News + Media

April 28, 2016

McMillan Talks Food Justice and Being an “Anti-Foodie Foodie” at Dorothy Day Lecture

Tracie McMillan

Emmanuel's generation-bridging commitment to social justice was the inspiration behind the third annual Dorothy Day Lecture, held on Sunday, April 24th. The featured speaker, investigative journalist and writer Tracie McMillan, has researched and reported on food justice and inequality in America since the start of her career in the late 1990s. In her talk, "How to Be an Anti-Foodie Foodie: Why What We Eat is a Social Justice Issue," she reflected on her personal food journey, beginning as a child growing up in a working-class family and then as an undercover employee in the food industry.

The Dorothy Day Lecture Series was launched in 2013 by the Class of 1971 as a "living legacy" to honor their late classmates and to celebrate liberal arts as the foundation and inspiration for meaningful social action. In her introduction, Rosemary Hanrahan Maher '71 drew parallels between the "Emmas" of her generation and the "Saints" of today.

"We came to the realization that the late 60s and early 70s had imbued us all with a lifelong commitment to economic and social justice," she said. "That commitment did not end with graduation, and the lives of alumni bear witness to that in many simple and powerful ways."

Maher noted the timeliness of the topic of food justice at the College and the work being done by students through the Urban Food Project and the Boston-based Alternative Spring Break, both of which focus on food access and education for low-income residents in the neighborhoods surrounding Emmanuel's Notre Dame Campus in Roxbury.

"Today's lecture is really about an effort to join the Dorothy Day Lecture Series' commitment to social justice to what is happening today in the here and now at Emmanuel," she said. "We are one community, and it is justice that binds us."

At the beginning of her talk, McMillan said that she was "very touched" by the invitation to speak at this lecture. As a campus political activist during her years at New York University, she was inspired by the works of Michael Harrington, who joined Dorothy Day's Catholic Worker Movement in the early 1950s.

"It's really hard to turn down [an invitation] where I am being charged with carrying on the legacy of someone as interesting and inspiring as Dorothy Day," she said.

McMillan's lessons in being an "anti-foodie foodie" are discussed in her book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table, the result of an immersive and hands-on probe into the food industry inspired by a passage in Michael Pollan's 2006 book, The Omnivore's Dilemma.

"Many people today seem perfectly content eating at the end of an industrial food chain, without a thought in the world; this book is probably not for them. There are things in it that will ruin their appetites. But in the end this is a book about the pleasures of eating, the kinds of pleasure that are only deepened by knowing."

McMillan was offended by this. The daughter of a working father and a terminally-ill mother, her childhood meals often included quick and easy convenience foods like Hamburger Helper.

"It was never that I didn't care about my health, and it certainly wasn't that my dad didn't care and my grandmother didn't care, it just meant that the terms of our lives meant that eating anything other than the fastest and cheapest meal would be really difficult," she said.

To research the book and try to determine what was behind the disparity between the perceived chosen diets of low-income and high-income families, she took on three jobs in the food industry, of which she would eat and live off the wages for two months each.

In the first job, she picked garlic alongside migrant farmworkers in the Salinas Valley, the rich agricultural area in California known as the "Salad Bowl of the World." There, she earned $1.60 for each 25-pound bucket of garlic she picked, and she could pick 10 buckets in each nine-hour shift. While the math worked out to about $1.78 per hour, her paychecks reflected that the $16 she earned each day was done in two-hour shifts to keep her wages within the $8-per-hour minimum mandated by the state.

The second, a part-time job in the produce section of a Walmart outside Detroit, uncovered flaws in the store's hiring practices. Under a 20-year-old manager, who had been promoted from electronics and delivered pizzas on the side, the department was characterized by produce that wasn't fresh, cold or regularly rotated. McMillan noted the serious public health implications in this, because how well her untrained supervisor did his job had huge impact on the health of a community who depended on Walmart for fresh produce.

McMillan took a job expediting at an Applebee's in downtown Brooklyn for her third and final job. Often shortchanged in her paycheck and strapped for cash, she ate a lot of meals at the restaurant, where the only fresh vegetables were iceberg lettuce, tomatoes, onions, baking potatoes and red potatoes.

In the end, she admits to not doing a great job eating healthy off the wages she earned, but she did come to appreciate how much labor and human intelligence goes into the food she eats and how she eats it. She also came to the conclusion that we've developed as a culture that makes eating well really hard to do.

"After reporting this," McMillan said, "I really think it's not that we are each making bad choices, it's that, as a society, we've made the bad choices the easiest to make."

"I think when you change your perspective, that's what links the work that I do to the kind of stuff that Dorothy Day did," she added. "Because Dorothy Day looked at the world, and she thought, 'We can do better.'"

Click here to learn more about the Dorothy Day Lecture Series.