Food: The news that’s on everyone’s plate

JAWS CAMP 2010, JAWS CAMP blog l

Presenters were Jane P. Marshall, who teaches at the Kansas State University College of Human Ecology, and Jen McInnis, food and wine writer at the San Antonio Express-News

Jane P. Marshall: Food and politics are intrinsically tied together. Even before the Aztecs, politics decided who got the food. She quoted MFK Fisher, who said, “First we eat. Then we do everything else.” Civilizations do not form until they have a secure food supply. Once they are fed, they are free to invent the wheel.

Food writing relates to all the beats in journalism as it does to broader understanding.


Friday night dinner – meals are a big deal at camp.

“Food is a principal object of study by anyone who seriousy hopes to understand the history of humanity,” Marshall quoted  medieval culinary historian Terrance Scully.

Sociologist Elaine Macintosh has identified three main categories that influence food choices:

  • Nutritional Needs
  • Special physiological conditions such as pregnancy
  • Taste preferences

Other influences are technology, environment, season,  economics, transportation and fuel availability,  and climate and soil depletion

In 2030, the population of the world is projected to be 8.3 billion, and the food for those will be raised on only 11 percent of the land. That is why the restoration of our most basic resources, soil and water, are so vital.

Cultural differences also influence food choices, including an understanding of nutrition/health concepts, income, social class status, the influence of business, government and professions, communications and one’s values, traditions and beliefs.

Food writing is one of the most personal type of writing we can do. Food writing depends on accuracy, yes, but maybe a different kind than other journalism.You cannot run a mistake in a recipe and just say “oops.” If you get one little thing wrong, your credibility is down the tubes.

Good food writing is is not self-indulgent. It takes you on a journey with the writer. It might be to the chef’s table, to the prison kitchen, or deep into your grandmother’s cookbook.  It is emotional, rich in symbolism and accurate, clear and concise.

Most of all, food is sensual, and this is what sets food writing apart.      Marshall challenged the listeners to imagine what is food without smell? Imagine the aromas of a Christmas dinner, oysters, a slaughter house. Or what is food without sound: Sizzle, snap, crunch… Without visuals: the glamour of a 10-layered coconut cake, the charm of holiday cookies, the beauty of a fresh jar of jam on the sunlit windowsill.

Americans are having a national conversation about good and agriculture, but that conversation is not new. Tribal civilizations have long held that you are what you eat. Kellogg Brothers were in search of health food. Michael Pollan tried to write in the1980s about agriculture but New York editors were not interested. They were, however, interested food.

What is new is that the conversation it is occurring absolutely everywhere.  One source estimates that there are more than 44,000 food blogs in the US alone. The number of writers is increasing while the amount of time readers have decreases.

So, how are you going to survive as a food writer, she posed to participants.

Jen McInnis:

The San Antonio Express, has one model: This paper, which won second place for best Food Section from the national food writers, runs a full-color, eight-page section each Sunday targeting:

  • People who love to cook
  • People who go out to eat
  • People who think of themselves as Foodies


With readers interests and time being so fragmented, food is one of the last common denominators. The subject, science or business of food touches every other section of the newspaper. It links culture, tradition, family and emotion.   She offered these stories as examples:

  • Just Like home:  Brazil … A two-day cultural reunion centering on food from the home country.
  • Shisha Cafe:  Helps soldiers returning from Iraq reacclimate to San Antonio. It became a meeting place of cultures where everyone is focused on food… cross cultural experience
  • Feeding the Cowboys:  A story about what the Dallas Cowboys NFL team eats during training camp. It could have run in sports.
  • Sourcing local food:  Farm to table. It could have run in business section.

McInnis said on one story she learned from her interview subject a  good question to ask herself and others when crafting a story: What stage of the cooking process is your favorite?

  • The prep?
  • The pantry?
  • The serving?


You can approach your food stories this same way. See links to an array of McInnis’ stories that can spark the imagination on: and

Because food touches so many other disciplines in the newsroom, how do you keep other sections from encroaching on your turf?

McInnis: Very careful tredding. If a story is really more business, we’ll let them keep it.  If it runs on 1A, let them have it.  Otherwise, hang on tight.

How are writers covering food desserts, a zone in which you cannot get fresh foods within 100 miles?

We are seeing a lot of action on this topic, such as the Rural Grocery Store Initiative, which is trying to get small communities to open locally grown and full service groceries. Alternative papers and local news groups are covering this topic. Walgreen’s is putting in fresh food sections in poor areas of cities.

What about food security?

UG 99 is a rust on wheat that was discovered in Uganda and labeled in 1999. The biggest prayer out there, regardless of what faith, is “Give us this day our daily bread,” but there is nothing that gives much hope with this rust.The famines that are coming must be addressed. And our our cheap food system is based on petrol. Soon, your best help in a crisis is going to be a good neighbor who grows food.

There is a controversy over biosecurity.We have lost food diversity, our supply is vulnerable. We all grow the same wheat, the same cattle, etc. One terrorist attack of hoof-and-mouth diisease could destroy our entire beef industry. And the spread of UG 99 threatens to destroy the wheat crops, again, triggering the politics of food: In a famine, who gets the wheat?

Marshall reminded participants that accurate sources are imperative when writing about food and health, but finding them and interpreting them accurately is difficult. Make certain to write two+-source stories. Never do a one-source story to impart food health information. is one site that can help.

Marhall left the session with one last thought:

Food … has a good claim to be considered the world most important subject. It is what matters most to most people for most of the time.

Blogged by Elaine Vitt