The Kids Eat Alright: Millennial Perception of the U.S. Food System

After a winter of snow and sleet that was followed by a cold spring, warm summer weather has finally arrived here in the Pioneer Valley. With summer comes the joy of local farmers’ markets, Hadley grass (that is, asparagus), leafy greens, early tomatoes, and CSAs — along with more local produce finding its way onto the shelves of our food co-ops, Whole Foods Market, and regional grocery chains. Where we live, the options for wholesome, local, organic, and even biodynamic foods are abundant. The food system here is vibrant, healthy, and downright excellent.

Our championing of this type of food system isn’t unique to our area. Pure Branding’s market research data shows a profound shift in American consumers’ attitudes about the food system.

For years, we’ve asked respondents in our market research studies to weigh in on how they would best describe the U.S. food system. They get to choose from a range of options, ranging from “excellent” at best, to “extremely corrupt and harmful” at worst. This is an important question for our clients and our own research because it provides insight into how key segments relate to food. Starting last year, we began to notice a new trend emerging: there is a growing group of millennials who rank the food system as excellent.

Not to put all millennials into the same boat (see my recent article for more on that), but in our recent transparency study (coming soon), we saw that millennials who shop natural channels and are big on transparency also rate the food system as good to excellent. This surprised us at first because we’ve seen in the past that the more natural channel-aligned the person, the more likely they are to think of the food system as very flawed.

So what gives?

The plethora of food options I described earlier is not unique to our valley. Across the country, on the coasts, in thriving urban centers, in small university towns, in high income suburban regions – “natural” foods grown with a consciousness that celebrates sustainability and regeneration have been part of the landscape for decades now. For millennials who grew up in these areas, none of this is new. It’s the norm.

For them, when you say food system, they don’t automatically think in terms of sugar-laden, processed foods sprayed with chemicals. They are aware of the negative agricultural and manufacturing processes, but for them that’s just one option. The food system that’s been a part of their entire lives is often the physical embodiment of what many of us in the natural foods movement have been trying to make real.

It’s no longer the case that we need to create a new food movement; that wave is already in motion.

What does that mean for natural brands?

Step on the gas

Well, first off, it does not mean stepping off the gas when demonizing monocrops, Monsanto and Roundup, soil erosion, global warming, and highly-processed, sugar-enhanced foods that contribute to excess obesity and ill-health in this country. That is still the way most of our foods are grown and prepared. And it is the antithesis of what so many natural product companies stand for. Continue to champion the alternative and combat the dangers of the Standard American Diet. It will resonate with millennials (and other “new” food system believers).

Recognize the shift in definitions

Brand dialogue has to shift to recognize that definitions are changing. We need to be specific when talking about “the corrupt and harmful food system” because your customer’s immediate impression may not be what you think it is. They may look at you and wonder what planet you’re from — even though you are both on the same side.

A brand embracing the new, more holistic, and regenerative food system that incorporates biodiversity, social justice, and soil depletion reversal can also be the brand that calls out big agriculture. But no longer is it good enough to say, “The food system is corrupt.” You need to identify specifically what it is you are supporting and what you are against if you want to communicate successfully with your target consumers.

Give teeth to your value proposition

There is one more thing — what if this new food system were to go away? Would your customers accept that? The millennial generation has grown up in a world where many great things are free: music, entertainment, news. Yes, there is often some payment required, but if they’re able to avoid paying for it, they usually do.

Food is something that they have always paid for. And as the food system has improved in small measure and organics have grown, they haven’t experienced any sacrifice to get there. Now, I’m not calling for sacrifice, but rather, greater awareness of what it takes to provide this quality. Would they stand still if it were taken away? How much more are they willing to pay for a whole food supplement whose ingredients are grown by family farms with regenerative techniques?

It costs more to treat workers fairly and to care for the land by investing in its future health than it does to work within a conventional system, one that is propped up by subsidies to keep prices down and a focus on gross distribution over nutrition. Now is the time to make the case for a better system, rather than having people take it for granted.

And from what I’ve seen, people will respond favorably.