Dear Millennials: The Movement Is What We Make It

by Kathleen Nay

Millennials get a bad rap, even when it comes to their choices around food. Is this negativity really deserved?

Generalizations. We all use them. They’re mental shortcuts that help us quickly assess and understand the world around us. Though some generalizations are not wholly unfounded, Millennials have a set of unfortunate ones attached to their generation: lazy, pleasure seeking, narcissistic, and entitled.

Well, full disclosure: I am a Millennial, and I take issue with such generalizations.

Which is why I had to shake my head in shame when one of our own published an article on Medium.com last month accusing Millennials of “faking the food movement”. The gist of Eve Turow Paul’s commentary relied on society’s assumption that Millennials are essentially self-serving. She questioned whether we’ve actually championed a “food movement” or whether we’ve been faking it all along for the sake of social currency, or as a coping mechanism against our smartphone-tethered existences.

Have we been faking it? Maybe I’m biased by the Millennials around me – I do attend the Friedman School after all – but in my view, something brought of each of us here, and I’m not convinced that our reasons are entirely self-serving. Though it sounds idealistic and perhaps naïve, I tend to think that most grad students at the Friedman School are as interested in getting a job and making a living as we are in changing the world. We are here because we see needs that are directly linked to an inequitable food system, and we are seeking ways to marry our idealism with our pragmatism.

In response to Turow Paul, I decided to survey fellow Millennials, to find out what we think about “the food movement” generally, and what issues we think drive it. My study was by no means rigorous or scientific; it was, like most things Millennials do, informally orchestrated via social media. Nevertheless, I learned some surprising things about what my peers think about food, and the movement that does or does not surround it.

Of my 45 anonymous respondents, 33 fell under the objective definition of a Millennial, or individuals born roughly between 1985 and 2004 (interestingly, only 25 of those 33 respondents self-identified as Millennials). Of those, 39% were not Friedman-affiliated. The top five food-related issues that rose to the surface of my survey included the need to improve health outcomes (61% among Millennial respondents), climate change and sustainability (61%), hunger and food access (52%), food waste (42%), and humane treatment of animals (36%). This illustrates a sharp contrast to Turow Paul’s observations that we are more interested in sharing new cookie flavors than in the reasons that food deserts exist or why American children are going to school hungry. My results show that Millennials care about food as more than just a source of comfort, and the issues are encompassed by a whole spectrum of societal concerns.

Turow Paul laments the dearth of Millennials who take a stand on SNAP or food deserts, farm subsidies, or pesticide runoff. She seems to think that most of us only care about food insofar as it benefits us as individual eaters, rather than as a collective of informed laborers and consumers. But this is a shortsighted understanding of Millennials, many of whom have plenty to say about the inequality of access, labor rights, and subsidy distribution.

By generalizing all of us, she discounts the work of 20- and 30-somethings like:

  • Lauren Abda, who hosts Branchfood’s Community Tables, monthly meet ups designed to connect young food system innovators.
  • Ross Richmond who, through Food For Free, partners with dining halls at Tufts and Harvard Universities to redistribute donated hot-bar food to Somerville elementary students and homeless families facing food insecurity, all while diverting 1.8 million pounds of food from landfills.
  • Ryan Pandya, a bioengineer and co-founder of Muufri, a company developing the world’s first cow-free milk in an effort to improve animal welfare and environmental sustainability.
  • Jason Carter, a young farmer with a mind for conservation farming, who has preserved the natural landscape of his New England farm by choosing to raise a breed of pigs that is well-suited for foraging and thriving in forested spaces.
  • Andrea Talhami, a young professional with DC Central Kitchen, a nonprofit that reduces community hunger using recovered leftover food, and helps reintegrate formerly incarcerated adults by providing culinary career skills training.

In fairness, these individuals have not expressly identified themselves as Millennials, but if one operates on basic generational assumptions, then the public perception is that they are Millennials whether they choose to be or not. Millennials are driving change, in creative and innovative ways. The movement may not be cohesive, but that doesn’t mean the work is not effective.

Turow Paul is a Millennial with a platform to Millennials. She is in the position to raise a critical mass of interest in food issues that matter beyond the hipster vegan beet burger, but uses her position instead to denigrate the apparent absence of a movement. What she should be doing: calling attention to Millennial-driven projects that are improving social and environmental outcomes within the food industry. She may not be wrong that “slacktivisim” is a real phenomenon among many Millennials. But we’re not a monolith; we’re as diverse as the needs we see.

I am somewhat comforted by the fact that not all of Turow Paul’s work makes light of the food movement or oversimplifies our generation. In an interview she gave with The Atlantic last year, she makes clear that she doesn’t actually see Millennials as monolithic. She also publicly acknowledges that Millennials also experience food insecurity, and in her Medium article, she wins back points by suggesting concrete ways in which Millennials can demand change from lawmakers.

But for all her complaints that food is simply a solace for those of us who “can’t find a job, are freaked about climate change and don’t trust Congress,” Turow Paul fails to see what is actually quite clear to those of us who hope to meaningfully contribute to a smart and equitable food system: that food is our solution. We obsess over food production and waste precisely because we are freaked about climate change. We can’t find jobs that fall in line with our values, so we’re creating them. We don’t trust Congress, but we’re finding grassroots ways to make change on our own. Our choices about food – about how, where, and by whom it is produced – are how we will wield our power.

We’re not finished. We have a long way to go. As we’re just beginning to come into our own, dear Millennials: this is our moment. If we are what we eat, then let’s show the haters what we’re made of.

Kathleen Nay is a first-year AFE/UEP Millennial. She thanks Meaghan Reardon (BMN ’16) and Krissy Scommegna (AFE ’17) for helping with survey development and general brainstorming for this article.

The Friedman Sprout is a monthly student run newspaper that aims to serve the student population at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, prospective students, and alumni. Our mission is to report on newsworthy information that affects the Friedman community including nutrition research, food policy, internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as school events. Our editorial slant is that of sustainability in food and nutrition.

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