The New American Food Culture


John Ikerd

Professor Emeritus of Agricultural Economics

University of Missouri


“Eating is a moral act,” as my friend Brother David Andrews, a fellow promoter of sustainable agriculture, is fond of saying.  Although we may not give it much thought, what we choose to eat is a reflection of our basic values and beliefs.  Eating makes a social statement – we eat with our family and our friends.  Eating makes a political statement – what we eat affects what other people will and won’t have to eat.  Eating makes a moral statement – what we eat affects how the earth is treated, and thus, reflects our personal ethics.  Whether we think about it or not, eating is a reflection of character.


For the most part, Americans want their food to be quick, convenient, and cheap – regardless of whether they buy it at a supermarket or a local fast-food franchise.  Americans like things that are fast and easy, requiring minimal personal or economic sacrifice.  Americans also value “looking good” and choose foods that “look good.”  Some are even willing to spend a lot of money for food that makes them “look good” – as when they eat in expensive restaurants.  The characteristics of America’s dominant food culture are cost, convenience, and appearance.


However, a new American food ethic is emerging to challenge these dominant values.  The rapid growth in demand for organic foods, averaging more than 20 percent per year for more than a decade, is but one among several indicators of a new food ethic.  Organic foods were neither cheaper nor more attractive than conventional food, nor were they more convenient to acquire.  The early organic consumers were more likely to be labeled “counter-cultural” than as “trend setters.”  Those who chose organic foods obviously were expressing a different food ethic. 


Farmers markets, community supported agriculture organizations (CSAs), and other means of direct food marketing have experienced growth rates similar to those for organic foods.  So, the new food ethic cannot be defined simply as an aversion to agricultural chemicals or genetic engineering.  The new American food ethic reflects a desire to build relationships with farmers, and through farmers, with the earth.  Certainly, some organic consumers are concerned mainly, if not exclusively, with their own physical well-being.  But, many others buy organic foods because the philosophical roots of organics are in stewardship and community, in caring for the earth and its people.  Most who buy food at farmers markets, CSAs, etc., seek out farmers who share this new and different American food ethic, regardless of whether their products are certified as organic.


The new food culture might seem insignificant, if we look only at sales of “alternative food products” – including, organic, natural, pesticide free, hormone and antibiotic free, free range, grass-fed, etc.  Sales of such products probably amount to less than one percent of total food sales – not including foods labeled natural, light, healthy, etc., that are no different in substance from conventional foods.


But, a growing number of Americans are expressing doubts and outright dissatisfaction with the current American food system.  And, their dissatisfaction is not with cost, convenience, or appearance.  They simply don’t trust the corporate food manufacturers and distributors, or the government, to ensure the safety and nutritional value of their food.  And they certainly don’t trust the corporations or government to promote stewardship of land and or the well-being of ordinary people.  These Americans are searching for foods that will reflect a different set of ethical values – not just in the food itself, but in how their food is produced and who benefits and suffers as a consequence of its production.


This new food culture is but one dimension of a whole new American culture.  In their new book, The Cultural Creatives, Paul Ray and Sherry Anderson provide compelling evidence that some fifty million Americans are now leading the way in creating this new American culture.  The authors identify three distinct groups within American society, based on some 100,000 responses to surveys concerning basic values and lifestyles, supplemented by numerous focus groups and personal interviews.


One group, identify as the “cultural creatives,” is growing rapidly, and while although still a minority, already makes up roughly one-quarter of the American adult population.  The dominant group, the “moderns,” makes up about half of American society.  However, only about half of this group is firmly committed to the dominant American culture of materialistic, economic self-interest.  About a quarter of those in the “moderns” group are too busy trying to get ahead or to make ends meet to think about what they believe.  Those in the remaining quarter actually feel alienated by modern society, it isn’t working for them, but they go along because they don’t see a viable alternative.  The final group, the “traditionalists,” makes up about a quarter of the adult population.  The authors describe the traditionalists as wanting the world to be “like it used to be but never was.”


The “core moderns,” although no larger in number than the “cultural creatives,” tend to define American culture because they are disproportionately in positions of economic and political power.  The values of the “moderns” are reflected in our apparent national obsession with material success – making money, getting ahead, looking good, and living an affluent lifestyle.  The “moderns” care about family, community, and have some concern for the natural environment, but they care far more about their individual material success.  The “traditionalists” have strong religious beliefs and hold traditional family values, but they are less concerned about the natural environment than either of the other groups.


The “cultural creatives” are distinguished from the other two by their strong beliefs in the value of personal relationships, within families, communities, and society as a whole, and by their concern for the integrity and sustainability of the natural environment.  They are associated with various movements, including social justice, environmental protection, civil rights, gender rights, and sustainable development.  They are less materialistic than either of the other groups and tend to be more spiritual – in the sense of believing in something higher, beyond self.


The values and lifestyles of the “cultural creatives” are completely consistent with the principles of “sustainable development” and “sustainable agriculture.”  They believe that quality of life results from equitably meeting the needs of the present while leaving equal or better opportunities for the future.  The sustainability movement arose from a growing realization that economic development alone does not increase overall quality of life, but instead, often leads to its degradation.  To be sustainable over time, development activities must be ecologically sound, economically viable, and socially responsible.  But equally important, balance and harmony among the ecological, economic, and social dimensions of life result in a higher quality of life.


Thankfully, the ranks of the “cultural creatives” include thousands of new American farmers.  These “cultural creating” farmers may call themselves organic, biodynamic, alternative, holistic, natural, ecological, practical, or nothing at all, however, they all fit under the “conceptual umbrella” of sustainable agriculture.  The sustainable agriculture movement is a small but critical part of the much larger movement that is creating a new American culture.


The sustainable agriculture movement emerged in response to growing concerns about the sustainability of our corporately controlled, industrial food system.  Independent food processors, distributors, and marketers now face the same kinds of challenges, and thus, have the same kinds of opportunities as independent family farmers.  Independent food marketers cannot expect to compete with the giant “global food chain clusters” of today – they have too little market power.  If there is to be a future for independent food processors, distributors, or marketers, they must join with sustainable farmers, working and living by a new code of ethics to meet the needs of the new American culture.


The Hartman Report – a respected survey of United States households – identified two consumer groups, the “true naturals” and “new green mainstream,” which already make up about twenty-eight percent of the population, as prime markets for sustainably produced foods.  These groups are very similar in attitudes and magnitude to Ray and Anderson’s “cultural creatives.”


Organizations such as the Chefs Collaborative, made up of chefs from up-scale restaurants throughout the country, are helping to create this new culture.  Their organizational principles include: “Sound food choices emphasizing locally grown, seasonally fresh, and whole or minimally processed ingredients.”  Their other principles are very much in harmony with the development and support of an ecologically sound and socially responsible food system.


The Slow Food movement is a worldwide organization of “food eaters.”  It is committed to promoting the diversity of local and regional quality food, produced and marketed in ways that guarantees farmers a fair price and protects the environment and the natural landscape.  Those in the movement have a clear understanding of the industrial food system and they realize that a return to local and regional food systems will be necessary for ecological and social sustainability.  Slow food is not an elitist gourmet movement, but instead, encourages “good, honest food at reasonable prices” and its appreciation and enjoyment to the fullest by all.


The “cultural creatives” didn’t exist forty years ago and perhaps accounted for five to ten percent of Americans a decade ago; today they account for a quarter or more of the total population, and they are still growing.  Farmers today are serving less than five percent of this “new American food market.”  Slowly but surely, a new American food system is being developed by a coalition of sustainable farmers, marketers, and like-minded eaters.  Together, these farmers, marketers, and citizen eaters are creating the new American food culture.



The Hartman Report: 1999.  Food and the Environment – A Consumer’s Perspective.


Ray, Paul and Sherry Anderson.  2000. The Cultural Creatives.  Three Rivers Press.  New York, NY.