Naomi Starkman. Photo credit: Naomi Fiss
Since 2009 one of the most robustly reported food journalism websites has been quietly winning awards, breaking stories, and changing public policy across America: Civil Eats. We couldn’t be more pleased to start featuring the award-winning not-for-profit publication on Yahoo Food starting this Tuesday. From farming policy to school lunches, “pink slime” to antibiotics in your food supply, no topic is off-limits for this site, which takes no money from advertising and focuses on underreported stories.
What Michael Pollan has called “the best online food politics magazine” boasts a star-studded board of advisers: Ruth Reichl, Alice Waters, Tom Colicchio, and Anna Lappé, among others. But they don’t decide the day-to-day stories, which is the responsibility of its co-founder, a lawyer-turned-publicist-turned-farmer-turned-editor-in-chief. (When was the last time you met one of those at a party?)
Here Naomi Starkman tells us how she got into food policy journalism (it was anything but straightforward!), what the most underreported food story is right now, and the one thing you can do every day to really make an impact.
How did you get into the food journalism world?
It’s such a crazy story. I worked as a lawyer in public policy, but no one cares about public policy but wonks. I realized that in order to really make change you have to change the hearts and minds of people in mainstream media. I worked at Newsweek and The New Yorker, and just saw how incredibly powerful media is … Then I went and farmed. I was working in Times Square, at The New Yorker, but once a week I would put my bike on the train, take it up north, and bike to Blue Hill Farm in Tarrytown, New York.
When I told David Remnick [the editor of the New Yorker] I wanted to be a farmer, he told me I was crazy. But I earned my “dirt cred.” I don’t know that I could have as keen an understanding of food and farming issues if I hadn’t been out there. I went on to farm in Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Santa Barbara, and Washington State.
Starkman on the farm.
How did Civil Eats get off the ground?
Civil Eats started off as the blog for the Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco in 2008, which was a watershed event of sorts. There was a huge garden outside city hall. My heroes, like Wendell Berry and Wes Jackson, were there. It sort of brought all these issues together. Civil Eats started as a blog, but I realized that there was this huge growing interest in this. We were curating voices, having people come together, and teaching hundreds of people how to write: farmers, ranchers, advocates, chefs, people whose skills were not in editing and writing with really important things to say.
What is the goal of the site?
We look at food as a lens through which all stories can be told: Economics, social justice, politics—food is our special sauce that we liberally sprinkle in the news every day. Our goal is to get people to make serious news part of their daily diet.
What do you think is the most underreported story in the food world right now?
What was until recently an underreported story has very recently changed: the antibiotics issue. For years people had a really hard time helping the average consumer understand the overuse of antibiotics in food production. Last week McDonald’s started phasing out antibiotics in chicken. It had been very underreported. We definitely helped bring the story to consumers. Media helps move the needle forward.
Now there’s this nascent issue I think is so critical: synthetic biology, the next wave of technology that’s supposed to help us all and sometimes can, but sometimes has unintended consequences, such as emulsifiers, which are messing up our guts. And they’re making us fat. [We wrote about] a recent study from Nature, a peer-reviewed science journal.
What’s one thing people can do right now to affect food policy?
Be aware that they have the power to change the marketplace. That is incredibly important. Every purchase they make they can make a sea change. There’s a three-legged stool here: legislation and law; consumer awareness in places like media or pushing forward issues in a certain way; the third is the marketplace.
Look at a person who was able to make swift change in the USDA on pink slime. It was a Texas mom who didn’t want to have this product in her kids’ school. She stood up and said “I don’t want this; you shouldn’t, either.” It’s your right to know what’s in your food, where it’s coming from, who’s growing it. Vote from your pocketbook.
What do you think is the biggest food problem facing Americans?
Overuse of antibiotics. The World Health Organization and the United Nations agree: We’re at a tipping point of an epidemic. Once antibiotics don’t work, they don’t work. Stuff like we use for a cut on your knee, or giving birth, we won’t be able to use any more.
Eighty percent of the antibiotics given to humans are given to healthy animals. That creates superbugs. That’s why [this issue is] so massive. We don’t need to be feeding animals antibiotics. We need the antibiotics as a society. We’re seeing people die from antibiotic resistance. I couldn’t get a particular antibiotic to work when I had an infection. That’s what’s real.
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