics. In a lot of small towns around the country, Walmart is the only real grocer in town.

Walmart has lowered its costs by bringing all the transportation and logistics and distribution networks in-house. That can be very efficient, but it also calcifies things because it makes them really, really inflexible. That’s something you saw with the Big Three auto companies, getting too big to fail. It’s one thing when an auto giant is too big to fail; if Walmart all of a sudden went belly-up, you would have like a quarter of America’s food supply without a place to go or a way to move.

And Walmart’s argument about why it can be the solution to food deserts in America — [because] it has lower prices — is a really savvy one. I think initially, of course it will. But there is no reason for Walmart to keep its prices low once it steals market share, or if it’s in a market [with little] competition. Why would it? It has a fiduciary responsibility not to do that. That doesn’t mean Walmart’s evil, that’s just how the game is played.

Q. You reference a study showing that poor people value organic food more than wealthy people do. Do you have any sense why that is?

A. I don’t know why, but I was really fascinated. The study [PDF] showed that poorer people, and even less highly-educated people, showed a greater preference for sustainable food production. They didn’t buy it more frequently … but they valued it more. And the thing that most strongly correlated with people placing value on sustainable and organic production was just whether or not they knew how food is produced.

People on food stamps — some of the poorest folks in the country — absolutely have demand for healthy food when it’s accessible and available to them. I was on food stamps for all of 2011, while writing the book. I’d never thought about this before, but the amazing thing about getting food stamps is that in a lot of ways, it absolutely lets you eat better. Because you’re not having to pit your groceries against all your other expenses.

We hear a lot of talk about how the way to change the food system is for people to vote with their dollar. We need to be really honest that that argument only applies to affluent families. Because the poor are already spending between a quarter and 35 percent of their income on food. So they’re already voting pretty heavily with their dollar. And I think that most people are doing the best they can with what they have.

Q. It looks like Rush Limbaugh has decided to make you his latest target of attack. How do you respond to what he said about you, and about your book, on his show?

A. Rush Limbaugh’s thing is that there are all these problems in government. [But] if Americans want to have good-quality food — how do we make that happen? It’s not by just trusting that the private sector will fix it for us any more than we trust that government will. I think government is failing us, for the most part, when it comes to good and healthy food.

I think it’s part of American culture and heritage to want to have control over our lives. That doesn’t let the private sector off the hook any more than it lets government off the hook. I don’t want a private sector nanny any more than Rush Limbaugh wants a government nanny.

Engaging in a real discussion about these things is something I welcome and I’m glad Limbaugh has broached the topic. Obviously he’s too intimidated to have an honest conversation with an educated woman. Limbaugh hasn’t reached out to me or said anything about having a real discussion.

In terms of the education stuff, Limbaugh seems intimidated by the idea that a woman from the working class would go out, work hard, get herself through school, and do her job. I think most women, and frankly most men, would take umbrage with the idea that getting a B.A. means you’re overeducated. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that my education has afforded me. I’ve worked my butt off, and what I have is a product definitely of luck, but a lot of it is a product of hard work. I’ve earned my keep as much as anyone does.