Behind the Scenes

“Food’s a Great Lens, but It’s Not the Actual Topic We Need to Address”

Tracie McMillan on the story behind her piece “Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?”

Detroit Whole Foods Market
The fruit and vegetable section of the Whole Foods Market in Detroit on Sept. 26, 2014.

Photo by Marcin Szczepanski

Tracie McMillan is the author of “Can Whole Foods Change the Way Poor People Eat?”—published on Slate on Nov. 20. In this Slate Plus interview, McMillan, who spent more than 18 months researching, reporting, and writing about the Whole Foods in Detroit, talks about her ideas on food equity, the challenges she faced while reporting, and more.

Slate Plus: You’re from Michigan. What was your personal relationship with Detroit like, and how did that affect the way you reported on this story?

McMillian: I’m originally from a little rural town in southeast Michigan, but I’ve reported in Detroit on and off since 2007. For a New York–based reporter, I have a pretty strong grasp of what’s going on in Detroit, though I’m still an outsider. My interest in Detroit and in that city’s future and what that development means for the way we think about development nationally—all of those threads made this story about Whole Foods much more interesting with me. If it had been a store in Iowa, I don’t think I would have been as excited.

Why is this an important story?

A lot of changes that are happening in Detroit right now also reflect big decisions that we’ve been making about how you develop cities in general. For example, what kinds of equity we’re comfortable with and willing to accept (or not). The idea that I could dive into looking into the practicality of addressing equity through a grocery store against a backdrop of a city grappling with very serious equity issues—I just felt like that was a very important story to tell right now.

As a journalist, you’ve reported on welfare and poverty, food politics, eating, health, and more. It seems like this story interweaves all of those areas—and you really can’t discuss one without discussing the other.

This story was like a perfect storm of all of the things I’m interested in and have some expertise in: Detroit, poverty, food. I know how to spend time in low-income communities and make friends with my subjects and be able to document what their lives are like. Knowing how and what the questions you have to ask to understand how someone is thinking about food or health is really not as easy as you think. Most people don’t go there and say, “Well, the way that I’m deciding what to eat today is very explicitly this thing about my job versus this thing about my health.” People can’t really articulate those trade-offs very clearly, because they’re right in the middle of it.

I came into my profession as a reporter writing about poverty, and then I moved into writing about food, basically because I couldn’t get work writing about poverty. Unfortunately, there’s not a huge swath of jobs where you can do interesting reporting on social issues. Almost a decade ago, I realized that if I wrote about equity and poverty through the lens of food, people were really willing to talk about it a lot more. And now we’re reaching the point where the jig is up, and that all of these discussions we’ve been having about health, diet, and equity in the food system …  they’re pretty hollow unless we start addressing poverty too. Food is a great lens, but it’s not the actual topic we need to address. You can’t really fix anything with food unless you start focusing on the equity issues.

What surprised you the most about your reporting?

How instinctively Americans conflate class and race—and how that plays out in our discussions of food. And I include myself in that, because one of the things that I try to pull out in the piece is the rhetoric that Whole Foods is using and the arguments that they’re making. I would have these discussions with Whole Foods at first, and I would say, “Well, what about price?” and Whole Foods would turn around and say something like, “But what is wrong with you that you think that poor people don’t want good quality food? Low-income people will spend more money for food.”

And that’s something that I’ve seen in my reporting: Caring about healthy food and wanting healthy food is not a province of the rich. Being able to spend the money on it is. I was really surprised to see Whole Foods be so savvy about borrowing that. It’s brilliant PR. It’s really ingrained in our discussions about food—that low-income people wouldn’t care enough on their health to spend more money. And kudos for Whole Food for calling people out on that, but they’re using that very much in their own self-interest. I don’t fully buy it. They’re not social justice activists.

I see no evidence that the store has a significant amount of sales going to low-income people, either. Whenever I would ask about economic demographics, Whole Foods would say something along the lines of, “Well, look around you.” So you look around you and you see a predominately black store—and that it’s a diverse place, since it’s not an all-white store. My initial instinct said, “Oh yes, this is a very mixed-income store,” and then I realized: There is absolutely NO evidence of that it’s mixed income here. What there’s evidence of is that there are black people present in the store, which isn’t surprising, since Detroit is an 82 percent black city.

Whole Foods is kind of getting credit for just showing up and doing their job. They’re selling food to the residents of Detroit.  

What were the biggest challenges of reporting on this story?

Most of the challenges are the same things you run into with any big narrative piece—which is finding subjects. It had been a very long time since I had to report a long-form narrative feature with a tight deadline, so I had all of this hubris going out, thinking I would find someone in the first week. It took me three and a half weeks to find Toyoda and Spencer—folks who were not yet on board with organic foods and usual suspects for that. They’re open to having me come and spend time with them. And of course, scheduling was challenging too. For example, I wanted to go to this shopping class with Toyoda. Keep in mind—I couldn’t rearrange her schedule for my purposes because that’s not appropriate.

Were you surprised that Whole Foods cut off communication with you once you started doing price comparisons?

I was really surprised that Whole Foods wasn’t willing to have a direct and honest discussion about price. I had seen Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb talk in a business school environment where he was general but frank about admitting that Whole Foods had high prices. As I mentioned in the piece, though, as soon as Whole Foods understood that I was actually documenting prices and wanting to have an actual conversation about price—they stopped talking to me.

You spent a lot of time number crunching and collecting data in order to compare the prices for the Whole Foods in Detroit to other Detroit-area grocery stores. Can you tell us about that data collection process?

Collecting data and trying to figure out how to do a really reliable data set that was actually intelligible to people was super challenging because it doesn’t exist anywhere. The data that we were able to put online with the piece is going to be a really useful resource for anyone interested in concerns around food prices, because companies don’t make that sort of thing public. USDA does their version of it, but it’s one of these weird arcane economist things where it’ll read: “eight ounces of greenfield peas.” Does that mean the produce section, or Green Giant in the freezer section? What exactly does that mean? The economist-ese doesn’t translate into your daily experience.

The Food and Environment Reporting Network deserves really big kudos because they funded me to buy everything. It wasn’t just writing down price names in the store. (That can be sketchy and people can get weird about it.) I was able to go buy all of that food so I could write down brand name and ounces and make sure it was a very consistent and accurate data set that I feel very confident putting my name on.

So what did you do with that food?

Well, I took it to the food bank. The guys doing intake said they don’t usually get stuff from Whole Foods.

As told to Jennifer Lai.