Limbaugh lift for her book on food policy

worked undercover to write her book.
worked undercover to write her book. (Tracie McMillan)
Posted: March 13, 2012

Tracie McMillan is discovering the upside of being ridiculed by Rush Limbaugh.

As a first-time author writing about food policy, McMillan, 35, was relieved to get a publisher and a small advance. A Feb. 20 favorable review in the New York Times, on the eve of publication, was nice icing. Fortune and fame would have been unreasonable expectations.

"Most books don't make money. They're calling cards to parlay into fellowships or speaking engagements," says the pragmatic McMillan, who was born and bred in Michigan before moving to Brooklyn to become a freelance journalist.

Her book, The American Way of Eating (Scribner, February 2012), describes her experiences working undercover for nearly a year - harvesting fruit for industrial farms in California, stocking produce at a Detroit-area Wal-Mart, and working the line at a New York City Applebee's. She lived on her earnings, putting her in with the lowest third of American workers.

McMillan will be in Philadelphia March 27 to read from her book at Next American City, 2816 W. Girard Ave., from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., and March 28 at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore, 36th and Walnut Streets, from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m.

No doubt she'll get questions about her moment in Limbaugh's glare, which came March 6 when he focused on her book for the entire first hour of his show. Limbaugh referred to McMillan as an "authorette" who was part of a larger trend of "young single, white women, overeducated" and somehow a threat to the country.

Limbaugh took issue with McMillan's conclusion that the private sector fails to give the nation's poorest people access to fresh food, and that the government might have to step in if poor people are to eat well, and thereby stay healthy. But in the next breath, Limbaugh dismissed McMillan as "this babe."

"He took issue with the content, which is his right, but he dismissed the work because of the gender of its author," said Florence Graves, founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, where McMillan is a fellow.

Limbaugh's critique came days after he had to make a public apology for scathing remarks about Sandra Fluke, a hitherto unknown Georgetown University law student who testified before Congress in February about medical insurance coverage for birth control pills.

Limbaugh has dismissed suggestions that losing more than two dozen sponsors over the Fluke flap made a difference to him or Premiere Radio.

McMillan, who says she grew up in Limbaugh land, was stunned by her sudden celebrity.

"It's mostly just really bizarre and weird to have your work singled out by a major national figure," she said in a telephone interview.

The hullabaloo landed her appearances on the Rachel Maddow, Al Sharpton, and Keith Olbermann shows. It boosted the book's sales on Amazon into the top 100, she says, and it could result in fewer trips to the junkyard in search of parts for her 1994 Ford Escort.

She hopes the controversy leads to discussion of the issues outlined in the book, which seeks to explain what keeps most Americans from eating well and what can be done about it.

A freelance journalist with national awards and a nod from the James Beard Foundation to her credit, McMillan set out in 2009 to see whether the standards for healthy eating set by writers such as Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma) and Eric Schlosser (Fast Food Nation) could be achieved by America's working poor.

McMillan carefully tracked her spending on food eaten at home and on the go, finding that as a farm worker, she earned the least and spent the most on food. But as she learned to cook for herself, she had less waste and ate out less. Still, as a field worker McMillan felt she would have gone hungry without the generosity of coworkers who shared their meals.

"The average American household spends 13 percent of their income on food, but the numbers break down very differently on income," McMillan writes. That means households earning less than $30,000 spend 21 percent to 36 percent on food, while those earning $70,000 or more spend just 9 percent.

"One quarter of America shops at Wal-Mart and it is the only real grocery store in many parts of the country," she says.

"But I know the quality of produce there is inferior and I say this not because I think Wal-Mart is some giant evil force, but because I worked there, cutting leaves off wilting heads of lettuce, tossing out rotting mushrooms, and selling green peppers that are moldy on the inside.

"My conclusions, drawn from firsthand reporting, are that the private sector, the nation's Wal-Marts, have to be motivated by government to do a better job."

Wal-Mart and Applebee's have been mute on the subject of McMillan's book.

"That's the conversation I want us to have," McMillan says. "How to get the private and public sectors working together to make better fresh food accessible and affordable.

"Distributing our food solely through private networks makes sense only if you think of food as a consumer good," McMillan writes. "But if you see fresh food for what it is - a social good and a human right - it makes far more sense to have a little public control over its distribution, just as we ensure that water and electricity gets to nearly every American."

The suggestion of "public control" raises the ire of conservatives such as Limbaugh, although the USDA has supported large industrial farms for decades and, in 2010, began supporting local efforts to create "food hubs" or cooling and packing sheds for fresh food distribution.

As the daughter of a rural Michigan lawn mower salesman, McMillan knows that what Limbaugh says matters in that part of the country. She says she'd welcome an invitation to talk on his show.

"If he wants to have an adult intelligent discussion with me about the content of my work, that's great," McMillan says.

"The point of my work is not that everyone will agree with it. It is to have a discussion about how to make it easier for everyone to eat well."


If You Go

Tracie McMillan will be in town to discuss her book, "The American Way of Eating," later this month:

6:30-8:30 p.m. March 27 at Next American City, 2816 W. Girard Ave.

4:30-5:30 p.m. March 28 at the University of Pennsylvania Bookstore, 3601 Walnut St., 215-898-7595


Contact Dianna Marder at 215-854-4211, dmarder@phillynews.com, on Twitter @marderd. Read her recent work at go.philly.com/diannamarder.

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