America’s obesity rate is still the highest in the world. The government knows this – it spends more than a billion dollars every year on nutrition education. And we, too, know this. We know that fruits and vegetables and whole grains and olive oil are healthy; we know that sweets and saturated fat aren’t. In other words, we’re a country that knows how to eat well.
So why don’t we?
“One reason that it’s hard, I think, is that junk food is easy, cheap and everywhere,” said Tracie McMillan, author of the new book The American Way of Eating. “Healthy food is none of those things.”McMillan knows this deeply. For the book, she worked undercover at three typical food industry jobs – at Walmart, Applebee’s and a peach farm. Predictably, her diet suffered.
“I definitely saw how if I stayed in those jobs longer, it would have gotten worse,” she said. “The less control I had over my work life, the less empowered I felt to make decisions over diet and health. When I worked shifts at Walmart – which I would say was my most unpleasant job – I really was getting to the point where I was like, ‘screw it, I don’t care.’” Frozen meals, she said, felt “easier” than salad on days when she felt exhausted.
McMillan, a fellow at Brandeis’ Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism, thinks the problem with how America eats isn’t entirely our fault. Instead, the fault lies with our institutions.
In her book, McMillan pushes for affordable distribution networks between distributers and retailers, particularly between small farmers and grocery stores, to make produce and other healthy foods more affordable. She’d also raise wages for farm workers – who are often undocumented immigrants working on self-regulated fields.“Undocumented workers might not stay in agriculture, but that’s where they start,” McMillan said, “and there’s a strong pull downward on wages because of these workers.”
Workers in America are often unaware of their rights, she said, and employers exploit this. At Walmart, employers would manipulate her hours, making her work overtime one day and then telling her to drop her shift the next to save money. At the peach farm, she was expected to sign forms saying she took a safety course that was never offered. And at Applebee’s, if there was a staff meeting, most workers were unsure if they’d get paid for it.
People working at these low-wage, high-stress jobs may also – ironically – live in food deserts. Many poor neighborhoods in the U.S. don’t have grocery stores, and only a handful of cities in the U.S. have quality public transportation. At a bodega, McMillan said, there are probably frozen vegetables, maybe fresh onions and potatoes, and possibly whole grain bread – but there’s also macaroni and cheese, ramen, and Coca Cola.
It’s not impossible to eat healthily without easy access to a grocery store, she said – “but it’s a much heavier burden.” After all, healthy food is rarely as easy as putting a plate in the microwave.
“There’s a real sense in the U.S. that cooking is something you do as a celebrity chef or a talented person – it’s not a normal skill,” McMillan said. If people do cook, it’s viewed as recreation – not a “general life skill.”
In other countries, the expectation is different – she met recent immigrants from Mexico who cooked a lot, but whose “whole social life revolved around family at home.” In other words, there was less rushing – they didn’t have to run their kids to soccer practices.
Maybe it comes down to work-life balance. France famously has a much lower obesity rate than the U.S. They also have a strong health care system, public childcare, and five weeks of paid vacation, McMillan points out. “I would love to grow my own vegetables if I had five weeks of vacation in the summer to do so!” she said. “I think it’s really important to think about what priorities we’re setting up.”
In the current system, those priorities seem backwards. “Americans spend 6 percent less than the French on food,” McMillan said. “They also spend 6 percent more on health care.”