This list is making the rounds this week. It features some remarkable food activists, including a couple I count as friends and colleagues. And it was developed with input from another colleague who is a champion of activism and reform at every level. And I don’t want what I’m about to say to diminish them or their work. They deserve every ounce of recognition they get. So, first, congratulations and thank you. You totally rock.
But the list? The list doesn’t do anyone any favors. Not the people on it. Not the food movement. Not women. Not mothers.
Titled “The 15 Most Important Moms in the Food Industry,” this list tells us: Influential women in the food industry are celebrated because they’re moms. But influential men in the food industry are celebrated because they’re, well, influential. Also: Some moms are more important than others. And celebrity moms are the most important of all.
The list was created by a style website called Elizabeth Street, which got the idea after reading an annual ranking published by the Daily Meal. That ranking, “America’s 50 Most Powerful People in Food,” isn’t a do-gooders’ list, but rather a list of influencers who “decide what and how you eat, whether you realize it or not.” So that includes Big Ag power brokers alongside restaurateurs and food reformers. Like any of these lists, you can’t view it as definitive, but it’s more thoughtful than most. And not one of the 50 people on the list is identified by parenting status.
Yet here’s what Elizabeth Street took away from the rankings:
“Who made Daily Meal’s top five? In order of appearance: Thomas Vilsack, the Secretary of the United States Department of Agriculture. Hugh Grant, the Chairman, President, and CEO of the infamous Monsanto Company. Doug McMillion, the President and CEO of Walmart. Michael R. Taylor, the Deputy Commissioner for Foods at the United States Food and Drug Administration. Finally, rounding off the quintet, we have one mom: Indra Nooyi, the Chairman and CEO of Pepsi.”
The italics are mine. In case you didn’t notice that last part. The “one mom.” Forget that Indra Nooyi is CEO of a major corporation. (I won’t comment on the fact that company is Pepsi.) Her main credential, apparently, is that she’s a mom. No mention of the dads also on that list.
The Elizabeth Street intro goes on to say:
“As you make your way down the male-dominated list, you’ll find the trend continues. Here at Elizabeth Street, as you can imagine, we found this underrepresentation of the mom sector a gross miscalculation. When it comes to America’s food, it’s not a man’s world with us women just living in it. The days of ‘The Donna Reed Show’ may be over, but in many cases its (sic) still moms who ultimately decide what makes it to the table when it comes to our families’ own microcosmic food.”
Look, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with celebrating moms, especially on a website dedicated to moms, as Elizabeth Street is. There are even several powerful and respected food and environment organizations that self-identify as mom-centric. I also realize that many women became food activists precisely because they became parents.
Yet the same goes for a lot of men. And how often do we hear about that? Can you imagine someone framing a man’s activism as part of “the dad sector”?
Nurturing and protecting children is a fierce motivator. And there’s no passion like a personal connection. But when companies like McDonald’s call moms “gatekeepers” and try to co-opt them as “mom quality correspondents,” you start to see why this reductivism is dangerous. It’s too easy for food manufacturers and marketers to ascribe a mother’s activism to emotion, to marginalize a woman’s concerns as the issue du jour, lasting only so long as her own kid is in diapers, in school, in sports, whatever. Language matters. Label a kid a “picky eater” or reduce a female activist to “mom,” and you diminish the complexity of who these people are.
We can do better.
What do you think? Are you with me? Or am I making much ado about nothing?