R: It’s become an identity issue.
P: It’s empowering, for them—for everyone. Food choices are something fundamental you can control about yourself: what you take into your body. When so many other things are out of control and your influence over climate change—all these much larger issues—it’s very hard to see any results or any progress. But everybody can see progress around food. They see new markets rising, they see idealistic young people getting into farming. It’s a very hopeful development in a not particularly hopeful time.
R: And it’s something we all do. We’ve all been shouting for a long time, “You vote with your dollars.” And it feels like when you shop in the right place, you shop in your community, you are personally having an impact.
P: And they see the impact because the markets are growing. There’s this liveliness at the farmer’s market and this sense of community, too. Which, of course, food has done for thousands of years.
R: But had not in America for quite a while. It had to be rediscovered.
P: So when you started running stories in Gourmet about agriculture and the environment, how did that go over? This was a magazine that had been about pure consumption.
R: I went in and asked the staff, “What should we do?” And they all said: “We should do a produce issue. We need to pay attention to what’s going on in the farms.” And I was thrilled because I thought I was going to have to convince all of them and they were way ahead of me. This is 2000. And my publisher was really appalled. It’s not sexy. There was nothing sexy about farming. Although now there’s a magazine that just launched called Modern Farmer.
P: I know! I haven’t seen it yet.
R: The big problem of trying to do this in magazines is just about every story I did that I was really proud of, the publisher had a problem with. We did this story about how the trans fat food industry set up a task force to heckle every scientist who was working on trans fats for 30 years. They knew for 30 years how bad this stuff was and they had gone to the medical journals and stopped everything that they could. It was an incredible story.
P: It parallels, obviously, the tobacco companies. When they were exposed as lying about their products, that’s when they really ran into trouble. That line that “We are just competing over market share, we’re not actually stimulating people to smoke or overeat.” You don’t spend billions of dollars on marketing if it’s not working. And they understand that it’s more profitable to get a soda drinker to double consumption than to create a new soda drinker, so the focus on the heavy user is part of their business model. Those revelations have been very damaging.