Liveblog: Values: A Good Food Fight: Food Safety, Policy, Equality

BlogHer Original Post

Welcome to the BlogHerFood 10 Liveblog of the panel "Values: A Good Food Fight: Food safety, food policy, food equality." Here is the description: Become a powerful agent of change. You can go to battle for the food issues that are most important to you: school lunch reform, food safety, critical food policy, and more. In this session, Jennifer Maiser from the Eat Local Challenge moderates a conversation with Kristin Hyde from Good Food Strategies and Naomi Starkman from CivilEats that will arm you with helpful tools from their personal arsenals to help you find timely, accurate information and ways to make a difference…whether in your own kitchen or while communicating with policymakers. Your liveblogger is Bon Vivant.

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Panelists:

Jennifer Maiser (JM)
(Twitter: @lifebeginsat30)
Kristin Hyde (KH) (Twitter: @goodfoodkristin)
Naomi Starkman (NS) (Twitter: @naomistarkman)

Introductions

JM: Main goal of today's panel is to make sure that everybody has the tools they need for talking about food policy, whether for your own blog or a news outlet you write for. We (the panelists) would also like to get feedback on what tools and resources you need for your writings on food policy/safety. 

NS: Really excited to have this conversation, to talk about what you're interested in, what do you want to cover. Would like to know how much do you talk about food policy, if you want to talk about it all; how many here write regularly about food policy? How many want to write more about food policy? Sees food policy as falling into two main categories of interest: food choices (organic vs non-organic, industrial vs local) and urban agriculture.

Talked about Good Food Fight.com, a resource that fellow panelist Kristin Hyde recently launched. Features tools and resources that they (the panelists) have found to be really helpful in the conversation around food policy. They're seeing more major media organizations taking an interest in food now (eg, Huffington Post, The Atlantic Food Channel, Grist, ChooseWise, Ethicurean, etc).

Other tools on Good Food Fight: a list of food policy tweeters and examples of blogs addressing food policy issues that educate and engage their audiences. Bloggers don't need to be experts on every topic, you can always direct your readers to other resources/sites that delve deeper into policy/research/data on the topic you're writing about.

KH: Assuming that everyone's here because we believe that food has impacts beyond our meal: environment, health, economy, etc. Background: worked with public policy advocacy on Capitol Hill, coming from working on environmental issues with the Sierra Club and other non-profits, the 'lightbulb' went off 10 years ago while working on the wild salmon debate that when you fixed problems about food, you fix bigger problems in society as well. Started working on advocacy in 1990; the media landscape was very different then. Today, it's less organized, there are more voices opinionating on issues and the consumer voice has more power now.

For the panel session, wants to know how bloggers/writers incorporate ideas about food policy into your writing? What do you need to do that more? People can affect policy with what you write - how do you like to get resources: emails, websites, Twitter, meet-ups?

Discussion

JM: Really exciting that consumers don't have to rely solely on the mainstream media any more. There are so many other ways to get messages out. There are some topics that the mainstream media doesn't pick-up on, but blogs do, giving more avenues for discussions about food policy to happen.

NS: Civil Eats tries to stay ahead of the news. Citizen journalism is very important and powerful - bloggers can generate awareness just by addressing a topic. For example, the current discussion around genetically-modified salmon: there's lots of interest in this, as a blogger, how do you tell the story, and where would you go to get resources? To engage their readers for example, The Washington Post asked its readers if they would eat this type of salmon. Sees blogs as a platform for dialogue, it's not a monologue.

Andrew Welder (Eating Rules): Feels like he's often preaching to the choir with his blog. His key areas of focus: (a) wants to increase readership (b) generate awareness. How do we change minds, expand readership while growing awareness? Right now, he's starting to see comments from people that he doesn't know. Currently running a blog challenge (no processed food for a month) and so far 335 people have signed up for the challenge. The LA Times and New York Times have covered it - and he realizes he's struck a chord with this challenge. But he wants more, to make as big an impact as possible.

JM: If papers like the New York Times and LA Times are covering it, you're having a bigger impact than you realize. If you use Twitter and Facebook as well, more people are hearing you than you really think. Felt the same way with her own blog, basing her impression of her reach just on those people who comment.

AW: He's guest posting for other blogs which also drives more awareness about his challenge. Now, question is, what's next after this month?

NS: As editor of Civil Eats, she's always reading blogs looking for new writers, and is really big on co-sharing and cross-posting content to expand an article's reach. Finds that it's always a good question to ask "What am I going to do next?". Advised Andrew that he's going to see a big jump in awareness of his blog and the issues he discusses, maybe not immediately, but a month or 3 months from now. In her personal experience, she started Civil Eats in January 2009 for Slow Food Nation, as a platform for the people from the event. By September 2009, they were seeing a million visitors to their site. 

(On the topic of speaking to the choir): Try to find the stories that you see are missing from mainstream media. What are they not talking about?  Is there anything else about processed food that you can talk about? Do people know how to cook? Are there places where they can go to learn to cook? Can you do a new challenge - last month was no processed food, this month, one-pot meals, for example. Try to extend the conversation for as long as possible. Find out who's following you and logging on to your site.

KH: Even if you're talking to your 'choir', it's still a tiny tiny percent of the American public, just the act of buying and eating sustainably isn't going to change the food system. There's still a lot that your 'choir' can do. Try identifying what's on the docket right now - look for news hooks, topics of the day - and write about it (food safety, child nutrition, farm bill, etc), it's a good way to galvanize your audience.

JM: Look at your IP addresses and see who's coming to your site. She didn't realize how big Eat Local Challenge was until she realized that a lot of people from Monsanto were reading her site. That's qualitative info to know and helps you understand your site's reach.

AW: How did you find out that Monsanto was reading based on IP addresses?

JM: Uses an analytics software (not Google), but will need to check on name.

Alison: Writes a blog about food labelling, legislation, FDA definitions of gluten-free and food allergens, peanut ban in schools, etc. Has a captive audience of people who are forced to change the way they eat and are learning a new way because they have to read food labels, which in turn creates more awareness about the different ingredients that go into food. Majority of audience is mainstream eating public that needs to eat a certain way. Appreciates resources like Good Food Fight because she's not an expert, but can pass information along.

NS: That's a good point you're making where you're coming to a subject out of necessity and then becoming a subject authority on it. Worked on documentary King Corn a few years ago, it started when the producers' family members started to develop corn allergies, they researched the topic and in doing so, uncovered how much corn goes into food. Another instance: Robyn O'Brien: a mom in Texas who had kids with allergies, started to research and eventually wrote a book about her findings (The Unhealthy Truth). Food touches every single aspect of what we do: it's the connector, it's the community, it's our culture, it's love - to the extent that we can talk about the issues inclusively and keep audience engaged without turning them off.

KH: Has many customers wanting to talk about issues from the environmental perspective - that's not an ideal approach. Most people think that agriculture doesn't have an impact on the environment, and in fact, most become engaged with food issues through personal life events - disease, allergies, having children, becoming active in college, taking their personal health seriously - these have the biggest impacts that get people interested and engaged in food policy topics.

JM: (Commenting on Alison's blog) Your content has tons of hooks for engaging your audience. Taking the topic of genetically-modified salmon for example, what are the salmon being fed? What do you want to ask your reader to do at the end of the day? Do you want them to take action - how can you do that and tie into a broader national movement? Can they write to their congress representative, tweet about it? Many options to ask your readers to do to make your impact bigger.

Samantha Mills
(writes a vegan blog): Her posts about advocacy and food issues are very anecdotal. On a strawberry-picking trip with her family for example, she wrote about visiting a small farm and posted recipe about strawberry jam. Her audience is mainly interested in recipes, but how can she integrate discussions about food policy without alienating the current audience?

NS: That's really tricky. You can play with that a little, observe how people respond to the different topics you write about. For example, inserting nuggets of information about issues (eg, pesticides being used on Californian strawberries, obesity, etc) and linking out to other resources. Mark Bittman is a good example of a food writer who gets readers to think about issues, without "hitting them on the head". Kim O'Donnel is another good example - she's a food/recipe writer who also cares about policy but doesn't want to hit you over the head with it.

KH: When you write about a recipe, have you written about the ingredients? Are there any sustainability or controversy issues around the ingredients? You could mention them briefly and link to other resources out there, or have a sidebar of resources for your readers to check out - good way to introduce pertinent topics without being too heavy-handed.

Amy Cleary: Suggested that Samantha could also talk about the farm that the produce came from - talk about why you chose this farm vs going to the grocery store. Simpler way to do it and doesn't scare people off.

JM: It could be as simple as writing a sentence in the recipe like "buying eggs from local farmer, did you see what happened with egg recall"?

NS: (to Samantha) Are you involved in the debates surrounding veganism?

Samantha: Not very involved in animal rights, more focused on growing awareness that vegan recipes can actually taste good.

Audience member: As much as we're passionate about writing about healthy eating, there's an equally big group that are pushing in the other direction. How do you deal with negative comments/opposition? She doesn't really respond to those comments, and let other readers address them. One classic 'attack' is for readers to say that it's easy for writers to advocate a certain way of life because "you are employed, on the 'other side' and being brainwashed".

JM: Over time, she's learned the art of being quiet and letting the comment sit for a few minutes. Usually other readers will jump in and it will sort itself out.

NS: Is a huge advocate of transparency, and the Internet is very transparent, letting negative comments sit or not. She wrote a post about Bisphenol-A for Civil Eats and the Huffington Post and received lots of comments on the piece for the Post, some of them negative. She didn't reply to any comments, but it was the readers who were addressing each other. It became 'organic'. Believes that blogger has to respond if it's to correct a factual error, or responding in a follow-up article, but agrees with Jen that 'less is more' - you have the platform as a blogger, there are a lot of people that don't have such a platform and hence more likely to take their negativity out on your blog.

Mrs Q (Fed Up With School Lunch): (Responding to Samantha; suggestions for approaching food advocacy): Take it slow and engage your audience. Started her blog in January 2010 (where she writes about school lunches for whole year - blog has been truly life-changing) because it was a life-event trigger when she became a mother, once she started looking at food choices, she had to bring in food policy discussions too.

JM: Mrs Q's site is a good example of how to start out 'softish' in a documentarian way, instead of diving into the heavy/hard stuff first. Starting with the visuals first then working in the food policy.

Mrs Q: Visuals are powerful, for example the photos she posted on Twitter about chicken nuggets generated lots of feedback and discussion.

NS: A picture tells a thousand words. Mrs Q is perfect example of someone with a personal interest, research and then telling the world about it. You don't have to know everything, you don't have to have all the answers, but you all have a unique voice and you know what you know - that's what draws people. Find out who you are, what's your unique added value, who's your audience? How can you use different tools to engage people and bring them to new awareness? Alot of people are trying to understand what to eat - organic vs non-organic, labelling, etc? That's the tipping point  for their entry into the conversation. Once they're there, can you bring them in further?

JM: (to the audience) What types of tools do you use to get information for the posts you write?

KH: (to Samantha) For your post about strawberry jam, did you weave in information about pesticides, workers, etc? Where do you go to get information?

Samantha: The post was more about supporting local farmers than other food safety issues.

Andrew: Would love more reliable, information-based food resources like Good Food Fight.

NS: The Environmental Working Group is a great resource with a super-helpful list of foods to eat/not eat.

KH: How much time do you spend researching? Is time a factor - do u need information quick, via email on a mailing list, what's the best way to get information?

Audience member: It's just about time. Information is all out there, it's about sorting things through. Feels that she's 'intermediate' in successfully sorting through which resources are reliable enough to use.

JM: When she has a very limited amount of time, if it's an unfamiliar source, it's a 'roll of the dice' to decide whether or not to base your facts on the resource. In 2006 she wrote the 10 reasons to eat local on a whim, now it's been republished in many places, online and offline. The points were mostly researched, but there were some such as 'eating local is more nutritious' weren't entirely a fact. Important for bloggers to be careful about what you're writing and re-writing from other sources.

NS: What inspires you? You got to constantly "feed the machine" (your blog) and get new content to keep going. What are you reading or seeing or hearing about that gets you blogging?

Wendy (Celiacs In The House): Focuses on how to avoid gluten and be safe and her blog brings her closer and closer to the sources of food - farmers' market, etc. Seeing how local people are connected, building community and making food safe by staying close to the land - that's her inspiration (watching people who produce her food, getting to know them and forming relationships with them). For vegan blogs, there seems to be a growing overlap with gluten-free audience/readers too.

JM: One of the magic of blogs is that people are getting on the journey with you.

Wendy: There's also this sense of responsibility to educate ourselves and have good resources that we can tap into, so that people that are just starting to follow find it easy to understand.

NS: That's what it all comes back to: What are we eating and how did it get here? Why do so many people have celiac? Where do you guys see yourselves? Sense of longevity for your blog? Business plan? Where do you see yourself in 2-3 years? Are you worried about blogger burnout?

Mrs Q: You can definitely burnout from doing food policy all the time. It's a long haul and you get so depressed, sometimes its really boring and you need to make it interesting. How do I keep people interested in my cause without getting too preachy or boring? Even with nutrition, some people switch off.

JM: Food policy is such a huge issue. She tries to be conscious of whatever audience is reading her - be aware to ask audience to take action *only* when it's important to you and drives you. (Asked Naomi what she sees as the hot food issues right now).

NS: In the Bay Area, we're blessed with bounty of good food and innovators - canners, preservers, local butchers, etc (evidenced by the weekend feature in the New York Times Magazine). Finding personal stories is the way to get to your audience. On Civil Eats, the team does a weekly profile of people who are at the forefront of the food movement. In the light of recent developments (a court in Ohio that struck down ruling about restrictions on labelling in milk; the current debate about the definition of 'natural' food)  the pertinent issues she foresees are: labelling, genetically-modified salmon, animal agriculture (factory farms, CAFOs, animal waste, pollution, abuse of pharmaceuticals). CBS News did a huge expose on CAFOs recently with the egg recall, looking at how is food being produced, who's doing it right, who are the sustainable folks, how are they doing it? The FTC is also releasing revisions to its Green Guide (definitions on recyclables, food and labelling), which will surely add to the debate (on labelling and food classifications).

KH: Animal agriculture reform is so ripe for addressing - antibiotics, bacteria, animal welfare - all resonate with the public.

JM: What about food cost and food access? How does one address that?

KH: Ask the questions: Why is this food really expensive and why is it really cheap? There are farmers' markets starting to partner with non-profits on issuing food stamps, as an example of broadening food access. All this ties in with the Federal Farm policy that is revised every 5 years.

NS: Just step back and look at where food is coming from, and the involvement of Big Agriculture (80% of America's meat is controlled by 4 companies). Ask who owns the food, who has control, where the dollars are going and what ends up on your plate?

Audience member: Do you have a resource for those types of statistics? Recently wrote an article about the history of wheat - consumption levels, why is it making us sick, who are the owners, etc - found it extremely difficult to find reliable resources.

KH: USDA government research on commodity products provide information like that. The USDA Food Environment Atlas is another good resource, providing map and data overlays.

NS: The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) also has great resources.

(addressing blogger who wrote about wheat) It's not a bad job to know all the information related to wheat, but it's our responsibility to find out more and also to know where to stop.

Wendy: We are the canaries in the coalmine (with regards to celiac disease). If it's that hard to track wheat and find out what happened to it, there are so many other stories that will come out of the research process. What are the different ingredients, why are people reacting to it? How did it become that way?

JM: For a celiac person to write about why labelling is important is so evocative because it's a personal tale.

KH: Learned a lot abt wheat from farmers at Bluebird Grain Farms in Washington State - the industrialization of wheat, what happened to it, and how it has given rise to Celiac.

NS: Farmers are your most credible source. Across the board, they are trusted - considered iconolast, have a wealth of information. Cited Greg Massa (Massa Organics) as an example given his expertise about grains. Don't feel as if you have to go to traditional news sources, chat with farmers and people on the ground. If they're doing it right, they would have done a ton of research and would have a wealth of information to share.

KH: (Asking the audience to check out Good Food Fight and provide feedback on usability and content). 

JM: Hopefully this will be the beginning of the conversation on food policy and safety.

NS: Offered her help as a resource - always happy to provide sources and to connect people.

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