Never, Ever Preach – Tell Sustainable Stories Through People

At the Sustainable Foods Institute, part of the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s annual Cooking for Solutions festival, one of the panel discussions was called “Communicating Environmental Messages: How Journalists are Telling Stories of Sustainability.”

The session was moderated by Sam Fromartz, author of Organic Inc. and the Chews Wise blog. Fromartz asked his diverse panel how their media organizations reported on sustainable food issues.

Jane Black, a writer for the Washington Post, began by commenting on the changes in the media world. She noted that “newspapers are operating under rules that blogs aren’t,” that is they have stricter reporting standards such as utilizing multiple sources. These stricter standards are one of the primary advantages of newspaper reporting.

Black continued by saying that in the newspaper world, “we have to be objective and not have an opinion – and anyone who knows me knows that I do have an opinion.” This is an extremely important point when it comes to sustainable food topics.

Writing for both a newspaper group and a blog as I do, I understand her point about objectivity. Since I am a columnist for the newspaper, not a reporter, I am able to interject some of my personality into the mix – but there are distinct limits. As a blogger I have much greater freedom of expression.

An excellent example relates to my recent reporting of CAFOs in relation to the H1N1 flu outbreak. I had to edit my description of some of the CAFOs negative effects for my newspaper column, while I was able to freely discuss some distressing research (increased infant death rates) in my blog story.

Black finished by asking: “How do you write a good story?” Answering her own question, she said the key is to find the right person to personify it. For example, she said, the White House Garden story received a mountain of press attention not because most people care about gardening, per se, but because the Obama’s are such prominent personalities that people really want to know what they are doing. And it is this crossover that will introduce sustainability issues to a new audience.

Finally, Black noted, she keeps writing the same story again and again. The story is: How does this transition to sustainable food happen? The key is finding the most interesting people and angles that amplify the message while keeping it fresh.

Barry Estabrook, contributing editor at Gourmet Magazine, echoed Black’s sentiments when he said “Never, Ever Preach – and Always Tell it Through People.” People are always interested in the people who bring them food, Estabrook continued, and it is often that interest in other people that leads them to explore sustainability.

But he also noted that “it’s really important to pick the right boss,” saying that Gourmet Editor in chief Ruth Reichl was committed to “articles about where food comes from.” But, he criticized, “we as food magazines do not do a good job of bringing issues of sustainability to our readers. That’s a weakness from our corner of the business.”

“There’s this perception that isn’t panning out,” Estabrook said, “Our editors think our readers don’t want to learn about declining fish stocks. But interestingly, in practice, people seem to like these stories. Our circulation has remained very robust since we’ve introduced this element to the mix.”

Katherine Alford, a Vice President with the Food Network, agreed that communicating sustainable issues through people was important. “We will never have a show just about sustainability,” she declared bluntly. “We want that to come through our talent, someone that people relate to.” She conceded that the Food Network’s audience was very mainstream, and that they were in the entertainment business. So, Alford said, sustainable topics can also come through the ingredients. “By using certain ingredients, and talking about where certain ingredients come from,” we can communicate our passion for these ideas, she said.

She also had an interesting perspective on sustainability as it relates to television. “TV is expensive…and so we have the idea of evergreen TV shows.” That is, producers don’t want an episode of a show to be obsolete because an ingredient isn’t available anymore. “You can’t do a issue with Chilean Sea Bass because it’s not available. Over the years, people have gotten more and more receptive to that story,” Alford said.

Finally, Alford thought that television cooking programs could do a better job of connecting people directly with their food. “I think that the food media has done an amazing job of connecting to chefs, but at the detriment to home cooking.” He continued,  “I think we do a horrible job, in the food media, of saying ‘think like a chef.’ And this makes people think they can’t be involved…and those are the people we need to reach – you want them to go the farmers market.”

She concluded “We have to celebrate cooking a meal, and the skill level that comes with it.”

Finally, if you’re watching TV or a movie and you see characters discussing sustainable food issues, there’s a good chance that you’re looking at the work of Debbie Levin, president of the Environmental Media Association.
Celebrating their 20th anniversary, the EMA links “the power of celebrity to environmental awareness.” They pitch environmental ideas, story lines, and products to place in TV, movies, and directly in the hands of celebrities to get the eco-message across.

Levin loves working with sustainable foods, because “with food, you can wake up and make sustainable choices each day,” she says. She cautions us to never “underestimate the power of using celebrity to role model positive trends.” Addressing all the non-profits and sustainable food executives in the room, Levin said “you give us the information, we can get it out there.”

6 thoughts on “Never, Ever Preach – Tell Sustainable Stories Through People

  1. While I agree to the “bang-people-over-the-head-with-sustainability-and-guilt” approach doesn’t work, it is critical to infuse messages of sustainability through all media types.

    Hopefully, by showing great food experiences built on the support of sustainable foods, including local and organic, without “opinion”, readers and viewers will increasingly prefer the added value of eating sustainably.

    Cheers,

    Rob Smart
    a.k.a., Jambutter on Twitter

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  3. I was at this event and it was an embarrassment to the sustainable foods movement. Totally ineffective and wan.

    The Food Network is an embarrassment to food. It has become absurdly irrelevant. The only good show on it that I know of is Jamie Oliver At Home, which is aired on Saturday mornings after Tyler Florence.

    A better topic for this post might be, “To Preach or Not to Preach, That is the Question”. There are plenty of food preachers around that many people love and admire. Bittman, Oliver, Waters. Sustainability is the most important issue relating to any modern food discussion today.

  4. Hi Christian –

    Thanks for your comments. In this post, I was largely trying to communicate the perspectives voiced by the media representatives on the panel.

    What I did appreciate about the Food Network’s Katherine Alford is that she was honest about their entertainment bias. FN viewership is at an all time high, so we can’t say it’s irrelevant.

    I also appreciated Barry Estabrook’s acknowledgment that the “food glossies” could do a better job – and are starting to do so at Gourmet.

  5. “We will never have a show just about sustainability,” she declared bluntly. “We want that to come through our talent, someone that people relate to.”

    While I certainly appreciate a good story, I don’t think we always need to rely on celebrities to tell it — especially when it comes to sustainable food.

    As a society, we’ve been eating so wrong for so long, and paying attention to most of the wrong voices about food. Over the next several years people are going to be thinking through what “sustainable food” really is — for themselves.

    I’m guessing the internet will be a terrific tool for that — both for trading ideas and for reflecting on what makes sense (and what doesn’t).

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