How Food-Obsessed Millennials Shape the Future of Food

Are millennials obsessed with food? Millennial author Eve Turow Paul certainly thinks so.

“We are the first young generation ever to spend our discretionary income on food,” she says. “And it makes no practical sense—none—that we should be spending our money on something ephemeral when we can’t afford to get married, we can’t afford to buy houses, we can’t afford even just to pay rent.”

Curious, Turow Paul, a writer and millennial brand advisor, spent nearly four years interviewing leaders in the food world to figure out why the young people who make up the millennial generation (defined by some as having been born between 1982 and 2004) spend so much mental energy looking at photographs of other people’s lunch.

This past July, she self-published the culmination of all that work: 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. 

To be clear, Turow Paul notes that not all millennials are able to participate in the food movement—hunger and poverty are major problems in this generation. But for those that do, their obsession could have big implications for the direction of food culture and science.

I ran into Turow Paul at a food, agriculture, and health summit in California recently. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

So what made you decide to write a book?

I was getting my graduate degree in writing and realized that whenever there was a pause in class, everyone started talking about food. I’m very aware of the economic ramifications of the recession on our generation, and there I was in New York with a bunch of broke writers who are talking about the underground dinners they’re going to, that fabulous izakaya they went to.

A Prince Harry lookalike, Matthew Hicks, takes a selfie in front of a giant wedding cake at FOX's "I Wanna Marry Harry" Wedding Cake Ring Dive in 2014. Photograph by Amanda Edwards/WireImage

A Prince Harry lookalike, Matthew Hicks, takes a selfie in front of a giant wedding cake at FOX’s “I Wanna Marry Harry” Wedding Cake Ring Dive in 2014. Photograph by Amanda Edwards/WireImage

I just looked up and was like, ‘What the hell is going on? Why am I taking pictures of my lunch? Why do I want to look at pictures of other people’s lunch? What about that is satisfying?’ I [wanted] to understand the human behavior of it. And then I spent four years interviewing people and digging into the research.

Has the technology been driving this food obsession, or does the food obsession drive the technology that then lets us obsess more?

I think it’s a little bit chicken and egg. I do think our obsession with food, at its core, [comes from] our connection with technology, and then we use the technology to further our obsession. But I do think the technology is the start of it, [because] for the first time [since it’s been studied] young people and teens are spending more on food than on clothing.

Eve Turow Paul

Eve Turow Paul

The clearest connection across nations—because this is not a national trend [but] a generational trend—is our connection to technology. So you’re seeing this drive toward food in pretty much any developed city around the world. [When my book came out] I got calls from Spain, Australia, China, India, Canada—all these people saying this is happening here too.

What kind of millennial fits into this category and what millennial doesn’t really has to do with how much of your life is run in a digital space—how much time you’re spending in front of screens, how much you rely on these technologies.

Which interview was the most fun for you?

Either Anthony Bourdain or Michael Pollan. Anthony Bourdain is a celebrity in my mind, like Justin Timberlake.

And then Michael Pollan just has so much knowledge and is such an expert in his field. I was able to ask him questions that were nagging me, about whether this is a generation that will take more critical political and food policy action.

I think food waste is going to be the biggest topic of 2016 … because it can become part of a person’s brand. You can tweet about it; you can take a Pinterest recipe for cauliflower stems or carrot tops or fish bones and make that cool in some way.

You’ve talked about how we’ve evolved this food obsession. What’s that next step of the evolution?

I don’t really know. I do think that policy is going to be a big part of it. I think people are [asking], Where did my food come from? Was it raised with antibiotics or pesticides or herbicides?

Gen Yum cover smallAnd I really do think—I’m hoping—that regional cooking is going to come back. Because there are so many amazing fruits and vegetables and grains that grow in only certain regions in the U.S., and we’ve developed this culture of expecting a pineapple in Chicago in January … [or where] the only fish we really want are tuna and salmon and halibut. And we’re limiting ourselves so much by narrowing those choices down instead of looking at what’s swimming in the lake a mile down the road.

What do you wish that this generation knew more about food?

I hope millennials start to get a better understanding of the role food plays within our environment. A lot of what we talked about at this conference was soil and carbon. The idea that we could be using farming as a way to address climate change instead of just considering it the culprit is going to be essential.

I wish businesses were more transparent about the progress being made in food. I think GMOs are a great example: When something is shrouded in secrecy, we just don’t want it. When we don’t understand it, when you’re not being clear with us, we would rather avoid it.

But there’s a lot of really awesome opportunity with GMOs, and we’ve been eating GMOs for a long time. I don’t want the potential progress that could be made with GMOs—especially in [developing] nations—[to] be stifled because foodies suddenly think that GMOs are bad without actually educating themselves about that. Again, that’s not entirely on us as a generation; it’s also on companies that need to be more transparent.

Do you consider yourself a foodie?

I think “foodie” has become a dirty word, because I think a lot of people associate it with the superficiality of food, and [it’s] part of the reason I didn’t want to use the word foodie very much in the book. I call them Yummers, I call them part of Generation Yum, in order to avoid any bad connotation.

In the common sense of the word, I think I am a foodie. I’m constantly thinking about food, I’m passionate about the food system. I find deep satisfaction in having a great meal and sharing a great meal with friends and family. I think it’s one of the most beautiful pleasures of human life.

(For more on millennials and food, see How Millennials Drive the Digital Cooking Revolution.)

Rachel A. Becker is a science writer based in Sacramento, California. Follow her on Twitter.