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Equitable Representation in Food Media

Creating Systems to Uplift BIPOC Voices & Talents

The two overarching questions this initiative aimed to answer were:

  1. How can media better present BIPOC food cultures and foodways without tokenizing or appropriating them?

  2. How can media organizations implement systems-based change to build equitable processes to represent BIPOC food cultures and treat BIPOC contributors in a respectful manner?

Initiative Overview

 

1

Food media in the U.S. - or, media organizations that specifically cover the food (and relatedly, beverage & hospitality) industries - is, and has always been, overwhelmingly white. Most media organizations continue to be headed by almost all-white leadership teams, and their coverage often takes a white, affluent (upper-middle-class), suburban, heteronormative, female perspective on food — the assumed 'typical' consumer. 

How food is represented in mainstream media has important implications beyond just cooking or eating. Food is inherently political, and can be a source of power, freedom, or deprivation depending on the context. How BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) food cultures are written or discussed, holds far-reaching implications for the people behind these foods. For example, only featuring "ethnic" (non-white) restaurants in the Cheap Eats section of a food publication furthers stereotypes about worthiness and pay equity for BIPOC workers; the systematic erasure of Indigenous genocide behind the family-friendly image of Thanksgiving undermines the ongoing fight for Indigenous food and land sovereignty; the proliferation of the racism-tinged coverage of ingredients from MSG to palm oil emboldens problematic stereotypes. In all, whiteness is upheld as the ultimate arbiter of goodness.

Before, throughout, and after media's "reckoning" in 2020, food-focused publications have attempted to diversify their white-centric viewpoints. Some have published BIPOC-authored personal essays; others covered new global ideas in food. However, many of these actions are performative in nature and continue to cause harm to the BIPOC food industry professionals and consumers. In particular, the tokenization of BIPOC to deflect criticism has remained a major obstacle to true accountability. Additionally, as media puts renewed energy towards DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) efforts, many difficult changes still lack commitment from senior leadership teams, and are not rooted in the necessary systems to ensure long-term implementation.

"Consumers do not produce these flattened, generic [ideas about food] in a vacuum. It’s a result of centuries of blurring and erasure of geographic, historical, and cultural nuance, socialized into an idea that 'other' places are more homogenous and less important."

- Eater

 

2

How Tokenization Manifests in Media

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Cultivating Equitable Representation 

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Learn from the Community

Our methodology is rooted in centering the ideas, needs, and suggestions of those most impacted by existing problems. In early 2020, we gathered a group of food media professionals via our Experimental Salons small-group discussion model to understand the obstacles they face when it came to equitable representation.​ Our participants ranged from freelance writers and video producers, to podcast hosts and editorial staffers. Our goal was to gather a diverse cross-section of the food media industry that often do not have their voices heard in editorial boardrooms.

Create Resources

Based on our initial learnings from our Experimental Salons, we launched our Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization in Food Media in April 2020. This toolkit has since been shared widely and integrated into the DEI work of many organizations, from Eater and Bon Appetit, to TASTE/PUNCH, and the James Beard Foundation. 

This first toolkit offered an in-depth look at why and how tokenization pertains to, and shows up in, the media industry. After its release, we recognized the need for more publication-specific guide detailing the many obstacles - and potential solutions - for addressing current inequitable systems.

As a result, we launched a year-long series of Accountability Salons (see below) with editors across 10+ media publications to capture their journey of implementing the initial suggestions in our first toolkit. These learnings were detailed in our second major resource, Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Food Media.

Practice Accountability

At the end of 2020, we scheduled a years' worth of Accountability Salons with folks in editorial leadership to discuss the implementation of equity-based initiatives within their respective organizations. Findings from these discussions were presented in our Toolkit for Implementing Systematic Changes Towards Equitable Representation in Food Media.

 

In addition to our two toolkits, we followed two media publications — The Kitchn and Well+Good — across the span of a year to document their ongoing DEI efforts as it pertained to their content as well as their internal (and freelance) staff members. These two white papers gave clear, specific details of each publications' successes and challenges faced, with step-by-step actions that other media companies grappling with the same issues can readily utilize. Read the resulting white papers here.

 

3

In addition to our Salons, we also hosted public town halls open to anyone in or interested in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries to interface with, and provide real-time feedback to, editorial leadership on issues surrounding equitable representation in media. We believe that creating proactive scenarios for this type of open discourse is instrumental in disrupting the cycle of gatekeeping within media that has led to many of today's problems.

In order to build on the momentum and engagement we saw from our toolkits, we also hosted group learning opportunities, such as our panel discussions Tokenization in Media: A Case Study In Food and Conversations About Appropriation series (amassing over 1,000+ signups!), and Instagram Live sessions with our white paper stakeholders. 

 

4

Even after years of research, Experimental Salons, and events, our work on improving equitable representation in the media industry is far from over. In addition to creating infrastructure for our Salon participants to support one another and continue their conversations independently, we are continually updating our two toolkits with new learnings from our networks; provide social justice resources for the industry, host more town halls and group learning eventspublish newsletters on related topics within food, beverage, and hospitality; and incorporate media into our upcoming initiatives.

 

In particular, we see our our 2022 initiative,The Neighborhood's Table, as an opportunity to positively involve media organizations in reshaping how we write and talk about the concept of gentrification as it pertains to the hospitality industry. One of our main deliverables will be a publicly available rubric for journalists to evaluate hospitality businesses on community investment before coverage.

Using the foundation from our past work, we also work privately with media organizations to host internal seminars and workshops, as well as long-term projects to create new company-wide guidelines, milestones, and documentation on equity for both people and content.

Support Our Work

If you have learned something from our resources and public programming, please consider supporting us as a monthly Patreon member or through a one-time donation. We are a small nonprofit that offers all of our resources, content, and events for free because we believe in disrupting the existing pay-to-play model of knowledge and access. That means all of our work is funded by our community of generous donors, and every dollar of support makes a big difference!

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