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For most of my career, I sought out mentors who were older than I was. They had expertise, experience, etc., I figured—they knew what to do.
But over the last few years, I find myself seeking out mentors who are younger than me. They are the future, and they have clarity in their convictions and passion in their advocacy that I deeply respect. Generation Z, people born between 1997–2012, are the most diverse cohort in U.S. history. They know that our old patterns simply don’t work anymore.
This is why I felt so invigorated after the Niman Ranch Hog Farmer Appreciation Celebration last weekend. We were able to celebrate more than 700 family farmers who understand that our food system needs to change—and they are working with Niman Ranch to do better by animals, better by people, and better by the environment.
We were able to hear from so many great speakers, including the ethnographer June Jo Lee and the award-winning New York Times food writer Kim Severson. You can hear our full conversations here on the podcast Food Talk with Dani Nierenberg, which I hope you’ll subscribe to by clicking here.
Lee, who studies Gen Z culture, pointed out that young people want more connection—a more caring approach to a rapidly changing world and deteriorating climate—and food is at the center of it all.
“They have a very creative and fluid approach to their identities as well as what they eat, so I think it’s constantly changing,” she told me at the Niman event. “They are trying to engage with the larger system through their food choices and discoveries.”
This search for connection also speaks to how Gen Z, as Severson put it, is “leading the way on labor, and treating people like humans, and realizing that happy people make better-tasting food.” Gen Z consumers tend to care more about the person who grows their food than the words on labels, and they’re more savvy of the gimmicks marketers use. “People really want to get their one thing from the small place, and I think the mega grocery stores [are] going away, at least some of them,” Severson said.
Lee is also the founder of children’s book company Readers to Eaters, which helps teach kids about food systems and food literacy. She noted that Gen Z’s instant access to information speaks to the ways they value transparency and diversity of experience.
“They’re eating culture,” she said. “In order to discover, journey, and share—food is often the centerpiece of learning.”
And one more thing—I’m sure you’ve all seen plenty of headlines floating around about the great resignation, or a restaurant labor shortage, or commentators bemoaning that kids ‘just don’t want to work anymore’ or are demanding too much money.
That’s the wrong way to look at it, Severson told us. Gen Z is more than willing to work in hospitality, including for a little less money, if they believe in the cause and are treated right. But they’re not afraid to jump ship when companies discriminate, harass, or underpay their workers.
“Folks are willing to walk away in ways they weren’t before,” Severson said, “so make sure your brand is good and be nice to people, and don’t exploit people, and don’t be a racist, sexist idiot, and then you’ll have a successful business.”
I want to thank the entire Niman Ranch team for helping put this amazing event together and for their commitment to raising animals that are treated well throughout their lives. Allowing pigs to perform their natural behaviors. Raising them outside. Letting them be pigs. I have so much respect for Paul Willis, the founding Niman farmer, who made a commitment to making sure animals are treated well, because it’s good for the environment and it’s good for how we eat.
I hope you will watch the event on YouTube by clicking here. During our conversation, June Jo Lee talked about the power of listening and learning from young people. This is what I’m trying to do, and I hope you’ll join me. What are you hearing from Gen Z folks in your own life? What’s giving you hope about the future of food? Share the stories with me at email@example.com.
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