My digital scrapbook was dozens-deep with ideas, including an exploration of the term “chef-driven,” a story titled “5 Misconceptions About Kid-Friendly Restaurants,” and round-ups of items ranging from brownies to fish sandwiches. After March 12, the night the pandemic kicked into overdrive in the U.S., every outline in my files felt inconsequential. This doesn’t include all the completed stories and assignments my editors relegated to publishing purgatory. We’re only six weeks into the COVID-19 crisis, but one thing has become clear; if a story doesn’t relate to Coronavirus, it’s not worth telling.
Yes, we all need some relief from the bad news barrage. Some people will inevitably revert to flipping through to glamorous pizza and fried chicken sandwich photos on Instagram, or possibly catching up on mind-numbing celebrity gossip. Most of the time, my thoughts are fixed on helping to keep my family safe and fed, just one area where my wife’s been heroic; finding more work, which is hard to come by; and engaging in non-stop childcare, since our preschool and daycare are currently on hiatus. It’s a lot, but when I get time to ponder potential stories, it’s mainly to consider ways to help restaurants survive the crisis.
California’s necessary “shelter in place” directive, far less disposable income, and completely understandable fear have gutted so many businesses. Only well-financed chains are locks to return in forms that customers recognize. Despite the tidal wave of uncertainty, despair, and financial ruin, I still feel inspired to help sustain the independent and family-run restaurants with limited resources that have brought me so much joy and taught me so much, not just about food, but also about human nature and different cultures.
So far, I wrote and updated a Thrillist guide to local takeout and delivery options and told the story behind Flavors from Afar for LA Mag, spotlighting a mission-driven Little Ethiopia restaurant that rotates refugee chefs. I hope to tell more stories like these.
Publications like Eater and Grub Street have made similar pivots. The New York Times Food section, LA Times Food section, and SF Chronicle Food section also increased focus on struggling, under-represented communities.
It’s hard to say for certain what normalcy will look like when the crisis lifts, and whether we’ll see quantum shifts in how we navigate the world. I know that many people have a short memory for pain, and it’s often easier, and possibly more comforting, to just revert to past patterns. I certainly hope all of this emotional and financial agony, sacrifice, and time kept apart from family will keep us from regressing to the status quo.
Hopefully more readers now understand that people come first. Food stories should not just focus on dishes. It’s imperative that writers tell more inclusive stories that celebrate different cultures and unique perspectives. Diners should also think hard before considering a meal at private equity-fueled, publicly traded companies like Shake Shack, Sweetgreen, Ruth’s Chris and Potbelly, just four organizations that were each shamed into returning $10 million (or more) of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) funds. It’s incumbent upon food writers to make convincing cases for more personal alternatives with stronger senses of place so diners don’t just default to cost and convenience.
Keep in mind that it’s also possible to consider more than one issue at a time. Yes, COVID-19 dominates the global conversation, as it should, and the U.S. clearly remains woefully unprepared to meet the challenge, so we’ll be contending with the virus for quite awhile. That said, we can’t forget other issues that relate to food and society that will define our future, including climate change, global and local supply chains, food waste, various sustainability aspects, diversity, and of course market forces. We shouldn’t forget to think beyond the moment, no matter how dire. Eventually, the COVID-19 crisis will pass, or we’ll learn to live with it. We’ll just have to decide what we want that world to look like, since for better or worse, it must be different.