Fall 2015

Why is There so Much Interest in Food?

By Laura Hahn and Michael Bruner

Communication Professors Michael Bruner and Laura Hahn have each written extensively on food-related issues.

It might seem odd to begin our article celebrating the food movement with reference to a January column by Tamar Haspel in the The Washington Post that claims the food movement is not a big deal.

Haspel has a point. Consumers are more concerned with what is in their food (additives, chemicals, pesticides) than the details, and even the injustices, of the food systems that produce, process, market, and transport the food that we consume. Food Justice has come late to the table in the U.S.

In addition, a single, unified food movement does not exist. We instead can identify many recent food movements around the globe.

Food justice is only the most recent of this multitude of social movements. Some are highly organized and institutionalized, such as the Organic Consumers Association. Many are informal and fluid, such as the local food movement in the United States, Vandana Shiva’s ongoing seed-saving campaign in India, and efforts in Mexico to protect the thousands of varieties of corn that are threatened by major corporations.

OTHERS WORK OUTSIDE the establishment and mainstream values, such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals’ (PETA) vegetarian and vegan campaigns. Nevertheless, when one views the totality of these widespread and diverse movements, it is clear that millions of people are involved with food issues and food advocacy today.

In addition to the advocacy focus, food seems to be on center stage in our homes, in commerce, in government, in health care, in popular culture, and in academia. So why all of the “buzz”? While we do not believe there is a single answer, there are some factors and events that have influenced this current obsession with food.

The Stuff of Life

FOOD IS AT the very foundation of our existence. We need food to live. As people are living longer, there has been increased attention to the factors that increase health and thus, lifespan. As diet is a significant factor in human health, food has received increased attention to its role in health and wellbeing.

Plus food has an important place in our relationships and cultural identities. We sit down to meals as a family, use the symbolic meanings of food items to celebrate holidays and religious traditions, and cultivate a garden to connect us to the earth and ancient growing practices.

Influential Voices

THANKS TO significant thinkers and writers, the culture has experienced a paradigm shift regarding how we conceptualize the human relationship to food and the food industry. One of the early contributors was J.I. Rodale, who founded Organic Farming and Gardening magazine in 1942. Another early opinion leader was Rachel Carson, who published Silent Spring in 1962. Carson’s is more than a book on environmental science. It raised awareness about the impact of pesticides, and left only a small step for the public to wonder about the safety and purity of food. Michelle Obama’s White House garden raised the profile and the stakes of locally grown and healthy food like no other effort in recent history.

In the last two decades, significant food studies scholars and writers—Peter Singer (Animal Liberation), Michael Pollan (The Omnivore’s Dilemma), Marion Nestle (Food Politics), for example—have transcended academic discourse and brought the social, political, economic, and cultural consequences of our food systems into the mainstream. And they have captured the public’s imagination through accessible books and articles on food issues. There has also been a proliferation of food studies programs, degrees and certificates at universities, as well as increased attention to food insecurity among college students.

The Millennial Effect

THE PEW RESEARCH CENTER, in its report, “Millennials: A Portrait of Generation Next,” paints a picture of young adults who are driven by freedom of choice and lifestyle. They explore options and communicate about options via social media. Millennials are health-conscious and food-conscious.

Mixed with these values are the matters of economic privilege and opportunities. The “hip” side of the food movement has been criticized for privileging those who can shop at health foods stores, buy gourmet food products, drink craft beer, and eat at niche restaurants. On the other hand, Millennials reportedly are confident and connected. They can, and do, critique food practices associated both with the “establishment” and with “alternative” cultures. Today, for example, there is more awareness of privilege and food choices, and food justice issues are becoming more mainstream.

Popular Culture and Media

FOOD IS increasingly the topic in books, television shows, websites, blogs, and documentary films. Moreover, social media sites have become a predominant means for communicating class and cultural identity. While there is a long history of using consumer goods to convey one’s social standing—such as cars, luxury vacations, and designer clothes—food and eating have become the latest status commodities. By sharing what we are eating and drinking and where we are dining, we can communicate our social, economic, cultural, religious, and political status across the globe. As such, food is no longer stylized just for the plate, but is something to be posted, tweeted, pinned, and shared.

Taken together, these four factors have contributed to our current obsession with food, and you can definitely see it here at Humboldt State University. HSU staff, including Director of Dining Services Ron Rudebock, and Health Educator Mira Friedman, are changing the face of food at the University. Faculty members Joshua Frye, Jen Maguire, and Noah Zerbe have national profiles in food-related matters. And &ellisp; even as we write &ellisp; the Oh SNAP! Food Pantry is helping to feed our at-risk students, while students are breaking ground on two campus gardens.