(This is the first of several articles about the food movement – where it’s been, where it’s at, and where it’s going. Join the Change Food community so you don’t miss any of this exciting series.)
Over the past five years, huge changes have happened with food and the food system. What was once seen as an issue between the activist/advocate/granola-crunching hippie vs. the corporate/suited/industrial food system has radically changed. Lines are blurring, and this has the potential for an even bigger food revolution than was first imagined, but caution and a dose of skepticism is still prudent.
For more than 40 years, food advocates and activists have been leading a trend toward healthier, more wholesome food. In the 1970s, they were on the fringe; some were pot-smoking hippies on commune farms or renegade restaurant owners who grew ingredients for their dishes in their own vegetable garden. These people were outliers, and as the food industry moved toward more processed and more industrially-produced food, these idealistic activists were discounted and thought to be anything from irrelevant to crackpots.
But through the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, an underground food revolution had quietly begun. A smattering of concerned citizens started raising their voices and undertook more concerted efforts to educate consumers about problems with food. Renegade groups like a team of farmers around the U.S. started helping rural towns (when invited by the residents) to hold factory farms that were breaking the law accountable and worked to keep out new industrial animal factories.
The food movement got its first big push in 2001 with the release of Eric Schlosser’s bestseller Fast Food Nation. The book explored the rise and influence of the fast food industry and our industrial food supply. The publication was followed in 2003 by the launch of The Meatrix, an online animation that brought the issue of industrial food — factory-farmed animals in this case — to the general consumer. The short film was released when email was mainstream; the movie was shared inbox to inbox, email by email, to tens of millions of individuals. (The Meatrix was released before YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and other social media existed.)
The tipping point for the food revolution was in 2006 with the publication of Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma. Millions more individuals were brought to the food movement by Pollan’s excellent nonfiction book that asked the seemingly straightforward question: what should we have for dinner? It explored the industrialization of the U.S. food system and the impact of subsidized corn on the country.
Sealing the influence of the growing food movement was Robert Kenner’s 2009 movie Food, Inc. from Participant Media. The film exposed the control of the corporate food industry and how these companies put profit before farmers, safety, health, nutrition, water safety and the environment.
The impact of these two books and two films, along with the hard work of a growing number of nonprofits and food advocates, contributed to what has become the largest shift in food since the industrialization of our food supply. And the exciting thing is that we’re still in the middle of this shift today.
Throughout the 2000s, consumers were beginning to understand the problems with food and began asking for – and buying – healthier, more wholesome, products. Farmers markets exploded. According the the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the number of U.S. farmers markets increased 123 percent — from 3,706 in 2004 to 8,268 in 2014. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) became more popular. Farm to Table restaurants began to open around the country.
The biggest shift in food is still happening – and no one is sure exactly where it will lead us. But one thing is for certain – Millennials (born approximately 1982-2004) are having a huge impact on shaping our new food system. They grew up being exposed to the truth about the food supply and were educated by the work of the advocates before them, so they have local, healthy, delicious food in their veins. It’s not something they need to learn – it’s simply what they want. And as they are becoming a more powerful force in the marketplace, that desire is wreaking havoc with Big Food.
An often overlooked sector of this new food movement are the entrepreneurs — generally in their 20s and 30s, with some creeping into their 40s — who have learned the lessons taught by the food advocates before them. These forward thinkers are launching companies that not only include healthy, whole ingredients, they are also launching companies that believe in social good beyond just the food label. Mix in the collapse of the dot-com bubble around 2000-2001, prompting the need for investors and venture capitalists to find “the next big thing” for their money, and you have a real food revolution. For as idealistic as we would all like to be, the food revolution really started when money became the leading force for change, when business people began to see the potential profit and long-lasting change happening in the marketplace. And this change is not just for increased profit; there is a much bigger shift happening (which we will explore in a future article).
Since around 2012, venture capitalists started investing heavily in food technology and start up food companies. According to the AgTech Investing Report, over $4.6 billion was invested in food and agriculture tech startups in 2015; that’s nearly double the amount invested in 2014.
In addition, major food brands have acknowledged the change in the marketplace.Their sales and profits have started to decrease because of the demand for healthier food and the fact that new companies are launching to fill that demand. They are now scrambling — as fast as a large corporation can — to reinvent themselves and their products. They have finally realized the downward trend in profits is not changing, and they know they are losing marketshare to much, much smaller, nimbler companies that are satisfying consumer desires.
How are these larger food corporations handling this shift? Currently, they are starting their own venture funds and food accelerators to find new food startups, and they are buying up organic and smaller successful brands. They are also trying to reformulate their products to include healthier ingredients while keeping the same taste.
These large companies are also beginning to realize that their savvy marketing campaigns and misleading ads aren’t as convincing as they used to seem. More and more consumers are starting to understand that a 25 percent reduction in sugar could still be too much sugar in a product. High fructose corn syrup has essentially disappeared from the shelves. More and more consumers are looking for the Verified GMO Free label on their food. Companies are beginning to understand that the new food movement requires truth and transparency, not glossy, slick marketing campaigns that are more about money than the truth.
Misleading jargon and creative talking points no longer work; today, the truth does.
Where is this all taking us? No one knows for sure. Venture capitalists will tell you one thing; food startups will tell you another; big food companies will also have an opinion. And coming from the nonprofit consumer awareness side, we at Change Food have our own views about where things are and where things might be going. We will explore this in future articles in this series.
History is being made now, so there’s no better time to join the food revolution and have your voice heard!
Diane Hatz is the Founder & Executive Director of Change Food. She strives to create a healthy food system for all by developing programs, events and resources for individuals and groups changing food from the ground up. Become a Patron of food and help Change Food help others.