Millennials Don’t Want Your Fancy Food Packaging — They Just Want Transparency

On a Saturday morning in Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza, you’ll find a cluster of canvas tents, root vegetables, some 200 dogs, and even more reusable tote bags. In August, you might see strawberries, and in February, turnips, but for the most part, few things change. In fact, since the market’s humble beginnings in 1979 — before Instagramming Swiss chard was a thing — there’s been just one truly notable shift: the crowd.
Where you once found older neighborhood natives and restaurateurs, you’ll now find millennials stocking up on potted herbs and butter lettuce. You’ll see overalls, worn both earnestly and ironically. You’ll see spandex workout clothes and full pajama sets on couples sampling pickles from compostable paper plates.
“I love buying vegetables that are still dirty,” says a 26-year-old shopping at the market in late January, showing off an armful of soil-dusted turnips.
“We try to come every Saturday,” says a 23-year-old, gesturing to a roommate. “Then, every Sunday, we make a feast.”
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
The movement towards more conscientious food buying neither starts nor ends with Brooklyn’s cool-kid farmers' market scene: Nationwide, millennials are focusing more of their energy on eating wholesome, organic foods from quality, transparent providers. According to the Organic Trade Association's survey of American families, a whopping 52% of organic customers are millennials (Gen X'ers account for 35%, and baby boomers represent just 14%), while research firm FutureCast found that 80% of millennials place serious value on having access to information about where their food is coming from.
“We’re definitely excited about the recent uptick in millennial shoppers,” says New York Greenmarket director Michael Hurwitz. “For a long time, younger people weren’t our typical demographic.”
This is all part of a larger food revolution: Beyond buying local and eating organic, millennials are talking more about their food (out loud and online) and spending more time in the kitchen (see: the viral recipe phenomenon).
“This generation is more interested in food as currency than any I have seen before,” says Krishnendu Ray, food studies professor and department chair at New York University. “My students talk constantly about food — the things they cook, what they will eat for dinner tonight, restaurants they enjoy. It’s a social topic, like sports or music. It’s on their minds.”
As food continues to take up more space in millennials’ lives — whether they're Instagramming their monochrome desserts or discussing tomorrow’s breakfast at tonight’s party — they’re also becoming more stringent with their choices, shunning things like chemical additives, food dyes, and diluted labels from unreliable producers.
“[At the farmers' market,] I never feel like I’m being scammed by some crazy label with a million chemicals I don’t recognize,” says a 28-year-old customer, eyeing loaves of fresh bread under a nearby stand. “I definitely feel more in control when I can trust all the brands and farms I’m buying from.”
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
Beyond our own kitchens, restaurants, too, are placing a larger (and more public) emphasis on both their ingredients and where they come from. “It’s all about having relationships with the people who grew our food and loving and trusting the products they give us,” says Sara Zandi, one half of the couple behind Brushland Eating House — a rustic farm-to-fork restaurant tucked into New York’s Catskill Mountains. “We’re really transparent about what we’re serving — and customers love that.”
According to Zandi, food is best enjoyed in its simplest form: straight from the source. So when it comes to food buying, her allegiance is to products that steer clear of elaborate packaging and unpronounceable, multisyllabic chemical additives. “When we got started with the restaurant, we just drove around upstate [New York] looking for food,” she says. “We’d knock on doors and ask to taste someone’s fresh squash or apples. Sometimes we’d just do all of our shopping at roadside stands. That way, we felt like we were giving our customers ingredients we’d hand selected for them. That’s a good feeling.”
Still, eating organic, non-processed foods is often a luxury. The ability to choose farmers' market produce is a substantial privilege — as is having access to a market to begin with. “It's important to note that, though wellness and mindful eating have a lot of cultural capital at the moment, these tastes are especially prevalent among white, class-privileged folks in big cities and along the coasts,” says Katherine Magruder, adjunct food studies professor at both New York University and The New School.
That said, for those without access to a roster of roadside vegetable stands, organic, transparent goods are still plenty available at most grocery stores.
“People are getting increasingly savvy about ingredients and labels, and we make it a priority to keep our ingredient lists simple and certifiably organic,” says Jyoti Stephens, spokesperson and VP of people, culture, and mission at Nature’s Path — a family-owned purveyor of packaged products like oatmeal, granola, and breakfast bars, available at most grocery stores. “We’re passionate about championing universal access to organic foods, which is why we work hard to support the food bank and the development of organic gardens in food deserts.”
According to a survey conducted by Euromonitor International, 40% of American millennials seek out grocery products with limited or no artificial ingredients, and research firm Label Insight found that 94% of consumers feel most loyal to brands that offer full transparency.
Illustrated by Paola Delucca.
In the Instagram age, it can be difficult to restrain ourselves from falling subject to diet trends or shiny, minimalist packaging. Foods go in and out of style — we’re promised immortality so long as we switch to oat milk or stronger bones if we subsist on açaí, exclusively. Then, next month, the secret to eternal life will change.
“You’ll hear about this superfood or that toxic thing. We went through the quinoa cycle and the Paleo cycle. Everyone wants to tell us that we’ll find salvation through one food, but that’s never true,” says Ray. “That’s why returning to basic, simple things and wholesome diets without all the marketing is so appealing.”
For most of us, opacity is the norm: We base our dating decisions on profiles boasting photos from 2009, our online purchases rarely arrive as pictured, and that easy-to-assemble furniture is usually extremely-difficult-to-assemble. On the whole, we’re used to being manipulated in one way or another.
“It’s exhausting being a consumer today,” says Ray. “Of course you want to control what you put in your body.”
In many ways, conscientious food buying feels like a way to combat all that lofty marketing. It’s a way of reclaiming some sense of agency — of controlling the narrative that comes with our food.
“I’m so busy,” says a 26-year-old shopper at the farmers' market, cradling two sunflowers and a large Spanish onion. “But when I’m cooking, or eating, I feel like I’m actually in control of my own time. That’s so refreshing.”
As millennials devote more of their energy to eating, food becomes a way of maintaining control. When everything is in flux, conscientious buying, in particular, becomes a rare opportunity to connect with what you eat.
“There’s something really special about the types of conversations that happen at farmers' markets,” says Hurwitz. “You’ll watch two farmers talk at 5 a.m. before the day is about to get started, then you’ll watch those farmers interact with young and old customers. You’ll hear two neighbors talking about what a rutabaga is. You’ll see people build relationships with the place their food is coming from — and obviously that’s special.”

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