When was the last time that you found yourself chatting with your friends about a meal? Yesterday? 10 minutes ago? Now, when was the last time you had a conversation with a friend about farm subsidies or food deserts? Deserts. Not desserts. Less frequently, right? If ever?
With a spending power of about $2.45 trillion and digital savvy wherewithal, 20-and-30-somethings have brands in the palms of our hands. We’ve learned about the preservatives in our food and asked that what we eat be simple (follow the Pollan rules!); We discovered GMOs and said ‘if we don’t understand it, we don’t want it’; We’ve put pressure on food giants like Panera, Chick-fil-A and McDonald’s to change their food policies — and they have responded. It’s clear we have the power to influence change.
Yet as we’re clamoring for organic, local and natural goods, I’m not sold that there really is a food movement. And here’s why:
I spent the last four years investigating the Millennial generation and food culture. I wanted to understand why, for the first time in history, young people are spending more on food than clothing, and why nearly 50 percent of us claim to be “foodies.” What I came away with was a realization that we (yes, I too am a Millennial) are using food as comfort; it is the antidote to our chaotic, tech-filled, unpredictable realities. We use food to connect with one another, to stimulate all our senses and feel just a bit more in control. Even if we can’t find a job, are freaked about climate change and don’t trust Congress, we can find serenity in a really great beet and goat cheese risotto.
And this makes sense — after all, food is soothing! At the same time, food policy encompasses the most dire issues our generation will surely face: obesity, climate change, food access, I could go on. I began to wonder: where are all the conversations about the SNAP program, farm subsidies and pesticide runoff among the debates of cronuts, ramen and Franklin’s BBQ? From everything I can see, us rainbow-bagel-loving, kombucha-brewing foodies are only influencing policy when it directly benefits us as individuals, not us as a nation.
We are “moving the needle faster on issues like removing artificial ingredients and antibiotics in meat production,” says Naomi Starkman the founder of Civil Eats, yet not moving as quickly on things like “much-needed regulatory oversight.” Why? My research indicates that eating foods with labels you can understand makes you feel safe, makes you feel empowered about your choices. Improving Fair Labor Standards for farm workers doesn’t create that same, immediate satisfaction.
Plus, we’re the generation of self-branding and food is the new social currency. You can take a picture of your GMO-free, organic kale and feel cool as you post about it. Not so much with petitioning for crop rotation.
Which begs the question: Will young food enthusiasts act with the same fervor on less accessible food issues or simply fall short once we’ve assured our own good eating? I’m all for cage-free eggs and nixing yellow dye #6 from mac n’ cheese, but what about the kid up in the Bronx who only gets one meal a day? Or the fact that five of the eight worst paying jobs in America are in the food system? Or the dire state of our oceans due to overfishing?
Perhaps we’re just not connecting the dots. “I don’t think that there’s a huge leap from caring about a ramen trend to caring about our food system,” says Claire Benjamin DiMattina, a spokesperson for Plate of the Union. And that’s because the two are inextricably tied together. If foodies go one step further, they’ll realize that the flavor, price, nutrition and accessibility of every meal is directly tied to key economic, healthcare and agricultural issues.
For example, there’s a reason why nearly all items in Whole Foods cost more than any item at McDonald’s. Less than one percent of farm subsidies go toward fruits and vegetable farming. In fact, the top 10 percent of farms get 75 percent of all farm subsidies. The bottom 62 percent do not receive any subsidies. We have a system that rewards monoculture, factory farms and gives little support to family-owned, organic, small farms. But think: What if farm subsidies were a key conversation point during these 1,800 primary debates? Why isn’t revolutionizing the food system part of Bernie’s stump speech — overriding the powerful corn and soy lobbies? Because young people aren’t asking for it.
“Food is the new black,” says Starkman. But, “the question still remains if foodies will merely vote with their pocketbooks or if they will also vote with their vote.”
Twenty-and-30-somethings share articles about new cookie flavors far more than articles on how to change the food system. We’re eager to eat “local” but less interested in actually thinking about what eating local truly means (i.e. what’s the definition of “local”? How can you support local farms by purchasing local rotational crops or “trash” fish? Do government programs at all support your local farmers?). We want the best education for our kids but don’t consider nutrition of the entire classroom — the kids who may arrive at school hungry and therefore misbehave and fall behind.
The beauty of food is that it puts us Millennials in the driver’s seat. “Food is the new black,” says Starkman. But, “the question still remains if foodies will merely vote with their pocketbooks or if they will also vote with their vote.” As a generation that wholeheartedly understands the power of food, we can be taking this passion so much further. This could be our revolution.
Think of it this way: If we push for a greater allocation of government subsidies to sustainable and organic farms, this will promote farming mechanisms that require less pesticides, returns carbon to the soil (helping reverse the effects of climate change), creates a greater variety of rotational crops (new local foods to eat), arguably foods with a higher nutritional index and better flavor, lower the price of fresh, organic foods and raise the price of high-fructose corn syrup, sugar-laden foods. This will in turn make more fresh foods available (and more attractive) to low income families. It will make that kale Caesar or quinoa bowl you like to eat even more affordable. These changes will in turn decrease rates of obesity and diabetes (because instances of hunger correlate with instances of diabetes and obesity in this country). And this will likely decrease your insurance costs. Wouldn’t that be a foodie’s ideal?
“I’m kind of counting on this generation to pull things together,” Michael Pollan said to me during an interview for my book. So perhaps it’s time that Millennials took the reigns. No, this doesn’t mean young people have to give up the Buzzfeed videos on the ingenious things you can accomplish with a waffle iron, but it does mean that perhaps in addition, young adults can start to share articles on how to mitigate food waste with delicious recipes as much as we share articles about fun ice cream flavors. And most importantly, we can think about food policy as a major criterion in our decision for president. Let the candidates know that that’s what’s important and your vote depends on it.
“We need to mobilize that foodie momentum on more global issues — not just the personalization of food, but food in a larger context,” Danielle Nierenberg, founder and president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank expressed over the phone. Social justice, poverty, hunger. As a generation with an intense passion for food, a desire to change the status quo, this is our chance to make significant change on a topic that we already love.
Here’s what we need our Presidential candidates talking about:
- How to ensure that all Americans have access to healthy and affordable food.
- How to stop companies from marketing junk food to kids.
- How to re-align agricultural subsidies to match the government’s recommendations around fruits and vegetables and invest in sustainable farming practices.
- Banning antibiotic use with farm animals.
- Ending Fair Labor Standards exemptions for farmworkers, raising the minimum wage for all food workers, and eliminating the subminimum wage for restaurant workers.
- Humane livestock farming methods.
- Food waste management — on the farm, in the home and by businesses.
Have your own opinions on how Millennials can influence the food system? Leave your comments in the section below, and I’ll see you at the polls.
This article originally appeared on Medium.com and has been republished with Eve Turow Paul’s permission. Eve Turow Paul is the author of Generation Yum: How Millennials Food Obsession Can Change The World. Find her online here.