Meet Naomi Starkman of Civil Eats

by Leslie Hatfield

Published: 8/15/14, Last updated: 5/29/19

Naomi Starkman is a food policy consultant, a founding board member and strategic advisor to the Food and Environmental Reporting Network (FERN) and the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the James Beard Award-winning blog, Civil Eats. She is also a prolific Tweeter of up-to-the-moment food issue news and a behind-the-scenes organizer of many successful campaigns and events for safe, sustainable food systems. Starkman is also a very good sport — I once jokingly called her the Karl Rove of the good food movement (we’ve been friends for years) and she took it as I meant it, as a compliment. She is not as well known as Michael Pollan or Alice Waters, but is one of the people from whom such acolytes seek advice — her work is in making things happen, from just beyond the edge of the spotlight — and she likes it that way.

One of her biggest projects, Civil Eats, is a great example of her timing and organizing skills. Since its inception, it has been a natural gathering place for those who would seek to better our food systems, and it has withstood the test of time (at five, it is really quite ancient in “blog years”) in an era when other outlets have struggled to stay afloat. It hasn’t all been a walk in the park — Starkman has never been paid for her work on Civil Eats, but last fall, she and her colleagues there scored a major funding coup (to the tune of $100,000) through a photo finish of a Kickstarter campaign. Then in April, she and co-founder Paula Crossfield won the coveted title of James Beard’s Publication of the Year.

I spoke recently with Starkman about the James Beard win, the future of online media and the heroes who keep her inspired.

First off, congratulations on your James Beard Award. I know that Civil Eats was a long-time labor of love, and kind of a scrappy operation, at least up until you managed to get it funded (which we’ll get to in a minute). How does it feel to be recognized by the Oscars of the food writing world?

Thank you so much. It’s an incredible honor to receive this award. We feel it acknowledges the spirit and soul of the collective work of our edgy, funky, (yes, “scrappy”!) blog and we’re so grateful to the James Beard Foundation and the Journalism Committee for this remarkable recognition amongst our esteemed peers. It is especially meaningful that the Foundation chose to elevate sustainability in food journalism and is placing high value on our unique vision of food reporting through a wider lens. This award proves that content-driven, in-depth dialogue on food systems issues matters.

Tell us how Civil Eats came to be.

Six years ago, I was brought on to head up communications for Slow Food Nation (SFN), an event that was considered by many to be a watershed moment in the food movement. While crafting the SFN website, we placed a blog front and center, in order to garner more discussion and interest in the event. And it worked. By inviting and curating voices from across the food movement, we attracted nearly one million unique visitors to the site in just a few months. The event was attended by upwards of 80,000 people and included a victory garden in front of San Francisco’s City Hall, a marketplace and multiple discussion panels including luminaries such as Michael Pollan, Eric Schlosser, Wes Jackson, Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters. It planted a seed that has grown into today’s food movement, a full-fledged garden. When the event ended, a few of us decided to keep the momentum going, including former Managing Editor/Editor-at-Large Paula Crossfield. Thus sprang Civil Eats, which has produced thousands of stories by hundreds of contributors since 2009.

It kind of emerged during a hot time for food issue blogging — what set it apart from other blogs?

Civil Eats is totally unique in the food movement and there’s a reason why Michael Pollan has called us “the best online food politics magazine” and urged people to support our recently successful Kickstarter as “one of the most important thing you can do” to support the food movement. For five years, we have provided an outlet for those working on the front lines to change the food system. Our model — a “community supported blog” — has served as the voice of the food movement and provided a platform and space to grow dialogue on important food systems issues. Since 2009, we’ve provided a space for a huge range of contributors to write about the very issues people care most about. From sustainable agricultural practices, food justice and nutrition, to state and federal policy, we’ve followed some of the most important food and ag stories of our time. We’ve provided a steady stream of reporting and analysis, including interviews with seasoned voices like Mark Bittman, Joan Gussow, Marion Nestle, Michael Pollan, Raj Patel, Anna Lappé and Patrick Holden and many other lesser-known, but equally important actors in the movement. We’ve also profiled hundreds of innovative food and ag nonprofits and have lead the conversation by publishing stories that have then been re-reported elsewhere. We try and tell the “good news” about the food system as often as possible in order to inspire and activate people for change.

The media industry has changed so much over the past 10-15 years. As a long-time veteran of the news industry, how has all of that industry upset changed the way you approach your work?

I think we’re at a critical moment in news reporting. Interactive, niche, online journalism will dictate the future, I believe. I’m seeing old-school publications having to break tradition and create more online content culling from multiple sources (like Civil Eats). The only way legacy publications will survive is by striving to meet their audience’s consumption patterns and demands (rather than trying to set their own terms). Whether anyone will ever make a living from journalism is largely dependent on whether we, as a society, value it and are willing to pay for it.

Last fall, you managed to earn $100k through Kickstarter to keep Civil Eats alive. I’m sure a lot of people have asked you this, but how did you do it? And is the future of journalism in crowdsourced funding?

Blood, sweat and tears! Seriously, it was a huge undertaking, but we did it with the help and support of our many followers who believe in us and wanted us to succeed. We had so many good food businesses donate to our giveaways from Stonyfield to Organic Valley to Good Eggs and BiRite Market in San Francisco. We also had an army of chefs who stood up for us: Alice Waters, José Andrés, Deborah Madison, Tom Colicchio, Samin Nosrat, Lowell Sheldon and other folks in the fooderati: Ruth Reichl, Mark Bittman, Michael Pollan, Marion Nestle and Anna Lappé. And, when it came down to it, it was a massive online effort by every single person who believes in the power of storytelling; it was a chorus of voices rising to save our ship! It’s allowed us to bring on a new managing editor, Twilight Greenaway, who’s doing an incredible job, and begin to pay our writers. We are enormously gratified that our community supported us to get here. Having raised the most money of any daily news source of any beat, I would say crowdsourcing is definitely on the horizon for a lot of journalism projects.

Who are your heroes?

Farmers, the folks on the frontlines of food, from the incredible collective work of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers to my own farming mentors, Jack Algiere at Stone Barns, Linda Halley at Fairview Gardens, Sue Ujcic at Helsing Junction Farm and so many other teachers. And it’s the people changing the world to make it the place in which we want to live by changing the food system, seed by seed. To be able to share their stories is an honor.

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