In 2015, Let’s Snack on Some Hope

It’s a sign of the times that Mark Bittman is signing off from his post as the New York Times food opinion writer this month (double pun, intended). Although he had been writing about food, restaurants, and recipes for the Times for years, Bittman started a fresh chapter at the Grey Lady at the start of 2011, by taking up the topic of food politics and food system issues in a new column. Interesting for me, 2010 was the year that I kicked off a long-term food system change campaign called the 30 Project— so named as both a commentary on the last 30 years of food and agriculture changes that led to our degraded human and environmental health, as well as a call to action for a vision of a 30-year future of something much better.

What was coming to a full roiling boil in 2010–2011 that allowed for the creation of a food opinion column in a major newspaper was the idea that things had gone awry, and that eaters needed to be better informed of what was really going on in the kitchen. I thought then that it would take decades (three, actually) for the changes that brought us heaps of center-aisle junk food and cheap meat to the American dinner table (and, increasingly, global dinner tables) to be reset. I was certainly hopeful that eaters would wake up and smell the CAFOs and food waste and artificial bread smell being pumped out by Subway — and that they would use their consumer demand to make slow, simmering changes to the American diet. But I definitely offered a generous amount of time for new ideas, habits, marketplaces, restaurants, and food brands to steep into popular use.

I thought in 2010 that new food businesses and new technologies would be the gateway to a better food system; one that makes it easy to eat healthy and bring food to the table while conserving water and soil, treating food workers with dignity and animals humanely, and allowing more people to access nutritious options. But just five years later, the field of new food companies that seek to do exactly those things has grown so robust, that even the iconic food opinionator himself, Bittman, is closing down his New York Times column and moving to California to work at a start up that “make{s} it easier for people to eat more plants.”

So, in the spirit of the incredible hopefulness that I started to feel in 2010, but that has been redoubled over and over again in the past years, I can say that the changes I was dreaming about in 2010 will not take 30 years to accomplish. Many of them are happening right now. Below is an appetizer-sized taste of just a few.

First, when I would say five years ago that I thought McDonald’s might not survive in the new era of educated eaters, people thought I was nuts. We are not there yet by any stretch of the imagination, but we now know that Ronald McDonald is wounded and slowly making changes. In 2015, global profits were down 15 percent from the year before and its new CEO — who came from the UK operations — is bringing in life support in the form of cage-free eggs (within the next ten years) and human antibiotic-free chicken (no drugs that are also used to treat humans, in the next two years). These changes are not making most foodies run to the Golden Arches, but they are a pretty strong nod to the power of the healthy food movement and more aware consumers.

The real power is in the rise of fast casual brands — like Chipotle and Panera — that have defined themselves in terms of the quality and sourcing of their ingredients. While growth of fast food sales has remained relatively flat over the last 15 years, the Washington Post reported that the fast casual sector has seen 550 percent growth since 1999. Despite the recession and consistent calls from detractors that cheap and tasty would always be the most important metrics in people’s food choices, eaters are paying around $10 instead of the fast food $5 and winners like Panera are redoubling efforts for better quality food. Just a few months ago, Panera announced that they are removing 150 “unnatural ingredients” or food additives from their menu.

For the few final bites from a sampler platter of hopeful change, we need to have a quick sip — a sip of water, of course, because soda is in its tenth year of decline. In a stark trend comparison, farmers markets have seen incredible growth in the form of a doubling from 2008 to 2013. Today, at one of the over 8,200 farmers markets across the U.S., you will see a growing crop of young farmers — great news after 30 years of farmer aging — and you’ll also see an expansion of programs allowing greater Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamp) benefits to be used for local, fresh food. And, of course, you’ll see hipsters with their kids eating kale, which means it’s still cool.

Despite the fact that there is still rising global obesity and persistent global hunger, I am hopeful that the food system is indeed changing. And it is doing so more rapidly than I thought it would just five years ago. We, the eaters, are demanding better food options for our waistlines, and we are getting smarter about food waste. We are voting with our forks and our dollars and companies are hearing us. We are not yet frolicking in a food and farming utopia where fruits and veggies are always the easiest thing to eat, where the true costs of food are embedded in the price and where farmers and food workers are all paid fairly for the highest quality product. But we are at the point where luminaries like Mark Bittman don’t need to educate hungry minds about the problems we face — they need to feed them more veggies.

This fall, Medium is exploring the future of food and what it means for us all. To get the latest and build on the conversation, you can follow Future of Food.

Co-Founder, Military Family Building Coalition. Mom of 3 Miracles. Author, "We the Eaters". Co-Founder, FEED. Sister on the Planet Ambassador, Oxfam.

Co-Founder, Military Family Building Coalition. Mom of 3 Miracles. Author, "We the Eaters". Co-Founder, FEED. Sister on the Planet Ambassador, Oxfam.