One might read a piece in the New York Times Food section about the difficulties of obtaining ethically and responsibly sourced shrimp, then find links to shrimp recipes beneath it. The national section of a magazine might be reporting on Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids at Mississippi poultry processing plants, while a food writer extols the joys of Popeyes’s chicken sandwich. The insatiable demand for a viral item is treated as though it exists in a different universe from the arrests and possible deportations of 680 people tasked with slaughtering its primary ingredient.
Politics, agriculture, and sustainability are linked. That’s always been true, but climate change and—relatedly—ever more extreme immigration politics have raised the stakes and made this connection more obvious than ever. That creates a sticky situation for outlets that have banked on food as a lifestyle subject—a matter of taste and style. In your average column on weeknight bucatini, braised short-rib techniques, or the stateside rise of kouign-amman, there’s little consideration of who is profiting and who is paying in a country that expects and demands cheap food. That’s become especially conspicuous in recent months, following the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s declaration last year that a plant-based diet would be the best way to use land and ensure food for the world’s population.
Some outlets have tried to discuss the role of food production in greenhouse gas emissions. Bon Appétit began the year with the announcement that it’d start composting in the test kitchen and use fewer single-use plastics; 30 percent of the new recipes it develops will be plant-based, meaning no animal products like meat, fish, dairy, or eggs. Last April, the New York Times Food section combined resources with the climate desk to put out a big package about how best to eat for climate change and how a warming world has affected popular crops.
These are useful steps, but limited ones. No mainstream food publication, for example, has declared itself a beef-free zone in the interest of cutting out the single most emissions-heavy food on the planet. Editors might understandably fear alienating their readers with such a move. Then, too, climate change will require drastic policy changes, and it’s not necessarily useful to focus too much on individual consumer choice. But that raises the question: Couldn’t food publications advocate for such policy changes, especially around food production and access? Couldn’t they report on environmentally damaging agricultural practices, and on labor conditions for those working on farms, at slaughterhouses, and in restaurants, rather than only asking readers to eat less meat and compost?
For Amanda Shapiro, editor of Bon Appétit’s wellness section, Healthyish, these are discrete issues.* “We’re not lobbyists,” she told me, “so we’re talking to our readers who are interested in cooking.” To that end, Healthyish began 2020 with “The Healthyish Guide to Eating for the Planet… Without Stressing Out,” which included advice on how to go vegan at breakfast, the best reusable produce bags, a rundown of the meatless options at Trader Joe’s, and more. In short, it included only options for consumption, with little explanation of the reasons why such adjustments might have a positive environmental impact or how food, in general, fits into the climate crisis or other urgent political debates.
“We’re not really a forum that’s set up to advocate for policy change at the government level, but I think in all the stories that we’re writing, and the ways that we cover climate, we try to make sure that we’re emphasizing the need for this sort of overarching larger kind of macro change, while also giving people the skills and the tips and the tools they need to do it on an individual level,” Shapiro said.
This is a common approach for those on the recipe side, who don’t see it as their job to inform on the impacts of various choices—just to nudge in what’s commonly understood as the right direction. Alison Roman, author of the bestselling cookbooks Dining In and Nothing Fancy, says that her focus is on accessibility over sustainability, but that she recognizes the need to promote, for example, better fish, pushing her readers toward mackerel, anchovies, and sardines, which are easier than others to source ethically.
“If I just wrote recipes for the things that I found at Union Square farmers market, they would be delicious, but 90 percent of the country wouldn’t be able to cook them,” she said. Instead, her focus is on “having plenty of recipes that you could execute from a bodega.”
There is a case to be made that, while a broadly white food media has started to open up to the voices of a broader swath of writers and global cuisines, this hasn’t necessarily led to work that’s more actively engaged in the economic and environmental forces that determine what people eat. Cookbook author Nik Sharma, who focuses on the science of recipes in his work, says that, as a queer immigrant of color, he often wonders what connection people see between representation and political change. Last year, he pointed out, Iranian cookbooks were a big topic of conversation, and now Palestinian food is at the fore, mirroring news coverage of international affairs but without engaging with them directly. “To me, it doesn’t seem that it’s connecting to the people that are actually taking the brunt of the suffering in those countries,” he said. “A lot of times, the money doesn’t actually go to these countries, right? So I thought it was a disconnect.”
It wasn’t always this way, with stories about the conditions of workers, animals, and agricultural policy published outside the publications or sections geared toward those who do the shopping, cooking, and eating. Gourmet magazine under Editor in Chief Ruth Reichl famously published David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” in which the author went to a lobster festival in Maine and returned with an examination of the ethics of boiling the crustaceans alive. In 2009, the year the magazine folded, contributing editor Barry Estabrook wrote “The Price of Tomatoes,” about the slaverylike conditions suffered by tomato pickers in Immokalee, Florida.
“It’s now separated, which makes me really sad,” Reichl told me by phone. “My argument to DFW was, ‘You know, you can sell this anywhere else, but you really want the people who are cooking the lobsters to read it.’ And it makes me sad that the food magazines have really backed away from issues of substance at a point when we need it more than ever.”
She believes fear of losing advertisers, plus the expense required to send writers to do that sort of on-the-ground reporting, is what’s holding publications back. When she was working for the Los Angeles Times, and print advertising was at its peak, she said, the Food section brought in $32 million per year. That model no longer brings in money. The media landscape being mainly digital has changed business models and capabilities, contributing to fixations on simple refrains, like “Eat plant-based.”
For now, the reporting on policy, agriculture, and labor in food is mainly left to independent sites such as Civil Eats and The Counter (né New Food Economy). Depressed farmworkers, the struggles of the dairy market, pesticide lawsuits, and food-safety stories have all taken up space on their home pages—which is nothing out of the ordinary, as neither site focuses on the recipes, lifestyle, and chef-type stories that more mainstream food magazines cover. Gourmet used to tackle all of it.
“Our mission has always been the forces behind what we eat, the forces that shape what we eat, and policy is obviously a huge part of that,” said Counter staff writer Sam Bloch, who recently reported on a protest by restaurant workers in New York who want to see an end to the tipped wage. “That’s what sets the parameters for how food is made, what’s the source. In food media terms, we’re more about the food chain.”
One of the writers blending concerns around climate change, policy, and the joy of eating is Soleil Ho, restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle. “People want to read your content to relax and not to think about policy,” Ho told me. “Of course, we know that food is a matter of policy, when you think about tariffs or labor and just how people source things. That was the great thing about the local food movement—it really gets people to think about the macro of where food comes from and why that matters.” But “eat local” is no longer enough, she added, because climate change will soon be affecting food production everywhere. And that creates another problem—one grounded in media geography.
Food media, she pointed out, is centered in New York City, which has thus far been spared the more dramatic early effects of climate change. “If food media was centered in, let’s say, New Orleans, or Puerto Rico, or places where climate change has huge, palpable daily reminders in people’s lives, I think it would be covered more. New York had Hurricane Sandy—which was a really, really big thing that happened, but more or less, the impact on people who are in the media [was] like, ‘The train sucks.’”
Reichl believes the way to bridge gaps in coverage, and the divide between policy and pleasure in food writing, is to remember how significant the topic really is—how integral food is to every aspect of life. “When we’re talking about food, we’re actually talking about culture,” says Reichl. “And I think that part of it is just keeping it uppermost in your mind, asking yourself if you are taking it as far as you can.”
*This sentence has been corrected. Shapiro’s title is editor, not editor-in-chief.