America’s food industry is getting a makeover. The driver? Millennials.
As Millennials age and replace the Baby Boomers as the food industry’s main consumers, a new American diet that rejects processed foods is becoming increasingly popular and shifting the current supply chain. At present, only 15 percent of U.S. farmable land is devoted to growing the fruits, legumes, and greens that this generation is hungry for, causing their cravings to be satiated by pricey imports. The lack of domestic production on a sufficient scale has inspired many Millennials to grow food for themselves, as it mitigates the food miles, expense, and lack of equitable food access that a reliance on imports creates. In result, the National Gardening Association (NGA) reported that the number of Millennial households growing their own food increased 63 percent from 2008 to 2013. It is unlikely that this statistic has greatly decreased; a 2016 NGA survey reported five out of the six million Americans that took up gardening last year were Millennials. Even space-limited city dwellers have joined in, and it is not uncommon to find folks of this generation with apartment apiaries, rooftop gardens, or aquaponic systems.
Millennials are so committed to eco-friendly foods that they are the first generation to spend disposable income on food, and a 2016 survey by the Organic Trade Association (OTA) revealed that more than half of organic shoppers are Millennials with children, making them the largest group of organic consumers in the United States. The willingness to shell out extra cash for organics is reflected in the food supply chain, and the Organic Trade Association reported that 2016 was the fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth in the organic sector, and that the number of organic operations increased 13 percent. Due to high demand and limited supply, organic operations are rewarded with 35 percent higher profits than conventional farms of equivalent size, so it is reasonable to predict that more domestic land will be converted to organic agriculture, or at the very least, more than 15 percent of it will be used for fruits and vegetables.
When they were children, Millennials grew up mixing powders of vibrant Kool-Aid when they were thirsty and squeezing cheese out of cans when they needed a snack. As they grew, so did the presence of technology, and the ability to attain food transparency caused many to become disgusted with the unending list of unpronounceable ingredients they had consumed. Witnessing skyrocketing rates of obesity and diabetes further convinced Millennial eaters that the convenience of processed food could not outweigh the health ramifications sneakily sealed into each package.
Technology has done more than enable greater food transparency; it has unified the most culturally diverse U.S. generation in history around food. From quinoa and pupusas to samosas and kimchi, access to “imported” foods and recipes from immigrants and second-generation Americans has increased dramatically, and spilled over from restaurants, cafes and food trucks to our own kitchens, making our own homes a place of exploration, often guided by short viral videos that lead us through the process.
The Millennial generation has also been raised with social media, and a propensity towards self-branding. Sharing photos of Pinterest-worthy meals, cooking fails, farm fresh produce or indulgent rainbow coffees is one way Millennials express who they are. Social media has also empowered consumer activists to express their values through support for sustainable agriculture as a solution to climate change, as they can share tips for adopting eco-friendly, farm-to-table, high welfare, vegan or vegetarian diets.
But technology has done more than inspire kitchen wanderlust or enable self-branding and consumer activism; it has invaded almost every occupation, creating a society accustomed to sitting in front of a screen all day. Eve Turow, industry expert and author of A Taste of Generation Yum: How the Millennial Generation’s Love for Organic Fare, Celebrity Chefs, and Microbrews Will Make or Break the Future of Food, posits that cooking fills the void of sensory stimulation that hard-working Millennials may feel deprived of. She reported that throughout her research for her book, she “[k]ept hearing that people want something that’s tangible, that they can see and feel and smell and taste…”
Turow also pointed out that Millennials may find release through cooking because it offers the creator complete control; an otherwise rare find in our hectic, unpredictable world.
“We live in a time where we’re really not in control of very much,” Turow stated in an interview with The Atlantic. “You can’t get a job, you can’t get a date without branding yourself properly on, you know, whatever app you’re using. You don’t really understand how the Internet works or how your phone works, but food is something you can break down. You can understand it, so you can have control over the final product.”
The food movement has been coined a “communitarian movement” by industry leader Michael Pollan, who sees the popularization of three-hour long brunches or happy hours as no surprise; the events cause Millennials to be not just surrounded by beloved, novel foods, but also friends. The invasion of technology has caused many to replace direct human contact with online socialization, so despite being completely connected, many Millennials report feeling alone. But while they are using their hands to dig into a messy pile of nachos or toast their mimosa glass to the weekend, Millennials are less likely to be on their phones, and more likely to be living in the moment.
Once we understand the impacts technology has had on this diverse generation, it makes sense that Millennials are going to make groundbreaking changes to the food industry. A demand for whole, honest foods is unlikely to change, especially as sustainable agriculture is increasingly examined as a solution to environmental and public health issues. All in all, Millennials are sowing the seeds for a new food future, and with its current direction, we can expect an industry that works in communion with our environment for a greener Earth and healthier people.