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

By Tracie McMillan

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.

Finally, I heard a series of cries: "Vamanos!" Literally, this means, "Let's go," but in the field it means "We're outta here!" There was nobody to drive the tractor away -- Carlos tried to teach me, but I couldn't get the clutch to budge -- so I left it sitting between the irrigation ditches and plodded toward the end of the row, emerging on a lane where there are no cars. For a moment I was confused. Where's my car? Then I remembered that we had moved our cars at lunch; they were at the other end of the row, a quarter or half mile away; the distance didn't really matter because it all translated to "far." When I finally reached my car, I waved weakly at the worker whose car was next to mine.

"It's very hot!" I said, an attempt at levity. "What do you think, one hundred and four?" That's how hot it was yesterday."

"One hundred and eight."

"Really?"

"Yeah, I heard someone say so."

"Damn."

The exhaustion became tangible, a solid force expanding through my body, centered between my shoulder blades and exerting a gravitational pull back and downward. I had the distinct urge to lie down in my car, but held off until I could pull myself into the house, take a sold shower, and pull three ice packs out of the freezer. It occurred to me that lethargy and confusion are classic signs of heat sickness, that the line between sickly and dangerously ill is an internal temperature of 103, and that, being in possession of a thermometer, I would have been well advised to use it. But the thermometer was tucked away somewhere; to reach it I would have had to sit up. I stayed lying down.

10642013-large.jpg Until, of course, my body demanded that I get to a bathroom, and so here I am, retching into the tub from a standing position, the shower curtain dramatically flung aside. Once my stomach quiets, nausea gives way to an irrational sense of abject failure. None of the other workers seemed to be getting sick, but here I am, turning my insides out.

I do what I can to clean up the mess and stumble back to my room to find the thermometer; the room is so hot it begins reading the air as soon as I turn it on. As for me, I'm at a prickly 100.7 degrees and I take this as a sign that I need, rather desperately, to get into some air-conditioning. I take refuge in the library, where I scoot my chair as close as possible to the vent in the wall. Emboldened by the cessation of abdominal hostilities, I drink some water only to end up gagging over the library's toilet. I comfort myself with the reminder that it could be worse; I could be vomiting into the toilet in my own home.

There are other ways it could be worse, of course. I could have to keep doing this job indefinitely. I could lack the resources to pick up and move to a more temperate climate. I could be without a car. I could have a less friendly supervisor and could thus lose my job for spending an hour sitting in the shade and listlessly picking at fruit. I could be less educated about heat sickness and have somehow pressed on, working until I actually did collapse from the heat, or the dust, or the food poisoning, or whatever it is that has wrought havoc on me today. And 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.

There are so many ways it could be worse, in fact, that the part of me that insists I just take my lumps feels aghast to hear a question tinged with complaint arise from some deep corner of my psyche. Kneeling in a stall of the Caruthers Library bathroom, defeated at last by the heat and the dust, what I want to know is this: Whose fucking idea was it to grow food in a desert?

TEMPLATEReadMoreBookExcerpts.jpgExcerpted from Tracie McMillan's The American Way of Eating: Undercover at Walmart, Applebee's, Farm Fields and the Dinner Table (Scribner)

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2012/03/the-american-way-of-eating-what-its-like-picking-fruit-as-a-laborer/254137/