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Alison Cayne Headshot

Food Is the New Black

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"Food is the New Black" -- I read that in a fashion or home or travel magazine a few months ago. The next 30 seconds of thoughts and emotions that flooded my mind are probably typical for people in my field. First I smiled at the silliness of that statement. Then, I felt confidence: People do seem to be catching on that healthful, bountiful food is at risk. And while they may not understand why exactly, more people have an inkling that there may be a problem with our food system. Then, I felt the urgency that comes with panic: We'd better get going if we don't want to see something else as "the new black." Because there's always a new, "new black." Every movement has its critical moment -- its tip of the bell curve -- the spot where it either takes off or putters out. And we can't afford the food movement to putter. The stakes are simply too high.

First off, a note about the jargony-sounding "Food System." I use the term to mean the collective way we grow, process, market, distribute and consume food. By "we" I mean mostly in the U.S., but it does apply globally in some cases. Vague, I know. Reductive, yes, but I think I heard somewhere that anything representative is reductive. So there you go.

So what do I hope happens at this critical moment of ours? For starters, I hope that anyone who spends time blogging, tweeting, posting or pinning glorious photos of food and bucolic farm videos and comforting autumn soup recipes decides to take on some piece of the food system and help fix it, and not just through their own buying decisions. Somewhere along the way many Americans started believing that our best way to show what we believe in is through shopping. In the long view of history it makes sense, but our choice of what meat we buy for our family does not translate into large-scale social change. It's a great start, but we need to do more.

I hope that everyone who reads food magazines and watches food TV shows decides to fight against toxins in our environment, food companies' marketing tactics, farm subsidies to non-food crops and any policy that makes nutritious food too expensive for millions of Americans. I hope that more celebrity chefs talk about hunger the way Tom Colicchio has. I hope that Michelle Obama uses her platform to say "instead of drinking soda drink filtered tap water."

I hope people start to get mad. Because that is what happens in social movements -- a few people get the word out, more people start to rally around an idea and then, at that critical moment, many many people start to vote to make change. And it's always uncomfortable. After all, we're talking about poverty and class, and we're taking on industries that spend billions of dollars on marketing alone. The justice part of food isn't quite as tidy as the other stuff is. But it's the only way to go if we want a truly sustainable system.

My hope is that whether it's farm labor practices, access for underserved communities, GMO labeling, school lunch, factory farming, marketing sugary foods to children, animal rights... the list goes on... that everyone who has made food the new black chooses something worth fighting for and dedicates their time and resources to making it better.

If food really is #trending, then we can use this as an opportunity to get serious about demanding better policies from our representatives. We can ride the momentum of the "foodie" wave and genuinely connect with the sources of our sustenance: the places, the people, the methods, the fairness.

I don't think guilt is a fabulous motivator (at least not long term), but if we cannot acknowledge and address food injustices and inequity, then we are part of a system that makes good, healthful food just another privilege of wealth. Fine, I suppose if you don't believe that nutrition is a human right, but if you do, you've got to get interested in the real costs of the beautiful stuff on your plate.

The reality is for food to be truly beautiful, it must be ethical and just for everyone and every creature involved in its creation. And for the food movement to go beyond trend and make a lasting change in the way we live and grow and eat, then we've all got some serious work to do.