The credit crunch has modified attitudes and the public perception of food. While the foodie lifestyle, and food culture is alive and well (though ‘organic’ has suffered a little), health and wellness in the wider sense is back on the food agenda.
Allan Jenkins is editor of the Observer Food Monthly, a supplement which comes with the Observer Sunday newspaper in the UK. Now in its 10th year, the multi-award winning magazine has tracked the change in food culture during the boom times, and now the crunch times, and has followed the rise of celebrity chefs such as Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsey, to 24/7 wall-to-wall food TV.
The Curve asked Jenkins about consumers’ shifting relationship to food and what will be driving the food agenda. He highlighted some dramatic changes that will shape communications around food.
The Curve: What does the phenomenon of celebrity chefs say about our relationships to food in 2011?
Allan Jenkins: Jamie Oliver does say something quite interesting about food culture because he chooses to say interesting stuff about food culture. He challenges the idea of obesity in children, partly it was to do with that lad schtick he had at the beginning of his career which wasn’t working any more.
He did the kids thing and suddenly he had a whole new breadth of career, energy and direction to some extent. Oliver does the big TED events and tries to look at America. He challenges America, but also at the same time sold a million pounds worth of books in three months.
For the sake of argument these are the two paradigms of food coming out of the last decade, and the Jamie Oliver version – a more reflective take – is where we are heading?
The story with Jamie is still about food, whether it’s food in schools, whether it’s about education, or fat, or mothers pushing burgers through the school fence. You thought you’d never see that in a million years, mothers fighting for the right to feed crap to their children.
Your magazine does celebrity chef, or at least ‘hero chefs’, but also does other things, such as growing food in Africa, issues around provenance of food?
We did a thing last issue celebrating those other people who actually make those kitchens work. We used a lot of photographs to grab people’s attention to make it brighter and make it appeal to people who aren’t just interested in food per se.
But the piece that got the most traction was just a small piece that we put in with just a few drawings and no clever images. It was a piece on food security and the price of food and food speculation. The magazine is basically an education sandwich so people do like Heston Blumenthal, but you also say ‘Hang on! Look at this, look at some trends’. One of the interesting trends is that people are now smoking their own fish, but another trend is that the week we came out with that piece, Tunisia took down a government because of food that tore a dictatorship apart, and the thing that put people on the street was the price of food.
So what is driving the agenda around food?
At the moment we have banks who can no longer speculate on property and are now speculating on food futures. There was a hedge fund last year who owned something like 10 per cent of the world’s cocoa. They bet on coffee, or they bet on grain. The price of grain goes up 20 to 40 percent in two months but people’s income doesn’t, especially in poor countries whose diet relies on grain. And that’s when you tear down the Tunisian Government. And that, to some extent, is why Egypt turned.
It’s interesting – a totally repressive regime will pour money into subsidising staple foods. It’s like that old idea that ‘religion is the opium of the people’, the truth is that ‘rice and grain are the opium of the people’ because you can run a dictatorship as long as people aren’t hungry. Hunger hits. (Read The Guardian editorial Food security: bread and freedom).
If you can’t have any political debate, and you can’t have anything else and you’re hungry, the least dictatorships have always done is feed their people. And that’s the problem for North Korea because it can’t do that. But if there are two guys in London and two guys in Chicago speculating, that’s something that’s never been seen in history before – 24-hour markets speculating on grain.
At the other end of this global speculation, there is you on your local allotment, getting your hands dirty, digging, planting, growing. There are people with a very different relationship with food, as a symbol of nature and care, the domestic growers and gardeners, the farmer’s markets.
Four years ago I opened the Observer organic allotment [a small patch of land for urban gardening owned by the local authority] in Camden, central London, and at that point the waiting list in Camden was eight years. By the third year, the waiting list in Camden was 40 years.
Just for an allotment? What was driving this?
I think that growth of food culture, the idea of growing your own food, a lot of it was parent driven and a lot of it to some extent was middle class driven. It was a natural following on of the organic movement. Which is slightly been in retreat because of price.
If you didn’t think that beans shouldn’t come from Kenya, and why on earth we were getting asparagus in January flown in from Peru, and if you have kids there’s that idea of connection of where something comes from. And the truth is that sitting out there and growing something with your kids is the perfect antidote to 21st Century angst. It connects in some sort of post-hippie kind of way.
The markers of time in the culture is expressed in updates, upgrades, quarterly reports, the next big thing. The seeds, the plant, the growth, food becomes a way of kids getting a different sense of time.
There’s a sense of entitlement. Everybody wants everything all the time, they want strawberries, they want them now. Ten years ago you could buy two types of apples in this country, Granny Smith’s and Golden Delicious. That changed and people suddenly asked what were those apples we had as a kid, what was that taste. It was also a search for taste, and the thing about local food is that it retained taste because they are from the area.
People bought more of apples they were aware of, they had heard of and part of that comes into the farmers market, but the truth is that is a largely a middle class phenomenon. A lot of people don’t have the choice. A good organic chicken will cost you £15 and for a lot of people that’s six chickens. They are not buying organic chickens, they are basically staving off hunger and hopefully they are giving their kids enough protein so they can grow.
I saw an interesting statistic the other day saying that the UK Government advisor starting warning against rickets. I had rickets as a kid, I grew up in an underdeveloped, what would now be called underclass environment. But it disappeared. It’s to do with vitamin D which you get from sunlight but also it’s to do with calcium.
While we can celebrate some people’s educated idea of ‘not let’s ship food all over the world, let’s not pollute the world more than we do’, the truth is while you are doing that you’ve got one guy in Mayfair who is calling the market in maize this week, and you have someone else whose husband has lost their job and they have a bunch of kids to feed. They can’t necessarily afford some of the stuff that gives them the nutrients, the Vitamin D that they want. It’s not two a tired society, it’s a 22 tiered society, the bottom tiers are lower than they have been for some time.
How are retailers reflecting and communicating these themes. Waitrose supermarket for example have been very successful at communicating this idea of stewardship?
Waitrose are an interesting case. Using Heston Blumenthal and Delia Smith in their advertising, giving the working class and the middle class both a reason to go in, the male and the female, the aspirational bloke and the ‘mothery’ mum, it piled 360,000 new shoppers into Waitrose within its first year. One day a week they’ll do an ad on Heston and Delia and on the other they absolutely just attack their rivals Tesco. I watched an ad for Waitrose last night which said we have 1,000 lines which cost the same as Tesco.
Waitrose is nearer to Greenpeace of food. Though they are a business, they kept the Duchy Originals alive (an organic food brand originally set up by Prince Charles). They’ve got a sense of stewardship and it works because they are an aggressively successful business. It’s all very well giving a portion of your business to someone in Africa but if you are not making any profit you are not doing them any good.
We are entering a new area of food, of food speculation, of food security which will change people’s perception of food. Communications around food will need to take account of food’s place in the broader social and political narrative.
In practice it is likely to encourage already emerging visual trends which use images that highlight trust (featuring family) and provenance. Images that tap directly into the food chain (nature, producers, locale) will connect to the wider health and wellness concerns around sustainability.
For political and economic reasons, food will increasingly make headlines, people will pay more attention, be more sensitive to communications around food. Growing your own food may not become much more common but it will be perceived as less niche. It will play out through images around trust. Aspirational food (lead in the culture by the phenomenon of the celebrity chef) will become less important as value and cost become issues. Images in food communications will tend towards being direct.