By Alexina Cather, MPH
NYC Food Policy Center (FPC): You grew up on your family’s seventh generation dairy farm in North Carolina. Can you share a little about your family farm and your experiences growing up as a “farm kid?” Did these experiences motivate you to get involved in food and become an advocate for a sustainable food system? Who and what influenced your thoughts about food and the food system?
Ariel Lauren Wilson (ALW): Growing up on a small farm was absolutely my initial inspiration to work in food—it was all I’d ever known. While I probably ate as much McDonald’s as any kid my age, I’ve always been connected to food production: milking cows, bailing hay, shucking corn, canning tomatoes, stringing beans, chopping wood, and other farm work has always been normal. Cooking’s always been normal, too, although I didn’t really start expanding my own recipe repertoire until I went to college. My advocacy work started around then too after I read The Omnivore’s Dilemma in 2007. Pollan articulated phenomena I didn’t fully relate to since I farmed (I really had no clue how rare my upbringing was right when I left home), but his writing did help me realize the value of my family’s work.
FPC: How do Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn cover the unique food scene/system in New York City? With so much to cover, what do you highlight as the most interesting aspects of our food system?
ALW: We are a mission driven publication that celebrates the people who make our local food system more sustainable, equitable, nutritious, and delicious. We like to say that we tell the “good” food news and leave critiques to other talented experts.
FPC: How do you think food journalism impacts food policy?
ALW: There’s significant potential at all levels of government—globally, there’s so much we can better understand and improve all along the supply chain. What that looks like in practice really depends where and what level of government you’re talking about. New York City for example has made some relatively progressive food policy strides for a US city, but if you compare to some French cities for example, it’s just a different ballgame.
FPC: What food story are you most proud of and why?
ALW: I’m not a mom but to me this is like the “which child is your favorite” question. This may not be the answer you’re wanting, and I might sound like a broken record, but I’m genuinely most proud of stories that fulfill our mission of celebrating a local food system that’s more sustainable, equitable, nutritious, and delicious—whatever that looks like. It’s a noble goal to me and keeps me motivated to work in such a precarious industry.
FPC: What do you see as the future of food journalism? Or all journalism for that matter? Is there still a place for for-profit journalism? Or should it all be nonprofit to keep it balanced?
ALW: As a journalist I really wish I had a confident answer here. Honestly though, I really don’t know. Just when I think something’s doing well, I can learn the next day that it’s shuddering. Restructuring and cuts are happening all over all the time—food media and otherwise—and I’ve heard from more than one lifelong journalist that I should just be grateful to have an editorial job. If I had to give any answer though, I’d say the future is very unclear. I sound really cliche here but the traditional journalism business model has been obsolete for a while now and I think we’re still learning—albeit trial by fire in the Trump era—how quality journalism can continue and evolve.
All that said, on the food and ag beat, I feel like the Food and Environment Reporting Network and the New Food Economy are nonprofits that do excellent work.
FPC: What are some of the food issues you’ve read about that concern you or keep you up at night? Are there food habits of your own that you’ve changed because of what you’ve read?
ALW: There are plenty but climate change more than any other. It touches everything and on a personal level, outside of work, I’ve concluded that there’s really not much I can individually do. But that’s not to say that I don’t think my actions don’t matter; I still see my voting, recycling, composting, bag-reusing, leftover-eating, public transit-riding, etc. etc. to be part of a whole and important results of the hopeful, committed attitude I choose.
FPC: You recently wrapped up the 3rd Food Loves Tech, Edible’s conference that focuses on the technology and innovation that shapes the way we cultivate and consume food. Billions of dollars go into food tech. What will it take for investing in sustainable food and agriculture to become more interesting for funders? Can you talk a bit about food and ag tech? Where they are and where they’re going?
ALW: Honestly this is a book topic, if not more. I hope I’m not avoiding the questions but I am exploring the food and tech intersection in the first season of our new podcast In the Field with Edible Brooklyn (find it wherever you listen!). I write and talk more about this complicated topic there so I hope you check it out.
I will say though that I feel like as a society we should be talking more, and in very plain speak that we can all understand, about how tech is altering every part of the food value chain. It’s happening fast and, since we all eat, we should think more about what it means.
Another thing I always try to remind folks about this food and tech conversation is that we should not forget the role of government in providing public services, which I believe include nutritious food and clean water. Do we really want a future where access to healthy food for all, the environment included, is privatized and/or dependent on the nonprofit model? Instead of banking on startups to hack our way out of the status quo, and/or giving all our money to NGOs (who are no doubt doing vital work), we should hold all levels of government accountable for what we believe our tax dollars should fund.
FPC: You were selected as a 2018 Stone Barns Exchange Fellow. Congratulations! Can you talk a little bit more about the program? How did you and the other eight fellows work to break down food system silos in the food system and encourage people to work across sectors to solve global systems-level problems?
ALW: Firstly I encourage anyone who meets their 2019 guidelines (that have yet to go live by the date I’m answering this) to apply. The three-week residency’s is a rare opportunity for people working in all arenas of sustainable food to share ideas and collaborate; I feel like the full results of the experience have yet to be realized and are long term. I hope it continues for many years!
I could write a very long essay here my fellow fellow Nancy Matsumoto actually beautifully documented our experience in a three-part series on the Stone Barns blog:
I think she does a great job of capturing our time and if anyone has any specific questions about the fellowship, they’re welcome to reach out to me on Twitter. Stone Barns recently published this video, too.
FPC: What is the one food policy change at the federal level that would have the greatest impact on alleviating hunger throughout the country? What about at the local level here in NYC?
ALW: Hunger’s really not my specialty but, perhaps stating the obvious here, actually mobilizating to pass a Farm Bill at the federal level is an essential first step. Although there’s interesting work happening on the local level in New York (check out the NYC Food Assistance Collaborative or business like ReThink Food NYC), this federal legislation is key for determining how we address hunger in the long term.
Grew up in: Bakersville, NC
City or town you call home: Brooklyn, NY
Job title: Editor-in-Chief, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn
As a child you wanted to be: An artist
Background and education: BA Food Studies, French from UNC-Chapel Hill
One word you would use to describe our food system: Complicated
Food policy hero: Joan Gussow, Rachel Carson, Lady Eve Balfour
Your breakfast this morning: Coffee, date, oatmeal, almond, yogurt, and oat milk smoothie
Favorite food: Bread—like really, really good bread
Last meal on Earth: My mom’s cornbread and pinto beans with diced raw onion
Favorite food hangout: So many but Mekelburg’s in Clinton Hill is a perennial favorite.
Food policy social media must follow: Marion Nestle—she’s a force. We’re lucky to have her.
Your proudest “Edible” moment: See long answers above.
Book you can’t put down: Again, nothing that original, but I don’t care: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.