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.