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FERN Is Changing Food

There is a shortage of food news, at least the kind that requires shoe leather, document searches and Freedom of Information Act requests. At a time when the American public is demanding more and better information about what they eat and drink, investigative reporting on food issues is dwindling — a casualty of the shrinking staffs at financially strapped newspapers and magazines.

It’s a crisis, says Samuel Fromartz, a former business editor with Reuters and author of “Organic Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew.” Important food and agriculture stories aren’t being told, he says, because the journalists who would have written those stories have lost their jobs.

The goal: fund more food news

As editor-in-chief of Food & Environment Reporting Network (FERN), Fromartz is working to build an alternative to old media — a nonprofit fund to support the work of journalists investigating food-related issues. With money from major funders such as The 11th Hour Project, The McKnight Foundation, Clarence E. Heller Charitable Foundation, Columbia Foundation, The David & Lucile Packard Foundation and The Nell Newman Foundation, during its first year of operation in 2011, FERN commissioned stories from seven journalists. The group continues to raise funds and is working on a second round of projects.

FERN Editorial Board

Editorial advisor Gilt Taste, former editor-in-chief Gourmet, author "Garlic and Sapphires" and producer of a film based on that food memoir.

Editor-at-large Newsweek/The Daily Beast, former editor-in-chief Wired.

Co-publisher Edible Brooklyn and Edible Manhattan, author "Eat Here: Homegrown Pleasures in a Global Supermarket," Worldwatch Institute fellow.

Freelance writer, author "Garbage Land: On the Secret Trail of Trash."

Freelance writer, co-author "Chew On This: Everything You Don't Want to Know About Fast Food."

Founder, West Gold Editorial and founding editor of Afar magazine.

“We aren’t reinventing the wheel,” Fromartz says. FERN is modeled after the groundbreaking nonprofit journalism organization ProPublica. FERN reaches out to reporters whose work is well-known to the group’s advisors and staff (see sidebar). “Stipends and expenses are worked out with the individual writer,” he says. “We’re not funding activists or involved in advocacy work.”

FERN posts the stories it supports on its website as well as partners with established print and online publications to give the work it supports the greatest possible exposure.

More funding means bigger stories

Partnering with FERN gave High Country News the additional resources staff writer Stephanie Paige Ogburn needed to report and write “Milk and Water Don’t Mix,” Nov. 28, 2011, one man’s successful campaign to hold the New Mexico dairy industry accountable for its dirty water, according to magazine publisher Paul Larmer.

“It allowed our writer to take more time to work on her story and gave us access to another editor [Susan West],” says Larmer. “We’re really happy with the result and with the working relationship.”

Fromartz is preaching to the choir when he appeals to environmental philanthropists for funding. “Certainly there is a lack of investigative journalism in this space, a lack of deep analysis on complex issues and a clear need for support,” says Sarah Bell, program manager for The 11th Hour Project of The Schmidt Family Foundation established by former Google CEO Eric Schmidt and his wife Wendy. Eleventh Hour is a longtime supporter of Grist, an online environmental news service, as well as an early supporter of FERN.

A recent 11th Hour-funded survey of 100 nonprofit food and environment advocacy organizations — The Good Food Movement — calls the lack of investigative journalism a “critical gap” in improving America’s food system. “We need investigative exposes, journalists to take on different slices of the issue. The story just isn’t out there,” according to the survey report.

The McKnight Foundation, for one, has committed $50,000 to FERN — enough, says program officer Aimee Witteman, to fund five investigative news stories. There is a void in food and environmental health investigative reporting at the same time there is a huge new appreciation for the importance of these issues.

“You think it might be a fad, but the interest is much broader than that,” says Witteman. People across the country are connecting food with health. “Moms and dads are concerned about their kids,” she says. “People are hungry for good food and good food information.”

A new interest in food safety reporting

Helena Bottemiller thought her fascination with food safety set her apart from her peers when she made the U.S. Food and Drug Administration the subject of her senior thesis at Claremont McKenna College. But it was the key to her future. She arrived in Washington, D.C. in 2009 with a job as a reporter with Food Safety News, an online news service founded and supported by Marler Clark, a law firm representing victims of food-borne illness.

Bottemiller has worked in overdrive ever since. “The news is never-ending, no lulls,” she says. First lady Michelle Obama elevated food issues the day she entered the White House with her “Let’s Move” campaign to fight childhood obesity. Last year, President Obama signed the Food Safety Modernization Act, a sweeping update of the nation’s food safety laws.

When FERN tapped her on the shoulder last year and gave her the financial support she needed to step off of the news treadmill for six weeks to report a story, it was a career-changer. “FERN mentored me,” says Bottemiller. The result was “Dispute Over Drug in Feed Limiting U.S. Meat Exports,” an expose on a controversial growth-inducing drug administered to pigs before slaughter. The story appeared on MSNBC’s Bottom Line on Jan. 25, 2012.

“FERN is one of the most exciting ag-media start-ups I’ve come across in many years,” says Bob Scowcroft, a longtime organic farming activist now working with the Nell Newman Foundation and on the advisory board to FERN. “There are so many stories in just the Farm Bill that require dedicated, thick-skinned reporters to cover. And they have the framework, the advisory board and the funds to kick it off.”

Bottemiller now finds herself on the forefront of a national food movement. Every day she fields calls and emails from people her age eager to get involved with food, who follow the issues and want to learn more about the food system. “There has been a shift,” she says. “Interest is growing.”

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food writer at work on a book about climate change and wine.

Photo: We need more food news in our newspapers. Credit: Mike Bentley /

Corie Brown, the co-founder and general manager of Zester Daily, is an award-winning food and wine writer. "Start Your Own Microbrewery, Distillery, or Cidery," a book she wrote with reporting from Zester Daily's network of contributors, was released by Entrepreneur Books in June 2015.