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, 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.

Earlier this year, she rolled out a paywall to raise money to pay the writers. The $25 annual subscription fee allows them to report on companies without turning to advertising or having any conflicts of interest, Starkman said in a blog post. Nearly 700 people have subscribed to Civil Eats, backed by the Sustainable Markets Foundation.

She also launched partnerships this year with Mother Jones and Yahoo Food, which have been helping to bring more eyeballs to Civil Eats.

“The efforts that she’s been making to bring insightful, accurate information to people through Civil Eats is pretty important. As you know, there’s a huge interest in agriculture but it’s pretty complicated,” said Judith Redmond, co-owner of Full Belly Farm, a certified organic, community-supported agricultural project in the Yolo County town of Guinda.

“If people want to get accurate and fair reporting, they’re not just going to get that by Google,” she added.

Civil Eats isn’t an advocacy group, Starkman said while recently visiting the Ceres Community Project garden, a facility in Sebastopol she’s written about numerous times for the website. Starkman said she’s an “agent of truth,” hoping to bring change to the food system by educating the masses.

“We need a real regulatory framework that protects consumers, and not just business interests. And we need policies that support farming practices that will help make healthy food affordable and accessible to all,” she said.

She didn’t grow up on a farm, but she has long been drawn to country living.

Starkman grew up in the Walnut Creek area. With nothing more than a rock garden at home, Starkman was inspired by the pomegranate and walnut trees that surrounded the area.

She studied international relations and German at San Francisco State before heading to law school at Santa Clara University. While she was living in San Francisco, her landlord gave her permission to garden out back in her yard. Her love for plants continued to grow over the years.

One-way ticket to Istanbul

After graduating from law school, she went to work for the city of San Francisco’s Ethics Commission, where she tackled public policy. She was named deputy director at the age of 27. Three years later, she quit her job and bought a one-way ticket to Istanbul.

“Every time I’ve ever taken a risk, I’ve been rewarded,” Starkman said.

She traveled for a year, staying in Greece, Portugal and Germany before returning to the United States and settling in New York City. That’s where she burst into the media scene, something she first became interested in while working closely with the press during her time with San Francisco’s Ethics Commission.

After a short gig working with an AIDS research organization in New York, she went to work for Newsweek’s corporate communications department in 2003. She then was introduced to someone with the New Yorker. The magazine hired her to help with the annual New Yorker Festival, where she met famous chefs like Waters and Peter Hoffman who, Starkman said, have been key in changing the way people eat.

She also credited the chefs for setting her on an entirely different course - one that involved more vegetables and fruits. Starkman flew to Costa Rica to work on organic farms.

Starkman eventually returned to New York City. She never gave up farming, though. Once a week, she would load her bike onto a train and head north to volunteer at a farm in Tarrytown, N.Y.

“I loved New York, but my soul wasn’t being fed,” she said.

In 2006, a year after returning to the city, she decided to leave and head for Washington state. She went to work on a 50-acre organic farm in Rochester run by Susan Ujcic, a woman she met while on a boat headed to Nicaragua.

At Helsing Junction Farm, Starkman tackled administrative duties, planted vegetables and went out with the harvest crew when they were ready to pick. Working on a farm helped Starkman with her reporting, Ujcic said.

“There’s no way you can really understand what food really means unless you experience that,” Ujcic said. “She’s really visionary about getting the stories about ag and food.”

And that’s helped organic farmers like herself, said Ujcic, who considers Starkman a soldier in the slow food movement.

“She’s done a great job helping tell the stories. That’s been invaluable,” Ujcic said.

Her skills at storytelling helped Starkman beat out more than 100 other U.S. applicants to win a John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford, which she starts in September. Two dozen journalists, including eight from abroad, were selected for the program. Fellows receive a $65,000 stipend and can take advantage of the classes and other activities at Stanford.

Starkman said she will use the fellowship to find ways to make online publications, like Civil Eats, more accessible and help them survive as the media landscape rapidly changes.

She already has attracted a coveted audience - more than half of Civil Eats’ readers are between the ages of 26 and 35. Nearly three-quarters are women. But finding a way to pay for the business has been challenging.

“I wish I had been able to devise an incredible business plan for Civil Eats, (but) I’m not a business person. I’m a thinker, editor and a writer,” said Starkman, who will continue to run the blog during her fellowship.

Stanford will be a fitting place to look at how technology can help rebuild the food system. It’s next door to the Salinas Valley, nicknamed the Salad Bowl of the World for its cultivation of lettuce, peppers and other crops.

An online ‘town square’

Starkman has played a critical role in advancing public understanding of the food system, said Michael R. Dimock, president of Oakland-based Roots of Change, an organization advocating for a more equitable and sustainable food system. He said the site serves as a “town square” of sorts where people come to discuss the latest in food policies.

Starkman continues to bring readers deeper stories that often reveal the weakness of the industrial food system, he added.

“That system is falling because it has so many weakness. Look at what’s happening with McDonald’s. It’s getting its lunch eaten by Chipotle, which has aligned with the food movement,” contended Dimock, who lives in Santa Rosa.

He said Starkman also is providing stories about the positive work people are doing around the country to shift the way they eat.

“They’re really good at digging out the stories of what the challenges are, but most importantly, what the progress is. They give great examples of how this new food system that people want to see is actually emerging,” Dimock said.

He pointed to a series of stories Starkman has written about the Ceres Community Project, which grows organic vegetables and turns them into wholesome, nourishing meals for people facing serious illnesses.

Starkman hopes these kinds of stories will inspire people to make changes in their communities and their bellies. She said more people are craving information about where their food comes from, although corporations aren’t always inclined to share it.

“The tension exists because there are people who want to know about their food,” Starkman said. “That’s the power of media - to expose the underbelly of a system that doesn’t want you to see how the sausage is made.”

You can reach Staff Writer Eloísa Ruano González at 521-5458 or On Twitter @eloisanews.

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