'The American Way of Eating': What It's Like Picking Fruit as a Laborer

Tracie McMillan went undercover as a farm hand to find out about the difficulties involved in getting our food from plant to plate.

Image: fdenb/Shutterstock

If my floor had been clean, I might have made it to the toilet.

This is the initial thought that comes to me here, crouched on the bathroom floor, my face centered over a toilet seat and inches from a wastebasket filled with dirty toilet paper. Saliva and bile dribble from my chin, and I can see, off to the side, where the initial wave of vomit and dusty mucus splattered down the side of the tub. I'd felt the first heaving urge while lying on my bed and in my hurry had fumbled with my flip-flops before running for the bathroom, losing precious seconds to my obsession with keeping a barrier between my skin and the floor. Even now, with my digestive tract in open revolt, I squat instead of kneel on the bathroom floor, my arms gingerly bracing against the toilet for the next round.

The first signs that I was sick, I now see, came this morning. I'd barely been able to eat anything -- in fact, I'd had the distinct urge to spit out my breakfast. I had blamed this on the heat wave, knowing that I often lose my appetite when it's hot, and besides, without an air conditioner I've been too hot to fall asleep until somewhere north of midnight. I resolved to drink enough water in the field, packed up my peanut butter and jelly and Pepsi, and went on to work. The day was slow, and after lunch we shifted to hourly pay instead of piece rate, charged with cleaning out overlooked fruit from a few rows. No longer paid by their output, the pickers' pace dropped dramatically. Carlos donned a bote and started picking, and I was left to sort on my own. Earlier in the week, we'd been filling between two or three viajes each hour. Now it took us the entire post-lunch shift, from 10:00 to 1:30, to fill one and a half.

There are other ways it could be worse, of course. I could be doing all of this without any legal status in the country, terrified that at any moment I'll be forcibly returned to the border.

Working alone, I didn't realize I was slowing down. I was drinking plenty of water, and the mayordomo was kindly making sure to park the trailer in the shade each time we moved down the row. it wasn't until he came over to spot-check my work and began to pick over the crate, throwing out peach after peach after peach, that I realized there might be a problem.

He looked at me balefully. The crate was almost full, and, I realized, probably needed to be sorted over again. I was hazy and tired, and felt an inkling that I ought to have been embarrassed. But when I looked down at the peaches before me, they were an indistinguishable mass of yellow fuzz. They all looked fine to me.

The foreman said something to me about the other tractor, one that was a few rows over. I barely understood any of it, my Spanish having disappeared along with my energy. I blankly stepped off the trailer, thinking he was telling me to go work at the other trailer.

"No, Tere, stay here and sort this," he said deliberately. "Tell the workers to bring their fruit to the other trailer, over there." He looked at me again. "Have a peach," he said, handing me a piece of fruit. It occurred to me that if I could be fired, today would be the day.

I nodded, my head thick and foggy, and watched him walk away through the trees toward the other trailer. For the first time in two weeks, I sat down on the wheel well and bit into a peach. It was sweet and utterly unappetizing, but I ate it anyway. My head felt heavy and swollen. I made a nominal effort at picking through the fruit in the crate from my seated position. Whenever pickers came to the trailer, I would lift my head and say: "This one is full, you should go to the other trailer, over there," and point after the foreman. Soon, the pickers stopped coming by at all.

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Tracie McMillan is a freelance journalist whose work focuses on the issue of access to good food, particularly within middle- and lower-income communities. Her first book, The American Way of Eating, examines food and class in America.

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