Finding the Human Element in Food Storytelling

There’s lots of debate these days about “local food.” Is it better tasting, or better for you?  Does it offer a viable economic model? Is it a fad? The answers to those and other pointed questions are best answered elsewhere. But, as a writer and consumer of food media I can tell you one thing with certainty. The local food movement has completely changed the way we tell stories about food. As the local farmer has found a voice, the narrative has shifted. Food is no longer an impersonal commodity. More often, it is a customized, nurtured, hand-crafted product created by a passionate and invested individual.

Farmer and Wheat

Whether or not local food represents your values isn’t the point. Rather, it is that the storytelling paradigm has changed. The story is not about the brand, and it’s not about the broccoli. The local food movement has humanized food storytelling. Suddenly there’s a person at the center of the story. That person was always there, but in the past, might not have gotten equal billing with the broccoli. Now, the local food movement has spurred a revolution in character-driven food story telling.

No matter what the product, consumers are asking “where did my food come from?’ The question creates a quandary for larger producers of commodities, ingredients and packaged food products. How can you possibly compete with the charm and appeal of the story of a small, community-based farmer tending a crop?

But, is this change a revolution, an evolution, or a throwback to a kinder, gentler era of food storytelling? There is precedent for discovering a person at the center of the food story.  Think back to some legendary food tales and well-known brands that are now so ubiquitous, we don’t even think about their origins. American pioneer John Chapman, better known as Johnny Appleseed, was the hero of the first food story I ever heard as a child. There would have been no standardized measurement in recipes or iconic cookbook without the efforts of Bostonian Fannie Farmer. A frozen food empire might have been an unfulfilled dream without the vision and scientific acumen of a man named Clarence Birdseye. W.H. Kellogg’s interest in health changed the way the American breakfast was consumed.

I would contend that at some point – perhaps the “Mad Men” Golden Age of advertising – the brand story overtook the human story element in food. By holding up the “product” as hero, the back story was lost. But, inherent in that back story was always a person, or a group of people who brought that product to market. “Farm to table” – or delivery of any food product to market – can only happen through a series of interconnected, human relationships.

Food writer and web curator Amanda Hesser recently acknowledged that our epicurean narrative has evolved once again. Hesser wrote, “Now people want to hear from the doers,” meaning chefs, food entrepreneurs, cooks, farmers and CSA directors.

Some national brands have already begun to embrace this idea. In 2009, Frito-Lay launched an advertising campaign celebrating the work of local potato farmers. The Beef Checkoff has featured ranching families in print advertising sharing their favorite beef recipes.    Both campaigns help build a deeper understanding of the efforts by individuals to bring that product to market.

So, how do you find the human element in your food story, and feed the craving the public has to better understand the people who stock their pantries and feed their families?   Consider these storytelling techniques:

  • Size Doesn’t Matter – Whether it’s a backyard garden, a local farm or a large regional operation, food is grown by people who do this work for a reason. It’s their chosen profession, and they’re probably passionate about what they do. Move beyond labels of “big,” “small” and “local” to focus on the individual people who make up your operation.    Like any good writer, probe for the “why?” Why do your people do what they do? What motivates them? This is the story local farmers tell so well.
  • Celebrate Your Heroes – Who is the protagonist in your story? Who are the “doers?” Read great stories about local farms and study the characters that make up the story. Heck, go back and read “Johnny Appleseed” again. There is often a strong personality at the center of a compelling food story with deep personal conviction who had a great idea or overcame a significant challenge. Who are the people in your operation who have those heroic qualities, and how can you highlight their work?
  • Drop the Jargon and Have a Conversation – One of the best things that advocates of the local food movement have done is to talk to people face-to-face at farmers markets and in the fields. By comparison, larger operations can tend to default to jargon or buzz words that are devoid of emotion. Food is perhaps one of the most passionate and evocative topics in any culture. Redline the buzz words and let the personal passion of “the doers” – your true believers and storytellers – drive the conversation.
  • Broaden the Spotlight – The food product is important – but, food by itself is just organic matter. Stories are about people and communities, and in the end, the food is just a prop in the bigger storyline. Take a step back and observe the bigger story. What elements of the farm to table process would surprise or intrigue a consumer, and ultimately increase their enjoyment of the product? What might seem commonplace to you may be a revelation to your audience.
  • Understand the Audience – Most consumers are less interested in the politics of food, and more interested in whether the food is tasty, nutritious and safe to feed the family.   Consumers are seeking trust in an increasingly impersonal world. Several generations ago, we trusted the milk man to deliver the milk we needed to our doorstep. That desire to trust the people who feed our families has not changed. By highlighting the human element in your food story, you can go a long way towards building those bonds of trust.