Thought for food

Going beyond the plate to explore issues of community, identity and food justice.

Among the muted colors, comfortable chairs and deep quiet of the Los Angeles Central Library’s Rare Books Room, the history of L.A. restaurants stares up at Josh Kun from a sturdy wooden table.

Spread across the surface are selections from the Los Angeles Public Library’s archive of the city’s restaurant menus, including some of the very oldest, dating back to 1895. 

These primary documents are the centerpiece of Kun’s To Live and Dine in L.A.: Menus and the Making of the Modern City. Kun is reliving the research that informed the 2015 book in a conversation with Nicola Twilley and Cynthia Graber, the hosts of the food podcast Gastropod. As Graber holds a microphone to catch Kun’s response, Twilley, who reviewed the book for The New Yorker when it was first released, asks Kun to explore how food is both boundary and bridge.

Food, Kun responds, allows us to draw boundaries around ourselves while also building bridges for others to understand us.

“This is my grandmother’s dish, this food comes from my past, this belongs to my community,” says Kun, director of the School of Communication and Chair in Cross-Cultural Communication. “On the other hand, food is one of the very things that allows us all to experience entry points into other ways of being, into other cultural practices. You taste somebody else’s food, and you want to know more about the person who cooked it.”

This duality Kun highlights is just one of the many complexities inherent in talking about food. As L.A. has emerged in the 21st century as a global hub for food, the conversation has grown to encompass the myriad social, political and economic issues that shape L.A.’s food culture: immigration, gentrification, labor rights, food insecurity, and sustainability.

Whether they’re writing a restaurant review, developing an eatery’s marketing campaign, or conducting research, today’s communicators know they need to deliver the full picture, one informed by food justice, to an increasingly sophisticated and demanding public.

“The things that matter most are the things that demand to be understood from multiple perspectives,” Kun says. “How else would we talk about the very thing that keeps us alive?”

Food, culture and the identity of a city

“Food has always been not just something that I love writing about, but something that people want to talk about because it’s so immediate,” said Eddie Kim, a staff writer for Mel magazine. “Everyone has a relationship with food, whether it’s with great food or with no food.”

Kim, a former editor-in-chief of the Daily Trojan, didn’t specialize in food journalism while an undergraduate at USC Annenberg, and he has covered a variety of subjects in his professional career, including his in-depth coverage of homelessness in Los Angeles. But he says the breadth of his journalistic training has helped him bring a passionate, rigorous approach to discussing food. 

In his biweekly Mel magazine column “Eat Your Heart Out,” Kim asks his interview subjects to talk about a dish that represents their lives. “This ends up turning into a conversation about family, about immigrants, about mental health challenges,” Kim said. “It gets people to be just as vulnerable as any other kind of question.”

In a recent feature story, “The Spectacular Culinary World of Muslim Chinese Americans,” Kim reported not only on Uyghur Muslim restaurants in Southern California, but also the religious and political persecution the community is facing in China. He explored how they are using their restaurants both to maintain their own community and to share their community with others. 

“They’re stuck in America, and what they have is the food they make and the food they sell and the conversations they try to spark with the customers who come to their restaurants,” said Kim, who earned his BA in print and digital journalism in 2013. “That’s fascinating to me, because I grew up in a restaurant family — my Korean parents making Japanese food. They’re longing for home and feeling trapped while making these noodles or these stir-fries that are so essentially indicative of life back home.” 

Jenn Harris, a senior food writer with the Los Angeles Times, finds that focusing on food in L.A. often opens the door to writing about not only the intricacies of culture, but also the realities of hard-news topics.

“We’re trying to do more than just write, ‘This is delicious,’” said Harris, who earned a master’s in journalism in 2010. “For example, I just published a story on L.A.’s restaurant industry that developed into just how expensive owning a restaurant is here, with some restaurateurs telling me they can barely keep the lights on, and how they have to get a side hustle just to make payroll.

“That launched me into a deeper dive into why this is happening,” she added. “Why is it that your Caesar salad is going to be $32? Why do so many restaurants close?”

The answers are complicated, involving zoning, rent, gentrification, and immigration policy, among many other factors. “A fear of mine is that, in 10 years, all you’ll see are chain restaurants,” she said. “The little guys are not going to be able to afford to function anymore.

“We’re trying to spotlight issues like that, but we could always be doing more,” Harris said.

Kevin Pang, who earned his bachelor of arts in journalism in 2003, is also seeing the food-journalism landscape shift. “Twenty years ago, food writing was dominated by ‘lifestyle-y’ writers,” he said. “Now, a lot of outlets are doing substantive work. Food writing is no longer just about how to cook quinoa and the seasonality of corn: There’s writing about gender identity, LGBT issues, restaurant workers’ compensation issues.”

He says he sort of “fell backwards” into food writing while at the Chicago Tribune, where he started his food journalism career in 2004. “I’ve come to the realization that the tenets of journalism apply just as much to covering food as to covering the courts,” he said. “Accuracy, good reporting, understanding narrative structure and storytelling, even how to file a FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] request — all things I learned at Annenberg.”

After almost a decade at the Chicago Tribune, Pang co-founded the Onion’s food section The Takeout, and was editor-in-chief there for two years. A five-time James Beard nominee, he won the award in 2010 for his video series The Cheeseburger Show.

The most interesting part about food writing for Pang is how much he’s learned about Chicago by covering its food scene. “When you write about a city’s food, you’re writing about its people,” he said. “More than music, more than architecture, more than visual art — the food of a city explains more about that city’s ethos and people than any other medium.”

Driving social change through food

Kun says there’s been a kind of “waking up” over the past five years to the centrality of food, both as an academic pursuit and as a tool for social and cultural analysis.

“At the same time L.A. is blowing up as a food city, it is also blowing up as a city of tremendous food insecurity and food segregation,” he said. “How do we reconcile the love and the joy and the passion that people have for celebrating food with the lack of attention for hunger and food insecurity?”

In 2017, Kun’s growing engagement with food issues led him to co-found the Southern California Foodways Project, an organization of scholars, journalists, chefs, farmers, and policy experts dedicated to exploring the history, industry and politics of food in Southern California.

Other USC Annenberg scholars have devoted their research to exploring food in Los Angeles. Garrett Broad joined USC Annenberg’s communication doctoral program in 2008 to investigate issues of social justice within the food system. “Food is this really valuable entry point into understanding culture, society, power and inequality,” Broad said.

For his first major research project, he worked with a nonprofit in South Los Angeles called Community Services Unlimited (CSU). The organization was founded by the Southern California chapter of the Black Panther Party in 1977 as part of its “survival programs.” Broad spent years researching and volunteering with CSU, learning how their mini-urban farms, fresh produce marketplaces, and nutritional education programs engaged their community through food. More importantly, he learned how lessons that came out of those models could drive social change. That work became the basis of Broad’s first book, More Than Just Food: Food Justice and Community Change (University of California Press, 2016).

“I like to talk about what I see as a paradox of abundance and injustice,” said Broad, who earned his PhD in 2013 and is now a professor of communication at Fordham University in New York City. According to Broad, the amount and variety of food available across the United States, and particularly in California, is wondrous — but not everyone has access to it.  “That abundance has come at the expense of some major tradeoffs that are really concerning,” Broad said, pointing to environmental concerns, exploitation of workers throughout the food system, and the scarcity of healthy food in low-income communities.

Two other USC Annenberg researchers have taken a direct approach to handling the food scarcity issue in underserved communities. Peter Clarke, professor of communication, and Susan Evans, research scientist, have been looking into this issue since the early ’90s. They co-direct From the Wholesaler to the Hungry, a project that has launched more than 150 new programs that bring fresh produce to low-income Americans. Over the course of their research, they learned that while families are now better able to obtain fresh produce, if they don’t know how to cook it, it often goes to waste.

In 2013, they created an app, VeggieBook, filled with recipes and food-use ideas designed to help their low-income clients prepare vegetables in appealing ways. The app has been certified as an effective obesity-prevention intervention by a national consortium of public health agencies.

“Increasing food justice requires helping household cooks discover how to prepare healthy meals, as well as increasing their access to nutritious foods in markets and neighborhood food pantries,” Evans said. “We built the VeggieBook app to boost users’ kitchen skills and engage children as well as their parents in food choices. Our results demonstrate how powerfully food habits can change with assistance from digital tools.”

While Clarke and Evans’ work is focused outside of campus, over the past few years, the USC community has begun to address the fact that some of its own students struggle with food insecurity. The USC Annenberg Agency — a faculty-directed, student-staffed advertising agency founded by a USC Annenberg parent donor in Spring 2019 — took on the issues of food insecurity and housing insecurity among students as its first project.

The agency is structured as a directed-research course taught by Freddy Tran Nager, entrepreneurial communication expert in residence. Students spoke with housing-insecure students, interviewed administrators and staff who are working on the homelessness initiative, and met with local churches that provide services. They also learned about the USC Food Pantry, a virtual food pantry USC launched in 2017 for students who were going hungry.

“One of the things that we discovered through our research was that a lot of students who are food-insecure are our graduate students,” Nager said. “Undergraduates get a food plan and they get housing support — but a lot of the graduate students come to Los Angeles and underestimate costs to live here.” 

Building upon this research, the class came up with a plan for a campaign that details the resources available to help students in need. This year, the agency’s 14 graduate students have begun to roll out their campaign, which began with a Homelessness Awareness Week in November.

One of the goals of that week, Nager said, was to reduce the stigma associated with needing help. 

“I think this is part of a broader movement,” he said. “I think there’s greater understanding now of the myriad of problems in our society, which wealth inequality has brought to the forefront. We’re starting to build that awareness: If there’s food injustice, institutions have to adapt to that.”

Telling the story of food

For undergraduate and graduate students interested in communicating about substantive food issues, USC Annenberg faculty have developed several courses that can start them on that journey. One popular course, “Lifestyle PR: Food, Fashion & Fun!” initially grew out of the lifestyle PR specialization in the strategic public relations master’s program.

“Students don’t only want to do the celebrity angle when it comes to food,” said Jennifer Floto, professor of professional practice and co-director of the program. “They really want to know more about the problems out there, and how they might get involved with solving them.”

One-third of the course is devoted to food PR; Floto starts that section with an overview of the food and beverage industry before focusing in on specific areas of food and beverage PR (conglomerates, celebrity chefs, etc.). From the outset, the course has focused on not only how to craft messaging, but how to use that messaging to engage with a public that has meaningful concerns about food — including responsible sourcing of ingredients, sustainability and fair labor practices.

“The biggest thing students want to know about is the issues,” Floto said. “Most of them are Millennials or Gen Z — they want to save the planet.”

Floto adds that companies are realizing they can’t hide anymore when it comes to food justice because their consumers are more concerned about these issues than ever before. And students who learn to engage with those issues in a responsible way, Floto said, become sought-after hires after graduation. 

Samantha Wan, who earned her master’s degree in strategic public relations in 2012, has returned to the “Food, Fashion & Fun!” class several times as a guest speaker. On her most recent visit this Fall, Wan, who joined Barton G. Hospitality earlier this year as vice president of public relations and digital media, shared that chefs and restaurant owners are recognizing that today’s consumers are interested in the food experience, not just the food itself.

Wan said issues of sustainability and social justice are more relevant now than ever. “Consumers are educating themselves on sustainability and sourcing and want to know where their food is coming from,” she said. “They are willing to pay premiums for food sourced responsibly. Restaurants are taking it upon themselves to be transparent. Many of them are working on methods that will show customers who, when, and where a fish is caught, or a vegetable is harvested.”

When it comes to training the next generation of journalists who will be covering those restaurants, USC Annenberg strives to balance theory and practice. Sasha Anawalt’s “Food Culture Journalism” graduate course offers guest lectures from food journalists working at the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The New Yorker, to name a few. Students in Anawalt’s class also have the opportunity to get out into the community to try the food. Each guest lecturer not only comes into the classroom to teach, but also leads a series of L.A. food tours. Their stops have included a cold-storage warehouse, a craft distillery and the largest panko factory in the U.S. 

On one of their tours, with Los Angeles Times staff writer Gustavo Arellano, they visited L.A.’s historic Olvera Street, starting from the venerable Cielito Lindo taco stand and finishing up at Las Anitas, a sit-down restaurant. All the while, Arellano helped put the street and its Mexican restaurants into both culinary and historical context.

Anawalt, professor of professional practice and the director of the specialized journalism (the arts) program, designed the course to make sure her students were bringing a critical eye to one of the world’s most vibrant and complex food cities — including asking big questions about food inequities and distribution.

“We need to be training our food journalists to do investigative reporting,” said Anawalt, who taught food writers Jenn Harris and Eddie Kim, among many others. “They need to be able to think about science, about population, about data, and really analyze it. They can use food as a lens to look at some of the major problems ahead so that they can get to be experts on it and — ideally, hopefully — effect positive change.”

The study of food journalism at USC Annenberg recently received a notable show of support. The Julia Child Foundation, established by the world-renowned chef, author and television personality in 1995 to support the culinary arts, has pledged support for a food journalism scholarship at USC Annenberg. Anawalt says the scholarship is a further sign of the school’s commitment to informed and rigorous food journalism.

Whether they’re helping a restaurant promote its use of sustainable ingredients, raising awareness of food insecurity on campus, writing articles about how food reflects and defines a city’s history and culture, or researching new models of sustainable and ethical food systems, USC Annenberg students, faculty and alumni are demonstrating that responsible storytelling about food must reach far beyond the boundaries of the plate. 

“I don’t think there’s a better place in the world to study food systems than California,” Garrett Broad said. “There’s this matrix of food systems and food culture, which is why you see a lot of great food writing and a lot of great food scholarship come out of Southern California.”