One reporter's lesson from working at Walmart: Love your produce manager

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Sometimes all the food slogans we live with are totally overwhelming: To be healthy you need to eat five a day. Eat local. Eat organic. Vote with your fork. And of course, good, healthy food is the right of every American.

Excellent ideas, but who can afford them? Reporter Tracie McMillan went undercover at Walmart and in the farm fields to learn firsthand how these slogans play in the lives of a large percentage of Americans. What she unearthed is in her book, The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields, and the Dinner Table.  

Lynne Rossetto Kasper: You set out to see if it is possible to eat healthfully and eat well when you're working as most low-income Americans work. One of the places you decided to actually go and work was Walmart. What was that experience like for you?

Tracie McMillan
Tracie McMillan (Bart Nagel)

Tracie McMillan: Walmart, for New Yorkers, seems like this exotic place because we don't have one yet. To go and work at Walmart, I decided to go outside of Detroit because Detroit is known for being a city with very little in the way of fresh groceries. I thought this would be really interesting to live in a place known as being a food desert and then be commuting out to a national grocer the same way a lot of people were doing for their grocery shopping.

The most interesting thing I cottoned onto in my work at Walmart was just that there's this very strong narrative we hear about corporate efficiencies and how everything works like this clean, well-oiled machine. At least in the Walmart I was at, that completely broke down when it came to produce.

I spent a shift one day throwing out about 200 pounds of asparagus that had molded and rotted in the cooler and hadn't been rotated out -- it was about 6 weeks old. The cooler had a leak from the ceiling that lasted almost the entire duration of my time there, about a month, so we were losing a lot of produce in that way.

It just was this very interesting lesson in both how difficult and tricky it is to manage a produce section right. If you think about it, somebody has to be on top of the 300 to 500 items that are all dying at different rates in front of you. We talk so much about wanting to love your farmer and know your farmer, but I came out of this feeling like we really should know and love our produce managers. That's a really difficult job and it's incredibly important for us.

LRK: Walmart is one of the places that's touting selling produce at prices that would be affordable to just about everybody.

TMM: Walmart does a really good job of telling everyone how much lower their prices are, which tends to be true if you're comparing a typical basket of goods. Walmart's prices on produce are not necessarily any lower than local grocery stores.

When I was in Detroit, I actually did a comparison between my little local grocery store in southwest Detroit and the Walmart at which I had been working. The produce on average was 7 percent cheaper in Detroit as opposed to buying it at Walmart. Fresh meats, the basket I had of that, were 17 percent cheaper in Detroit than at Walmart.

Part of that's because Walmart doesn't have to compete the same way that we think of in economics. Walmart is such a huge store that they can just play with their pricing cocktail as much as they want. They do so much private label development -- they're doing a lot of their own processed food in house. That stuff is always going to be so much cheaper than the national brands. When you compare buying all of your groceries at Walmart, where Walmart saves you money is the processed stuff.

LRK: You were really working undercover. Your goal was to live on what you made -- just as everyone else who worked in the store and in other places did -- and see how that worked out for you. You began by actually working in the fields where our food is grown in the Salinas Valley in California. I'm just curious, how much do you make as a farm worker?

TMM: I typically was earning between $2 and $4 an hour. I was being paid a straight piece rate. When I was working in garlic, I got $1.60 for every 5-gallon bucket I could fill with cut heads of garlic.

LRK: That's nothing.

TMM: It did not turn out to be very much money. My first day I picked 10 buckets, so that's $16. My wages were not brought up to minimum wage, which is illegal.

LRK: I thought you had to get minimum wage.

TMM: You have to get minimum wage. If I'm a bad picker, it is my employer's job to bring my wages up to the minimum. That just wasn't happening in large part because most of the folks I was working alongside were undocumented, so they weren't very inclined to complain.

LRK: How do you live on that kind of money?

TMM: There's no real big secret to it, they just cut as many costs as they can. When I was living in the Salinas Valley, I was sharing a small, two-bedroom house with about 16 or 17 other people.

In one bedroom there was a family of seven. In the second bedroom there was a family of four. I had a little cubby that I paid for off the living room. I was paying top dollar in terms of farmworker rent, so I paid about $300 for seven weeks of housing. Then there were between four and six single men living in the garage and the shed built off the back of it called the casita. We all shared one bathroom and one kitchen.

There were communal meals with the family of seven -- they would share with me. Because my Spanish is poor, it was never totally clear to me if this was straight charity on their part, or if they considered it included as part of room and board because there was sometimes food shared with the other folks in the house as well.

LRK: For a year you were working essentially undercover. Is there one picture that comes to your mind when you look back at that time?

TMM: The main picture that would come up for me is a kitchen with empty cupboards. I really just didn't have enough money to buy pantry staples, condiments and all these fancy things. In my normal life I forget what a luxury it is to have a well-stocked pantry. It's very easy to cook quickly and well when you have a few different vinegars, a couple different oils, a panoply of spices. That makes it really easy to cook something delicious very quickly. It's really not as much fun to cook when you're stuck with salt, pepper, oregano, rice and beans.

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