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Nov. 8, 2017, 9:12 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Policy, not recipes: The New Food Economy focuses on the underreported stories of our food system

At a time when “food” on the web means “recipe videos,” The New Food Economy is going in a different direction.

Food coverage on the web is dominated by Facebook-friendly recipe videos, gastronomy, and restaurant reviews.

The founders of The New Food Economy admit that the site’s own food coverage isn’t nearly as sexy as the above, but it’s far more vital: the economics, culture, and politics of food, with a special emphasis on the many factors that influence our food long before it reaches our mouths. “It’s simple and yet not simple at all,” said Kate Cox, the site’s editor. “Almost everything we do has something to do with these forces changing our food, how we get access to it, and what it costs. There’s an awful lot of policy that has the potential to change what consumers have access to.”

The New Food Economy breaks its coverage into three primary verticals. “Issues” covers ongoing debates in food policy, justice, and health (“A food activist just won a MacArthur “genius” award. Why that’s a big deal“). The “Systems” section focuses on the inner workings of farms, food processing, and distribution (“It’s the end of “organic” as we know it“. And stories in the “Issues” section usually focus on one-off projects around novel ideas and techniques, like weed-laced animal feed, aquaculture, and drones (“What will it really take for vertical farms to succeed?“). Cox said that the site initially tried to organize the site around specific sectors in food production — land use, water, animals — but over time realized that its current structure better reflected the organization of the food system itself. “We spent a lot of time toying with the verticals, but the stories always focused one of three things — nuts and bolts systems issues, big shiny objects, or someone doing someone that no one else has done,” she said.

The site has plenty to cover these days. The Farm Bill, whose current iteration expires next September, is already a big coverage focus, as are many other ongoing policy debates. There’s also “a lot of drama in the supply chain,” says Cox, which opens up opportunities for stories about food inspection processes, distribution, and waste disposal. Labor issues, particularly those relating to policies related to immigrant workers, are also a big food story that’s taken central role in the Trump administration. Also, lots of Amazon coverage

Jeffrey Kittay, The New Food Economy’s founder and publisher and a former adjunct professor of journalism at NYU, said that the site models itself after nonprofit ventures like The Marshall Project and Inside Climate News, which specialize at communicating complex topics in a way that the average reader can understand and find compelling. That’s not always easy with food policy, which is why The New Food Economy puts a special emphasis on letting writers inject voice into their reporting. Often, this gives them the freedom to admit that they’re as confused by a topic as readers probably are. On the other hand, the site balances that accessibility with a mission to cover stories deeply for people already immersed in the topics it covers. Many of these readers are farmers, producers, and food processors running small or large businesses (some, indeed, work for large corporations like Monsanto), while others come from academia, or work at regulatory bodies.

The New Food Economy also counts fellow media in the food policy space as one of its key audience. Pick ups by larger news organizations are important for the site as it grows and builds its influence in the industry (The New York Times, Mother Jones and Business Insider have all linked to the site in recent months). This is also important long-term, as the site sees a lot of potential down the line in teaming up with larger news organizations on deep investigations in areas that bigger outlets don’t have a lot of expertise or can’t devote the resources to cover.

So far, The New Food Economy has been funded by contributions from philanthropist Donald Sussman, but the site is looking for ways to expand its money sources over the next year. To that end, in October the site is participating in a $28,000 matching grant administered by Newsmatch and funded by the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Democracy Fund.The site hopes to use the money it raises to increase its staff, experiment with events within its beat, and expand regional coverage.

“We’ve had luxury of just getting our voice, competence, and authority right,” said Kittay. “It’s been great not to have to worry about the funding, but now we do have to worry about it. But now at least we think we’re putting our best foot forward.”

Photo of a farm by Victoria Pickering used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Nov. 8, 2017, 9:12 a.m.
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