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The food conversation: More than just a messy plate

hand holding smartphone
MODERN TECH AND FOOD: Today people can share a picture of their food with others on social media. It gives a whole new meaning to the Steak ’n Shake slogan “In sight it must be right.”
Farmers have an opportunity to step outside the food conversation and change the dialogue.

By Derek Berkshire

If you were to sum up the conversation about food into one word, what would it be? Controversial? Complicated? Unnecessary? Now more than ever, we have more choices and are more globally connected. The discussion is complex. The conversation about food is growing and impacting farmers.

Growing consumer pressure has made the farmer’s role even more important in this dialogue. Farmers serve as the gatekeepers between consumers and their food. In reality, this conversation between consumers and producers is less complicated than most people make it. Farmers are trusted and held responsible to grow safe and nutritious food.

Although the digital nature of society makes it easy for perspectives to get lost in the noise, consumer preferences are more aligned than some think, experts believe. Farmers are trusted more than dietitians, university scientists, regulatory agencies, food companies and restaurants, according to the Center for Food Integrity.

The food conversation has evolved into focusing on generational differences while ignoring the similarities everyone has. But a simple fact remains: Generations battle over differences in the food experience, but all want similar things in food: good taste, affordable prices, convenient choices and healthy nutrition. Research conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation highlights a universal similarity.

“We all have to eat; that’s the No. 1 commonality,” says Jordan Gaal, an associate at MorganMyers, a strategic communications agency. “Everyone has an emotional connection to food. Whether it’s food that reminds you of growing up or food that reminds you of a certain event, food is center stage in all of our lives.”

Global events shape the preferences of each generation. Simultaneously, older generations teach their children about life. This dichotomy makes each generation unique and highlights clear generational differences, according to a range of experts across the food and agricultural industry. To understand the current food climate, however, you must understand the experiences that surrounded each generation.

Generational differences
While baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 were children, they were faced with the aftereffects of the Great Depression, researchers say. Wanting a good meal and being fairly connected to agriculture, they were raised to be price-conscious. As boomers have aged, they’ve prioritized healthy nutrition and affordable prices.

Generation X, born from 1965 to 1980, demanded convenient and diet-conscious products. Women were entering the workforce more rapidly, which forced Generation X to fend for themselves. The pace of society quickened, and the role science played in consumers’ lives increased. Generation X was influenced by its environment and places importance on convenient choices and good nutrition.

Experts report that millennials, born from 1981 to 1995, developed their own outlooks focused on sustainability and health. Although this generation is more removed from traditional agriculture, food choice and technology in food are more mainstream. Millennials are more globally connected than their predecessors and seek unique experiences across the food space. This results in good taste and good nutrition being important.

“When I hear ‘food experience,’ I think of eating something that I’ve never had before or eating something prepared in a way I’ve never had before,” says Allie Abney, a millennial food-service sales representative at Hormel Foods. “I want what I eat to have a story behind it, and for that story to be a full picture, not just some food that I’m consuming.”

Although similar to millennials, Generation Z has been shaped by the increasing pace of society, digital technology, global crises and diverse cultures. This generation, born from 1996 to present day, is connected to the world by technology, and many members are passionate about trust and transparency while also concerned about their environment, experts note. Simultaneously, this generation is looking to move to more urban environments, according to Nielsen, a consumer research firm. Generation Z values good taste and healthy nutrition, but is also concerned about social cost and the environmental impact of food.

It’s a conversation that gets clouded in noise but comes down to basic ideas. Some prioritize certain health aspects depending on their lifestyle. Others care more about the social impact of brands they buy.

Consumer concern about the food supply isn’t unique to one generation. The youngest generations have the loudest voices because they’re most familiar with technology and most connected. The conversation about food is complex but is no different than it has been historically.

Conversations about controversial issues are elevated through social media and the global network that millennials and Generation Z have built — a network that nearly 50% of the U.S. population belongs to — according to Statista, an online statistics research company.

Common concerns
“We’re all concerned about health,” says Steven Wu, an associate professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University. “They [generations] just go about it in different ways. I don’t think any of them [consumers] want to be, necessarily, unhealthy.”

Just as consumers are concerned about the environment and nutrition, so are the gatekeepers who grow food. Farmers have felt increased pressure to adapt to changing outlooks on food. At the same time, they must make decisions that positively impact their operations and their land.

“We can’t make a profit out here and not care for the animals; if we don’t take care of the animals, if we don’t take care of the soil, we’re not going to be farming because it’s not going to last that way,” says Mike Shuter, Frankton, Ind., a diversified crop and livestock farmer.

“If you ever interact with a producer out here, you’d find out that some of the things you find on the internet are not necessarily the truth,” he adds.

Farmer role
Farmers have an opportunity to share their story with more consumers than ever before, says Jayson Lusk, department head of agricultural economics at Purdue. Farmers must make many decisions, and today’s social climate makes it easy to get overwhelmed.

“Being engaged in these conversations is important,” Lusk says. “It’s challenging because farmers already wear a lot of hats. They’re already an agronomist, entomologist, weatherman or woman, and now I’m saying you also have to be a public relations company.”

Consumers trust the American farmer. Regardless of the differences in each generation, everyone is interested in the same things: good taste, affordable prices, convenient choices and healthy nutrition, according to findings by the International Food Information Council Foundation. Farmers are doing the work they’ve always done.

They’re stewards of the land that help to feed a growing population, Lusk notes. Now more than ever, they have an opportunity to tell their story to consumers who increasingly want to listen, he says. Farmers are being talked about — they just have to join the conversation.

Berkshire is a senior in ag communication at Purdue Univeristy. He writes from West Lafayette, Ind.

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