The food we eat connects us to each other over time, over distance and over generations. For Joseph Jones, a researcher in the Reed College of Media, those connections mean there is an ethic in the consumption of food, as well as the systems that bring it to our tables, including the evolution of food journalism that informs the public about all the issues surrounding our food, even the recipes.

“The biggest thing I've found is that we have lost this thread on food being a social activity or a social creation even,” Jones said. “And it's become very hyper-individualized that you like what you like and you just need to buy those things. You only think about it as a consumer. I want to get back to this idea of being a citizen-eater. It starts with food and it ends with society.”

smiling man, dark hair, beard, mustache

Food enters society in a variety of ways, particularly as our first language, Jones noted. From mother’s milk (or formula) to cereals to solid foods and proteins, nearly everyone is socialized by food, and it becomes another way human beings connect and converse. Enter the evolution of food journalism, which tells the story of food, but also sets a tone and a hierarchy for the American diet. And Jones believes that makes food journalism as much about democracy as it is about a meal and as much about ethics as it is about eating.

Women were the first food journalists, and while they didn’t get the respect of those reporters writing hard news, they were using the same standards and practices, Jones said. After “The New York Times” hired Craig Claibourne to run what would eventually be a “Lifestyles Section,” he was given credit for inventing what the women had been doing all along, Jones continued.

Food journalism has instructed a generation in how to use refrigeration, how to use new food products like sliced bread and avocados and how to make and serve foods foreign to Americanized palates. But American food culture has fundamentally changed since the 1950s, and what we’ve lost from that era is a perhaps an innocence about food that pervaded its food media, Jones said.

In the past most people knew about their food’s origins, either having grown it themselves or bartered what they had grown and raised with a nearby farmer. As the Industrial Revolution progressed and more people left farms to work in cities, the disconnect from the work it takes to produce food grew. Early food advertisements essentially threatened moms that they were malnourishing their kids, and even now home food makers (still primarily women, but this is slightly changing) are tasked with making the “correct” choices for their families and providing delicious meals, even as there is less time to cook.

Food, he said, has largely become a problem for the average American. Modern food journalism’s juxtaposition of “healthy food” (including fad diets, elimination diets, organics and more) and convenient, made-to-look-delicious meals have created a larger food discourse that induces anxiety while appearing to offer solutions. That folds into a culture of indulgence at the same time “fitness” is pushed as a marker of morality and individual responsibility, Jones said.

Food journalists in late modern American consumer culture are a contradiction; they are both agents of socialization as they legitimize and circulate a changing food system while at the same time they help citizens negotiate such changes. They are also potentially the agents who can help hold food systems accountable and think through the consequences of cultural change, he continued.

man, woman work in kitchen with shelves in background

“There’s always been a commodification and commercialization of eating in American food journalism,” Jones said. “Today’s food journalism really does run the gamut of hyper-individualism and purely consumer-based media to the more socially minded journalism of the 1950s and 1960s. There’s also never been a golden age of food journalism, so some of today’s food journalism surpasses that legacy food journalism in the amount of investigative and public-serving work it produces.”

The best journalism is about the everyday life that you live and how you connect those, then, make those private matters of public concern because your food and what you eat is very much determined by farmers, by truck drivers, by food journalists and other people, Jones said.

“I think to reestablish connections makes food taste better and that’s what I’m about — looking at the food system and being honest about it, but ultimately so people can enjoy what they eat and realize the community they have around food.”