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Natural products need some soul

Natural products need some soul
Chatting with the Southern Foodways Alliance about the culture of food  

I’m in Oxford, Mississippi at this year’s International Conference on the Science of Botanicals—an event I will report more on tomorrow—and had the good fortune to spend the morning with the Southern Foodways Alliance. My family history ties directly to the South, so the notion that a small town like Oxford would find itself home to such a vibrant and essential documentarian of the history of food culture comes as little surprise. Southern food is as much about culture and storytelling as sweet tea and BBQ. At least it was, and will be again.

And that got me thinking. The volume of discussion around food is now loud and broad, much broader than the lens provided by Expo West and the natural products industry alone. Food is at once personal and universal. Pardon the pun, but food talk is ripe with sensitivities tied not only to health and wellness, but cultural position and regional history too.

Among several worthy endeavors, SFA has amassed a collection of hundreds of oral histories that begin to chart this regional history. Each of these histories is a story, and encounters truth in ways that only good storytelling can. And this begs the question: Where are our stories collecting in the great ‘natural’ movement? In such a relatively immature industry compared to the deep histories of Southern food, when can we begin to build the collection that sets the stage for our greater relevance?

Is that time now? I vote yes. The mothers and fathers of organic food, the forebears of dietary supplements, these are iconic figures leaving the stage with greater and greater frequency. How best do we collect their stories before they fade into lore? Setting history matters, folks. Telling real and right stories matters, and it matters more and more as these stories drift into mainstream consciousness with all their concommitant tensions and baggage.

Consider that early spirit behind supplementation and DSHEA, and where the industry lives now on the front page of USA Today. Consider the revolutionary spirit of the organic food movement and its fate inside the corridors of Big CPG, the lack of access and price elitism that perennially compromise that spirit.

Stories lead to myth, and our particular stories in natural products provide good fodder for powerful mythmaking. Perhaps it’s time for the natural movement to get more serious about its history, its stories, and the power of documenting them with the passion and drive of an organization like SFA.

Can New Hope play a role in this? Should it? Let me know below if you have a thought.

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