Dig In

In an era of global shortages and biofuel debates, the food beat gets serious

This past fall, I drove from St. Louis to Osage County, in central Missouri, to meet a hog farmer named Russ Kremer. As I pulled into the driveway of the white farmhouse where he was raised, Kremer ambled out in his rubber boots, offering me a hearty handshake. We got into his silver Chevy truck, a circa-1992 model caked with hog-infused dirt, and drove along the rolling roads of Kremer’s native countryside. He showed me the barns where he raises his herds, pointing out the deep straw, the roomy paddocks, and the many-hued, multi-sized pigs destined for sausage and bacon. As we walked up to one of the barns, Kremer started explaining that pigs raised naturally and allowed to root and run around taste better, in his opinion, than those raised in industrial operations. That taste, he said, is what has allowed him to make a living while other hog farmers are going out of business.

Then he said something that sounded startling coming from a farmer in the Ozark foothills. “I love chefs,” he smiled. “They’ve gotten into story pork.”

Story pork. Not just any old shrink-wrapped chop, but pork from a place, raised by a farmer, with a story. Meat with a narrative.

In fact, I had approached my editors at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch with a related idea just two years before. As I put it at the time, I wanted to create a beat that focused on “food issues”—a beat that looked at food safety, systems, regulation, and habits. As a metro reporter, I was eager to liberate food from the lifestyle section and cover it as news, in the metro pages, normally the province of homicides and politics.

Among the evidence I presented to support my idea was a long list of front-page stories about food from newspapers across the country. I pointed out that those stories invariably ended up among the most e-mailed and read. I tried to persuade my editors that food was, or could be, a viable news beat, a way to look at issues—economic, environmental, agricultural, political—through a different lens. I noted the popularity and influence of books such as Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation. Even The New Yorker had taken to publishing a special food issue each year.

Food, I argued, was not only a serious subject—it was a wildly popular one as well. Chefs were attaining superstar status in this country. A proliferation of magazines, Web sites, and television networks was turning food into fantasy, sustenance into “food porn.” While most magazines struggled to survive, food-related titles were, and are, on the rise, with 355 published in 2008—roughly 40 percent more than in 2001. As I saw it, the celebrity status of food opened the door for harder coverage. If people loved Paula Deen, wasn’t it fair to assume that a good chunk of them would read a news story about antibiotics in swine? Labeling laws? And who, I asked, didn’t care about what they put in their own mouths, or the mouths of their kids?

The editors liked the idea, but didn’t bite. Then, a year later, as the paper was retooling its newsroom, I pitched it again. This time the editors said yes.

I became the “food reporter” on the metro desk—a role that puzzled some of my colleagues. The equation of food coverage with restaurant reviews and recipes is so ingrained, certainly at smaller papers, that one veteran cop reporter insisted on calling it the “cooking beat” for several months. The confusion and semi-derisive comments were a small price to pay. So was my new schedule: in exchange for my new gig, I agreed to cover a general assignment shift on Saturday, which means everything from murder sprees to parades.

In an era of shrinking papers, plummeting advertising, and layoffs, I had given myself a challenge: to prove that a food-news beat could stand on its own. I wish I could chalk it up to pure prescience. The timing, however, was ideal. With skyrocketing food prices, global shortages sparking riots from Bangladesh to Haiti, a sprawling salmonella outbreak, and the debate over biofuels, 2008 was among the food-newsiest periods in recent memory. It was also the year the massive “Farm Bill” became known as the “Food Bill”—when urban and suburban Americans realized, perhaps for the first time, that they had a stake in a gargantuan piece of legislation normally parsed by lawmakers in the corn belt.
At the same time, Congress mulled over the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. The so-called Energy Bill had set higher mandates for renewable, mostly corn-based fuels, which arguably have more influence over food prices than anything in the newly minted Food Bill. Then, at a global summit of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in June, about six months after the Energy Bill became law, representatives from 181 countries gathered and asked: Is it such a good idea to grow the world’s fuel when people are starving? Should food acres compete with fuel? Should the tractor exist for the field, or the field for the tractor?

Back in St. Louis, the food-to-fuel argument simmered away. In every direction from this city, corn, America’s largest crop, grows by the tens of thousands of acres. Much of it ends up as ethanol in gas tanks, or as fattening high-fructose corn syrup in everything from cookies to soda.

Either way, it has become controversial. Last year saw record corn prices, making area farmers happy, but prompting accusations that the spikes were triggered by pro-ethanol policies, and were responsible for the escalating cost of food. The St. Louis-based National Corn Growers Association fought back, arguing that speculators drove up prices, and sticking to its position that ethanol could wean us from foreign oil. For a while, it seemed that I was getting e-mails every day from the pro-corn contingent on one side, and from food manufacturers, environmentalists, and consumer groups on the other.

Nor was the debate limited to these opposing parties. Monsanto, which has its own role to play in this growing clash over global resources, is the world’s largest purveyor of genetically modified crops. It also happens to be based in a St. Louis suburb. In the 1990s, the one-time chemical company became the first to successfully market genetically engineered crops. In doing so, Monsanto transformed American agriculture—by some estimates, 60 percent of our food contains genetically modified ingredients—and launched a similar crusade overseas (though many countries are resisting). As the world struggles to simultaneously feed itself and fill its gas tanks, says the company, its crops are part of the solution.
Monsanto argues that its products will yield more fruit with less fertilizer, water, and weed killer.

Given all of this, I have an interesting and perhaps unique vantage point from which to cover the food-news beat. I work at a regional paper in a struggling midwestern city, surrounded by farms, few of which produce anything we would recognize as food—a city that could be considered ground zero for the biofuels debate, and is home to a global seed giant that stands to benefit from the outcome.

But being in St. Louis had other advantages last year. Consumer demand for organic, and later, locally grown food, which had its beginnings on the coasts, started moving inland. That meant that farmers markets were a growing presence here. A new one opened last summer, in a depressed part of the city where residents have few food-purchasing options aside from liquor and convenience stores. Some of the crops sold there were grown by homeless people, who, with the help of a gardening organization, had planted an urban farm next to a highway on-ramp.

The city still has its alimentary deserts—wastelands, nutritionally speaking, where cheap, fattening food is the norm. But like many urban areas, St. Louis is being transformed, at least partially, by a new consciousness of our relationships to food. “Locavore,” hailed as the 2007 word of the year by the New Oxford American Dictionary, has become not only a fashionable term but a principle that a surprising number of St. Louisans try to live by.

The agricultural landscape is changing here, too. Kremer the hog farmer is a perfect example. Nearly thirty years ago, concentrated animal-feed operations (CAFOs) became the norm in middle America, and big agribusiness concerns began controlling everything from the farm to the market. Now, independent and family farmers are upending this closed system by developing their own marketing cooperatives.

Amid the endless fields of commodity soybeans and corn, small-scale farmers are starting to grow vegetables for niche markets, and for community-supported agriculture programs (CSAs), where people pay an upfront fee for a share in the farmer’s harvest.

The phenomenon is driven in part by chefs and gourmets who long ago discovered that free-range chicken or grass-fed beef tastes better. Now average consumers, too, are starting to demand those same things. They also want to support rural farmers in their area, and limit the environmental costs—the “food miles”—required to produce any given meal. This consciousness, which took shape some time ago in upstate New York and the Napa Valley, is relatively (and somewhat ironically) new to the country’s “breadbasket.” But now that it’s emerged in the heartland, the appetite for story pork may just be here to stay.

The search for taste. A sense of rural justice. An awareness of the connections among farming, climate, and natural resources. In recent years, all of these notions have hit the mainstream. But current food scares—from melamine in Chinese candy to salmonella in Mexican hot peppers to E. coli in Californian spinach—have forced consumers to pay extra attention to food origins and labels. So has the gnawing fear that terrorists might contaminate the food supply.

These concerns go beyond the seeming abstractions of taste or justice. They may also help to explain why food coverage has gotten increasingly prominent, not only at the Post-Dispatch but at papers throughout the country. Last year, especially so. The New York Times explored global food production in a lengthy series. In the spring, The Washington Post published a five-part investigation of the global food crisis. “The issues are coming out of the cooking pages,” Paul Roberts, the author of The End of Food (2008), told me in a recent conversation.

In his book, Roberts examines the global food supply and its paradoxical imbalance, with abundance in some places and famine in others. “We’re still defining this new area,” he said, referring to food coverage. “Food is so driven by economics, by trading and speculation, and we have to be able to understand how those markets work.”

For me, covering any and all of the above—farming, commodities, grain markets, salmonella—was new. On some days, I felt woefully under-equipped to cut through the mudslinging of the pro- and anti-ethanol campaigns, or to understand the scientific arguments for and against genetic engineering. Like so many beat reporters, I needed a crash course in the story of the moment. One day, I might have benefited from an advanced degree in agricultural economics; the next, from some background in soil science. Sometimes, I felt like a business reporter, and other times, like a science reporter. And on many days, I simply wrote easy, feature-like trend stories just to give readers a below-the-fold diversion.

Through it all, I’ve often wondered whether the food beat is too diffuse and unwieldy for a single journalist. Is it, I wondered, a realistic prospect to report on agriculture, regulation, public health, and biotech at the same time? There is no road map for the beat, at least as I’ve devised it, and as far as I know, I’m the only metro or news reporter trying to cover the subject in this way.

At most newspapers, even with the new visibility given to food stories, the beat is divided among different desks. Commodities are covered by agriculture reporters. Health or science reporters cover nutrition. Reporters who follow the Food and Drug Administration or the Department of Agriculture write about regulation, while business reporters tackle much of the remainder. (The Times and Post series last year were written in large part by business reporters.)

Michael Pollan, probably the most influential food journalist in the country these days, sees a convergence going on. “I think the beats are melding in very interesting ways,” he told me. “It used to be that on Wednesday, you got your recipes and you treated food as a lifestyle issue. Ag was a business beat. Now they’re bleeding together because food is a political issue, and a health issue. I think people are starting to connect the dots. You can’t think of [food] as environment or science or ag or business. It’s all of those things.”

Pollan, who came to food from ecology and environmental science, teaches a class at the University of California, Berkeley, called “Following the Food Chain.” The class draws students from departments across the school, including chemistry, law, and public policy. “I think it’s very important for people doing this work to have a mixed bag of tools,” he continued. “You need to understand ecology; you need to be a pretty good business journalist. It truly is interdisciplinary.”

Increasingly, many feature reporters assigned to food sections are urged to write for A1. That’s not necessarily because the front page has gotten softer, but because food news has gotten harder. Kim Severson, a former cop reporter who happened to like food, told me she was hired by the San Francisco Chronicle about ten years ago to write for the food section and “bridge the gap between food and news.”
“I was centered in features,” she recalls, “but I was encouraged to write for the front page. It’s evolved in the last decade. A lot more papers have seen the value of having food news coming out of the food section, so it’s written from the plate out.” Severson, who now writes for the New York Times’s dining section, captured a fair share of front-page real estate in 2008. But, as she said, “I like to reserve the right to do the recipe story, too.”

Many traditional food writers—those who have spent their careers writing about recipes, profiling chefs, and reviewing restaurants—are now confronting the complexities of food issues. “A lot of them have had to get serious,” Paul Roberts said. “And in many cases they’re out of their depths, because they’ve never had to cover this before. We’re starting to wake up to the fact that this is extremely complicated.”

I, too, came to my beat as a reporter who loves food. I’d covered a lot of beats—cops, environment, health—and was an education reporter when I pitched the idea to my editors. I confess: I’m not well read in the big food writers of the past, and I’m not a particularly informed gourmet, either. But I realized that I was spending a lot of time plotting menus, figuring out how to use what I had in the fridge to avoid throwing anything away. I’ve always loved the idea of eating out of the garden, and have happy memories of my grandparents’ little plot of urban land in Düsseldorf, Germany, which seemed to yield endless jars of raspberry jam.

Even so, I was lucky to get the green light for this beat. I was the rare beneficiary of a shrinking newsroom. Some science beats had been consolidated or eliminated. We lost an agriculture reporter in a buyout, and our biotech reporter left this fall—for a job at Monsanto. I also had editors willing to try something new, because doing so was better than doing nothing and helplessly watching the ship sink.

Until now, food stories have tended to lack the gravitas of, say, big investigative pieces on government graft. Maybe that’s because food security in this country is pretty solid. There’s an abundance of things to eat (though, arguably, not enough of it is nutritious), and even with the food scares of late, our supply is generally quite safe. But with the world’s population expected to climb to 8.5 billion people in about thirty years, food production will need to rise by as much as 2 percent annually—and the earth already has one billion malnourished residents. Our need to feed ourselves, and the impact of that demand on our landscapes and lives, will likely complicate the role of food reporting in years to come. Certainly the current global crisis has made it clear that food coverage has to go way beyond anything we’ve done before.

The food writers of yore waxed beautifully and meaningfully about what we eat and how. But as much as, say, M. F. K. Fisher did for food consciousness, she was not a journalist, nor did she try to be. Today’s food reporters face a different challenge.

It used to be that we humans spent hours each day looking for food. Many of us, myself included, still do—only it’s not for survival, and we do it with a keyboard, or by flipping the pages of a magazine or newspaper. We can only guess at the roots of the phenomenon. It probably comes from some deep need to connect with life, with the earth, especially in an age of such thorough alienation from what sustains us. In any case, it has engendered reams of lovely, enriching stories about perfectly crusty bread and spectacularly inventive chefs.

Much of this food porn is great—truly delectable stuff. Still, it seems that all of the recipes, the celebrity chefs, and the collective food fetishes are a portal to something else. We have built entire media economies on food, and now we’ve found ourselves facing a food reality with consequences, one that actually matters.

It’s a new story. Time to dig in. 

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Georgina Gustin writes about all things food-related for the Metro section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. When not in the newsroom or tracking farmers in the hills, she's usually in her kitchen, ruining dinner.