Something is Amiss in the Food World. And I’m Concerned.
Beyoncé and her trainer have launched a vegan meal delivery service. I am disturbed. I think my reaction has something to do with the historical truth that whenever food has been considered more of a commodity than a human need, there’s been trouble. Add to that the glaring disconnect between food as trend and food as, well, food, and we get to where we are today: A culture obsessed with food inside a society where too many people, including many that produce it, struggle to afford it.
There are two million people in New York City who do not know if or when they will eat a meal again. There are also hundreds of thousands of talented and dedicated farmers and food professionals who are struggling to keep the doors of their businesses open and support their families. And yet, a chain of (great, but still) burger joints just IPO’d at a valuation that would require astronomical growth for years; investors are falling over themselves to pour funds into unknown, on-trend jerky brands (jerky is the energy bar of 2015); everyone and their mother is foodstagramming; and actresses are hawking $70-a-day juice “cleanses.” I could go on.
Something is not right in the food world.
I read an article a year or so in Australian Vogue that was titled, with zero irony, Food is the New Black, and since then, I’ve kept a running tally of the number of food professionals and semi-professionals reaching celebrity status as well as the number of performers getting into Food — the same way they used to get into furniture or shampoo. I’ve also watched food start ups with negative revenue raising millions of dollars at valuations that make little to no sense. At the same time, SNAP cuts are up for debate again, our tax money continues to subsidize agribusinesses, and American children today are the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents.
Food is more than a lifestyle commodity. Food is not and can never be tech. Food, by its very nature is inefficient and unpredictable because it relies mostly on the environment and human labor. That is why the majority of people that find careers in either producing or selling food often do it against reason and out of the pure need to feed others, not for fame or fortune. Food is about nourishing people, caring for people and sustaining people and that shouldn’t be messed with. My feeling is that this food trend has so much potential to create a better, more equitable food system and yet is doing damage by distracting us from more serious food-related issues and creating an environment of frenzy, not thoughtful solutions to the issues that plague us.
Part of the problem is that our idea of success has gotten screwed up. Today, being successful has somehow become synonymous with being famous, having hundreds of thousands of “followers” on some social medium and the holy grail of being scalable.
A friend of mine called me utterly depressed the other day. She had just attended a social media workshop and the takeaway? People aren’t people anymore. Now we are brands. So are the fruits of our collective labor. It isn’t enough for a business to provide a nice living for its employees and product for its consumers; it needs to be a brand, it has to get BIG. Everything and everyone is a big brand.
I know I am not the first person to bemoan selfie culture. Nor am I the first mom and pop business owner clinging to the “small is beautiful” slogan. A lot of positive innovation has come out of our collective desire to eat better, both physically and ethically. And that innovation doesn’t change all that much until it grows enough to reach a critical mass. But when everything is marketing, when everything is a brand, when everything has to prove its ability to grow, grow, grow, it messes with small businesses, small producers and our food culture. The real stuff, the good, gritty, honest stuff, can’t keep up with all the hype.
It might sound naive, but what if some of all the money, brain power, and attention being at thrown at food startups and “foodie” marketing went to solving hunger and food waste? What if popular magazines featured stories on food justice the way they do on celebrity foodies? What if venture capitalists took a certain percentage of their money and dedicated it toward solving food issues and changing anachronistic policy?
When the food-frenzy settles down, I worry about what is going to happen to smaller food businesses. But more than that, I am afraid we will have missed our opportunity to use our collective obsession with kale and quinoa, donuts and hot chefs to educate people about hunger, waste, and diet-related illnesses. It’s not shiny, and it’s not pretty, but maybe we can start a broader discussion of how everyone can benefit from food’s trendiness, and how we can create positive, lasting food justice.