Words and photos by Katie Herchenroeder
A block away from Harlem’s Lenox Avenue eats, food took center stage on Wednesday morning. Food journalists, activists, and scholars met, not for Sylvia’s grits or Red Rooster’s cornbread, but to discuss why they need to start talking about justice.
“You can’t tell the story of American food without telling the story of inequality and race,” said Joe Fassler, the deputy editor of The Counter. “Food can be about more than just food,” he said.
Together with activists and scholars, journalists are trying to shift media coverage from consumer-based decadence and posh to an intersectional look on how Americans, all Americans, eat.
At the Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy at The City University of New York, panelists bounced between jokes about cauliflower breaking news and historical food inequity. They all landed on one central point: In food journalism today, the food itself ought not to be the point at all.
Mark Bittman, a former New York Times columnist and longtime food writer, hopes journalism bolsters its coverage of food as a vehicle for larger, societal reporting. “Food is one lense of looking at the world and looking at the world’s problems,” he said.
For Bittman, this distinction looks like moving away from “Food Porn” and onto talking about race and land allocation.
Just two rows away from Bittman in the crowd, sat Dennis Derryck, a farmer with firsthand experience of what race and agriculture look like in New York and across the nation. As a black farm operator, Derryck is a part of a dwindling community of African American agricultural workers.
In 1920, at its peak, black farmers operated 925,710 farms, or one-seventh of all U.S. farm operations, according to a report by the Center for American Progress. Fast forward to 2019, and black farmers make up just 2 percent of farm operators.
Derryck points to this change as one of the many things he has to explain to food journalists who reach out to him. “People come to interview me and I spend two-thirds of my time framing the issue. I get impatient,” he said.
Lisa Elaine Held, who focuses her reporting on agriculture and the local impacts of food policy, said that her approach to ensuring diversity in her reporting is two-fold. First, she looks at who she is quoting in her stories. Then, she asks, “Am I the right person to tell a story?” Some pieces, she said, are better reported by black, latinx, and indegenous people.
Combatting a lack of reporting that focuses on racial justice and food, Derryck said, starts with journalists looking at topics with new eyes. “It’s not so much about broadening the coverage; it’s about changing how you frame issues,” he said.