Getting Real About the Food Movement

by Jane Black

Jane Black is an award-winning food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. Her work appears in The Washington Post (where she was a staff writer), The New York Times, The Atlantic, Slate, New York Magazine and other publications. She is currently at work on a book about one West Virginia community's struggle to change the way it eats.

Stone Barns Center invited Jane to be our guest columnist, taking on complex, timely issues in food and agriculture that are important to our mission. We welcome her perspective; the views and opinions expressed here are hers and not necessarily those of Stone Barns Center.

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How big is the food movement? And how big does it need to be to make a difference?

Washington Post food columnist Tamar Haspel kicked off the debate in a provocative piece in January. In it, she argued that polls showing that a huge majority of Americans care about food issues were misleading. (Ask consumers if they want GMOs labeled and more than 90 percent will say yes. But ask them what they want to see on a label and only 7 percent mention GMOs.) The truth was in the numbers, she said, which show that Americans continue to buy conventional over organic and processed over fresh, local foods.

Haspel told me her goal was to start a constructive conversation. But the piece ruffled a lot of feathers—and Haspel got no small amount of hate mail. Anna Lappé, a sustainable food advocate and founder of the Small Planet Institute, joined forces with Rep. Chellie Pingree (D–Maine), to pen a thoughtful response, challenging each of Haspel’s statistics with their own. The headline said it all: “The food movement is small? Not from where we sit, it isn’t.”

The problem is, you can’t build a solid case for either point-of-view with statistics on sales of local food or organic food or soda. No statistic, or even a set of them, can measure a food culture—and that’s what we’re really talking about here: Does food matter? Do Americans value how their food is grown, and by whom? Do they value it enough to “vote with their forks” or engage in politics to protect and improve it?

I started writing about food 12 years; that’s B.T.O.D.—before The Omnivore’s Dilemma, truly another era. Over that time I’ve been thrilled to see a national conversation unfold about the state of food, with august publications from the New Yorker to Oxford American dedicating whole issues to the subject. In cities such as New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Austin, it can seem like everyone knows and cares about GMOs, animal welfare and workers rights. But leave the wealthy urban and suburban enclaves, and you quickly discover that this is not the case.

This does not mean we don’t have a burgeoning food movement. As I’ve discovered in five years of reporting on food and families in West Virginia, a lot of Americans—not just those with money—are worried about food. But they’re also busy. Too busy—with their families, their jobs, their hobbies that are not food or cooking—to take the time to understand and engage on food issues. They want someone to fix food safety, improve animal welfare, give a fair shake to farmers. But mostly they just want to go back to the days when going to the grocery store to pick up something for dinner was not a stressful, guilt-ridden experience. This group—what sustainability consultant Anthony Flaccavento calls the “vaguely concerned and sporadically motivated”—explains the gap that Haspel illustrated in her column. If you ask people specifically, sure, they say they care. But food issues are not top of mind.

And that’s okay. We can’t all be experts on everything. (I want cleaner power but I don’t know all that much about what fuels the electricity in my home and office.) The big question is, how can we harness Americans’ concerns to build a better food system?

I don’t think the answer is requiring everyone to school themselves on the intricacies of no-till agriculture or farm animal stocking densities. Nor is it to be found by scaring people into action. We need to make it easy to be a good-food citizen. 

A first step is to put pressure on food manufacturers for transparency, demanding they use strict, responsible third-party certifications to verify things such as animal welfare or fair treatment of workers. (A new certification, the Equitable Food Initiative, just partnered with Whole Foods to monitor working conditions, pesticide use and food safety.) Next, we need to make it simple for customers to look at products in context. So far, manufacturers mostly have invested in QR codes, those funny symbols you can scan with your phone to get additional information. But who has time to research products one by one? A better solution is to build an app to do the work for us.

There are already examples of this on the market, such as the app, How Good. The app lets you rate and compare products based on sourcing, production and labor practices. This way, with the click of a button, you know that Allegro Coffee or Happy Hen eggs really are doing what they say they are, and that some brands might not be living up to their claims and labels. Services like this make it easy enough for even the most vaguely concerned or sporadically motivated among us to make a good-food choice. And all those choices add up. Which is a good thing. Because Tamar Haspel is certainly right about one thing: Americans will get the food system we demand.