Jimmy Szczepanek
Jimmy Szczepanek

As President Biden campaigned towards the end of 2020, in a world that was almost unrecognizable from a year ago, he spoke of several crises converging simultaneously on the U.S.: a public health crisis, racial injustice and climate change.

In addition to being priorities for the Biden Administration, they also have an impact on our food system and the way in which we communicate to stakeholders.

Food and COVID-19

Food has been a central focus of the pandemic, which has placed an unprecedented strain on our food supply, changed the way that many consumers shop, shined a light on food insecurity and food waste, upended the food service community and challenged the way agriculture is harvested and processed.

This is a unique moment in history, particularly for those of us in food PR, because of these changes and the reality that people are at home, cooking regularly and more engaged with their food. This provides an opportunity to connect with them by providing inspiration and meeting them where they are. According to research conducted in November 2020 by the International Food Information Council, 38 percent of consumers are cooking more comfort foods at home while 34 percent are preparing more nutritious foods. Therefore, how can we help to inspire consumers with healthier versions of comfort foods that satisfy their cravings?

This article is featured in O'Dwyer's Mar. '21 Food & Beverage PR Magazine
(view PDF version)

Another transformation in food PR has been in the shift to a virtual environment. Many of us have had packed schedules in previous years, jetting from Expo West to IFT to FNCE, to reconnect with friends and colleagues and build relationships. The “great pause” of 2020 forced us to get creative and find ways to be disruptive in a virtual environment to connect with contacts and partners. Someday we’ll all be walking the trade show floor together, but until then we’ll have webinars, Zoom calls and virtual gatherings.

The journey to racial justice

The summer of 2020 brought a profound awareness of racial inequality and a grassroots effort that took to the streets. Many companies within the food industry, that were already dealing with the challenges of the pandemic, felt paralyzed about how—and if—to respond.

Some wanted to fly under the radar, others added their voice to the Black Lives Matter movement, and many made public their commitment and monetary donations. Companies like MARS, Quaker Oats Company and Cream of Wheat retired branding elements that had been criticized for connections to racial stereotypes. It became clear that consumers were carefully observing their favorite brands in order to hold them accountable, using pressure to influence real action against systemic racism.

According to a recent survey conducted by Porter Novelli, 82 percent of Americans surveyed find it acceptable that a company makes a statement in support of communities of color, but it must be followed by action.

Ben & Jerry’s, a client of Porter Novelli, has a longstanding history of taking action against inequality. Following the tragic death of George Floyd, they made a bold statement regarding the need to dismantle white supremacy and have followed it up with action to support the racial justice movement. The company was inspired by Colin Kaepernick’s commitment to battle racial injustice and collaborated with him on a non-dairy flavor partnership called Change the Whirled. Kaepernick’s proceeds from the partnership go to his Know Your Rights Camp that educates and empowers Black and Brown communities.

One way that PR professionals can contribute to equity is by committing to recommend and work with BIPOC spokespeople and influencers. Racially diverse spokespeople lend an authentic voice to a conversation that is greatly needed as people confront their own implicit biases to learn and grow.

We’ve also seen increased demand in facilitating education and growth through internal trainings around justice, equity, diversity and inclusion. PR professionals are well-positioned to counsel clients and lead the development of internal communications efforts and education within their own ranks. Change at an individual level can have a profound societal impact and encourage an atmosphere of respect, particularly within industries like foodservice, where half of all hourly employees are BIPOC.

Climate change

On day one of the Biden Administration, the U.S. rejoined the Paris Accord, signaling to Americans and the world that fighting climate change would be a priority over the next four years. This provided, at least, a glimmer of hope to the young people who have a profound fear about this existential threat, as more than 70 percent of Gen Z and Millennials surveyed indicated that climate change poses an immediate threat to life.

And with the world population projected to reach 9.8 billion people by 2050, the growing concern about sustainability and our food has been on the rise. How can we sustainability feed that many people? Are we able to revamp our food system in the next 30 years to make it more regenerative?

The rising interest in plant-based diets is an indication that there’s consumer demand for food that is better for people and the planet. According to a recent survey conducted by Sprouts Farmers Market, more than half of respondents were likely to reduce their meat consumption and embrace a flexitarian diet. Further evidence of this growing interest in eating for the planet was a 56 percent increase in sales of consumer products carrying a sustainability message in the beginning of March 2021, when stockpiling hit its peak at the grocery store, according to IRI.

As communications professionals, we can help the food industry to tell their sustainability story better and connect with consumers on this important issue. By advocating for transparency through accurate and consistent ESG reporting, forming partnerships with governments and NGOs and reminding businesses that their responsibility is not only to shareholders but to all stakeholders, we can help the food industry be more recognized for sustainability and start a dialogue about what more needs to be done.


Jimmy Szczepanek is Executive Vice President at Porter Novelli.