Naomi Starkman communicates for legislative change.
Pepsi One won’t kill you, as long as you don’t drink an entire can. “Natural flavors” are genetically engineered. Some 5.1 billion pounds of pesticides are applied to U.S. crops each year, a direct health threat to the estimated 2.4 million farmworkers who tend them.
These and other stats emanate from the work of the Penngrove-based writer and editor Naomi Starkman. The editor in chief of CivilEats.com, a website devoted to telling the stories behind our food, often written by the people who grow it, Starkman is a trained attorney whose motto is, “My tool is communication, but my goal is legislative change.” Thank goodness for that.
Serving over 100,000 individual viewers a month, CivilEats has been a labor of love for Starkman and managing editor Paula Crossfield since they established it in 2009. Neither has ever been paid until their recent Kickstarter campaign netted enough funds to actually hire a new and full-time managing editor (Crossfield is transitioning to editor at large) and grant Starkman a small slice of what she should earn. And would earn, had she stayed at her professional communications positions at the New Yorker magazine or Newsweek. But while she enjoyed the prestige and challenges big city magazine work provided, it didn’t satisfy her soul. Of course Alice Waters had a part to play.
Starkman remembers meeting Waters at a 2004 dinner hosted by the New Yorker. She had been interested in farming and agricultural politics for a long time, but didn’t know how to literally break into the field. She screwed up her courage and asked Waters for advice on getting started. Waters told her about World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF). Starkman almost immediately quit her job and escaped the New York winter to WWOOF on a farm here in Eureka. Then to Central America to intern on farms in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. She was bitten hard.
Returning to New York, Starkman did magazine work part time so that she was free enough to intern at Dan Barber’s Stone Barns Center, the land that supports his iconic Blue Hill restaurants. After seven months, she left New York again, this time to work at an organic farm near Olympic, WA.
“And then I was like: What am I doing?” Starkman says. “I have all of these weird skills.”
Starkman had gone to law school intending to be an international human rights lawyer but, for the first time in her life, found herself trying something that she wasn’t actually good at.
“I didn’t have the aptitude for it,” she says. “When I graduated, I knew I didn’t want to practice law, but there was a job opening in San Francisco on the newly formed Ethics Commission. My business card read, ‘Whistle-Blower Educator.’”
And to some extent, that’s been her job title ever since. In 2007, a former editor recruited her to Consumer Reports, where she is still a contributor with an emphasis on nonprofits and sustainability. When Slow Food Nation hosted its international convivia in San Francisco in 2008, she came on as communication director. “That was a big watershed moment,” she says.
In fact, it’s when all of her “weird skills” found a way to coalesce, using communication to drive legislation.
“CivilEats is a funky combination—I like to call it a community-supported blog,” Starkman says. “It came about because there was no communal voice for the food movement. It grew out of the Slow Food Nation blog and became beloved because it’s always been a place for everybody. I spend a lot of time working with people who are not traditionally writers so that they can have a platform. It’s about sharing and creating what we see as the food movement.”
Meanwhile, Starkman also threw her peripatetic energy into co-founding and consulting for the Food and Environment Reporting Network website, an investigative effort driven by professional journalists that is often hailed as ag’s Pro Publica.
“We were seeing an incredible dearth of reporting in the traditional beat of agriculture,” she says. “I was interested in finding new ways to support the future of food reporting.”
Starkman still farms, tending a small place outside of Petaluma with her partner. Staying away from the land, it seems, is not an option.
“I find that farmers are the most credible voices of the agriculture industry,” she says. “And I don’t think that there’s anything harder than being a farmer.”
She allows herself a short laugh.
“Talk about a faith-based profession!”