Petaluma-area woman drives debate over food
Naomi Starkman may not yet be a household name, but she has become one of the most influential voices in the nation on food.
The Petaluma-area woman runs Civil Eats, a news site aimed at encouraging Americans to think critically about sustainable agriculture and their food system. It’s not a career path she originally intended to pursue. But it is taking the lawyer-turned-farmer-turned-?journalist to Stanford University, where she won a prestigious fellowship to study how to make food policy news part of Americans’ daily diet.
“I would love to live in a world where good, clean and fair food is a right and not just a privilege,” said Starkman, 45.
Her website, at CivilEats.com, already has become a respected news source, drawing 350,000 page views a month - and 62,000 followers on Twitter - with stories on everything from federal agricultural polices and school lunches to ethically raised meat and modern root cellars. It was named publication of the year in 2014 by the James Beard Foundation, a nonprofit organization that promotes culinary culture.
Michael Pollan, author of “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and other books that have brought attention to what we eat and how it is produced, describes the site as “one of the few must-reads” and “an essential medium for staying abreast of food politics.”
“Naomi Starkman is one of the most influential yet least well-known people in the food movement,” Pollan said in an email. “I’ve always been struck by (her) deep knowledge of the issues combined with a striking media savvy.”
Starkman, who moved to Sonoma County in 2009 and now lives in a rural area outside Petaluma, has taken on stories about the use of antibiotics on healthy animals and pushed for public disclosure of what foods have been genetically modified before the controversial issues exploded in the mainstream.
A self-proclaimed news junkie, Starkman wakes up every morning at 6 a.m. and starts her day by checking news sites from all over the country. She works from home, editing stories and checking in on her writers from a standing desk in the kitchen, which overlooks her large organic garden.
“I’ll go out and weed when I’m on a call,” she said, adding she also likes to take walks on the country roads near her home after catching up on the day’s news.
In her garden, she grows all kinds of vegetables and herbs, including parsley, mint, lettuce, green beans and corn. Starkman, who is single, likes to cook simple meals at home and is known for her flavorful salads, which she likes to top with dried fruit and candied nuts.
“I love anything from the garden. I put a million different things from the garden into it,” she said.
Besides her garden, she likes to hit Oliver’s Market in Cotati and Sebastopol’s Community Market and farmers market for fresh and organic ingredients.
“So much of my day-to-day is a microcosm of the issues I’m covering,” she said. As an agrarian community, she added, “Sonoma County has provided an incredible backdrop.”
Started at Slow Food Nation
She founded Civil Eats in 2009 with writer Paula Crossfield to build on a blog she created the previous year for the Slow Food Nation conference. The event drew an estimated 50,000 people to San Francisco and became a pivotal moment for the “slow food” movement, which promotes local, healthy and sustainably produced food as a vehicle for social, political and environmental change.
Starkman calls the in-depth journalism a labor of love - something she and her 30 to 40?regular bloggers did without pay for the first four years.
The stories on her site go beyond the traditional food recalls covered in the mass media, she said. Civil Eats has looked at issues all over the country, such as how the use of sardines as bait for larger fish have contributed to their decline on the West Coast and how “bee hotels” are being built in the Midwest to provide habitat for wild bees.?It also looked at what a major fast-food chain could do to become more transparent as more people shift to farm-to-table options.
“We write a lot about alternatives to industrial animal agriculture, and those stories usually generate heated debate,” Starkman said. “People feel very strongly about it, from an animal welfare perspective, especially. Our goal is to try to identify not only what’s not working, but more importantly, what is.”
In 2013, she found support from Pollan and Berkeley chef Alice Waters, considered the mother of the slow food movement, when launching a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to pay her writers. In 30 days, she raised $100,000.
Starkman hired Twilight?Greenaway, who had written for the New York Times, NPR and the Guardian, as managing editor the following year.