New Media and the Food Revolution

On March 17th, the Food and Drug Administration issued a press release to inform consumers about a recall of pet food produced by Menu Foods in a Kansas facility between 3 December, 2006, and 6 March, 2007. Within hours, the press release had made the rounds of the food blogging community, sparking a discussion about the diet pets eat, and the clearly demonstrated need for drastic change. The rapid dissemination of information about the recall through the food blogging community probably saved the lives of hundreds of dogs and cats, in an Internet wide game of telephone about the issue.

Major conventional news sources also picked up the story—and many of them collected information from food blogging sites. After several critical commentaries about the commercial pet food industry were published on popular food blogs, along with information about alternative pet feeding, newspapers around the country started to give the issue even more attention, with lengthy feature articles tracing the history of the recall and its ramifications for pets. The food bloggers had once again made a food related issue which would have faded to the back page in the era of print dominated media into major news.

This is the food revolution, a growing social movement which has begun to question our relationship with food. The founding of Slow Food in 1989 started it, but the rise of food blogging has perpetuated and expanded it. Where it ends, nobody knows.

The food revolution in the United States has several arms, but all of them are propelled through new media. Sites such as Slashfood publish recipes from all over the world while users on Yelp can review restaurants in real time as readers of the Ethicurean explore foods which go beyond organic and subscribers to U.S. Food Policy follow major developments in American food politics. The rapid real time distribution of information through the food blogging network allows users to bombard the Food and Drug Administration with angry email when it proposes approving cloned food products in the food supply, drives a massive turnout at a debate between Michael Pollan and the CEO of Whole Foods, and propels a restaurant to instant popularity.

Many of the leaders of the food revolution are also rapidly branching out, offering much more than just opinion pieces and RSS feeds of food news. Sites like Sugar Mountain Farm connect producers of food with the people who eat it, while other food blogs provide listings of local Community Supported Agricultures, Farmer’s Markets, and upcoming food related events to encourage readers to get involved in their local food community. Many of these sites are heavily focused on a “beyond organic” mentality which promotes a 100 mile, or locavore, diet including sustainable, organic, local, and ethically produced foods. Almost all of them have lively communities of commenters exchanging information about local producers, recipes, and tips for living a locavore lifestyle.

Because many of the heavyweights in the food blogging community are also designed by the tech savvy, they feature elements like podcasts, video demonstrations of recipes, ready accessibility for users on mobiles or using screen readers, and other interactive features. Food blogging has popular appeal not only because of the enduring love affair with food which most Americans have, but because food bloggers are driven early adopters of advances in new media. Many heavyweights in the food community, like Harold McGee, have websites to connect with their fans and expand their audience, while sites like Gristmill have teams of authors to talk about developing issues in the world of food.

Many of the major food blogs are run by citizen journalists, who go out into the field to research major issues, and these food bloggers have been responsible for breaking large stories later picked up by the major media. Food bloggers talk about pollution caused by factory farming, and the print media picks up the story a few days later, for example. They are also slowly infiltrating the American consciousness, getting consumers to think about where their food comes from, who produces it, and how sustainable it is. This revolution is being blogged: terms like “food miles” and “beyond organic” are being thrown around in articles in the print media, and many of these articles feature interviews with major food bloggers.

The rapid rise in food blogging is leading to a revolution in the real world, paired with the release of books like Fast Food Nations and The Omnivore’s Dilemma. In 2006, numerous companies announced major changes in their business practices which reflected the heavy influence that the food revolution has already started to have: WalMart, for example, is now offering an organic line of foods, a concept which would have been laughable five years ago.

The future of food is being shaped within a network of intrepid food explorers, fired up with new ideals and eager to share them with the world. Within only a few years, the food revolution has made dramatic strides for animal rights, the environment, and labor; what comes next for gastronomy?