Award-winning journalist Tracie McMillan traces the origins of the current incarnation of America’s food supply in The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Wal-Mart, Applebee’s, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table.

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Working undercover as a laborer in the grape fields of California, a produce clerk in a Wal-Mart superstore on the outskirts of Detroit and on the line in a Brooklyn Applebee’s, the author was determined to live and eat off her wages. What she discovers is the depressing reality millions of Americans face daily—no matter how healthy you’d like to eat, choice is limited by your environment and your bank account. In recounting her own experiences and that of her co-workers, McMillan paints a searing portrait of the way we regard and consume food in America and makes a winning argument for why it needs to change.

What led you to write this book?

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I’d been covering a sustainable-food cooking class that was being held at a student center for public high school students in New York. When my editor first asked me to cover it, I was very crotchety about it. Like, “I cover domestic violence and you want me to go to a cooking class?” But I went.

The class worked, in as much as you can see something work over the course of six to eight months. The kids were all interested and capable of explaining what they were learning in their own language. They weren’t just parroting back what their teachers were telling them. While I was reporting this, I went looking for data on food access. There wasn’t any. So I did a crude study of my own.

The more I worked on this project, the better I understood that supermarkets aren’t the best indicator of access to healthy food. In many cases, though, it’s the only access to food. It wasn’t that these students or the people in these communities didn’t care about food or want to eat healthily. It’s that it was so much easier for them to eat badly.

Have the local, sustainable food movements or the efforts of reformers like Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama been effective in changing the way people eat?  

A lot of the discussion about local and sustainable food has been about making it more difficult. If we’re talking about food in terms of health and social equality, we should be talking about making it easier. But only a third of the country, in terms of households, can afford these types of options.

I love Jamie Oliver and Michelle Obama, but taking a prescriptive approach has a lot of serious shortcomings. What would be most effective is if cooking classes were part of basic education in this country. Then you’d have people engaging with their food and making more empowered decisions about what they eat.

Even if we’re eating better, trying harder, doing more, all these things can only go so far if you’re not addressing the stagnation of wages. People just aren’t going to spend that much money on food. The United States spends 15 percent of its GDP on social programs, whereas France spends 28 percent. I like to think that if people had more affordable housing, five weeks of vacation, free good quality public childcare and maternity care, they would feel a lot more comfortable spending more money on quality food. 

Does healthy, quality food become only an option for the middle and upper classes?

There are always these charges of elitism in the food movement. But that’s not how most people engage with their food. Gourmandism has typically been an upper-class pursuit. We can’t fault these people for being more affluent, but that doesn’t mean that talking about food isn’t as important to people with less privilege. To have a very honest discussion about food and class in America, we need to stop using food as a way to divide people. Everybody eats. Everybody appreciates good food.

So how do you change that?

There is a role for consumer demand to play in this, both of private commercial products and government services. That’s a way to make change happen. On the one hand, it’s part of infrastructure. I realized when I was reporting that supermarkets are the only existing infrastructure for getting food into communities. 

It’s weird—we accept that government is going to help with water, roads, electricity, things we consider part of the social contract. But we’ve left food up to the private market. The infrastructure for moving food from farm to plate has gone completely private. The USDA doesn’t even track food at terminal markets at this point, much less have a grasp on how food is moving around the country.

Also, I really think a lot of people rely on unhealthy food because it’s easier. But if people learn how to cook, it becomes a basic chore. If everyone knew how to cook, then we could yell at them for not cooking. But if people aren’t being taught how to cook or engage with their food, we’re mostly lecturing them, and they’re not going to change.

Karen Calabria is a writer and editor based in Long Island, N.Y.