July 10, 2022
Following a long, exciting, tiring, informative, and insightful week, my classmates and I had one final trip to make for our D.C. Food Immersion course as students in the Sustainable Food Systems program. Jerry Hagstrom, journalist, local celebrity, and walking encyclopedia of Washingtonian culture, had invited our cohort to his home in Woodley Park for a chat about food over some pizza and wine.
Upon arrival, I was struck by the aesthetic of his home: imagine a library that featured paintings of Che Guevara on Campbell’s Soup Cans, (tasteful) topless mermaids in the bathroom, and Cargill posters featuring historical figures such as Napoleon and Cleopatra, and you'll begin to get the vibe. Jerry, founder, editor, and lead writer of the Hagstrom Report, an acclaimed agricultural news outlet, spoke with the air of someone who not only had been paid for their thoughts for decades, but enjoyed it and knew they were good at it too. I was left with the impression that Jerry was the Washington version of the cool uncle with the stories about your parents that they didn't want you to know about. When I asked about the importance of his work and what he thinks some of the biggest challenges facing the country are, he had this to say: "For the average American, the most important news is food news. For example, this issue of infant formula, which we don't usually really think of as food, but definitely is food... At the moment, (another) big issue is bringing broadband to rural America. You can’t have a modern life without broadband." Making a point that wasn't at the forefront of my mind, the connection between internet service and food news (a topic that maybe doesn't get that much play on cable news) was interesting and fitting, given the digital-only nature of the Hagstrom Report.
In contrast to the online-only nature of his publication, Jerry stressed the importance of attending events in-person in order to socialize and potentially gain opportunities and experiences afforded by being physically present. He gave us advice, stating that "anytime any of you are in a situation where there is the question of going to something or doing it on Zoom, go to the event. The world belongs to people who show up." Jerry, speaking from a place of concern for in-person opportunities and representation, added that as of late he'd (admittedly anecdotally) picked up on a trend of more in-person attendance by men, and more virtual attendance by women. A number of my classmates, roughly 2/3rds of whom are women, astutely pointed out that the combined shortages of childcare, formula, and maternal leave all complicated the at-home situations of many mothers who have been left with a scarcity of options and often the lion’s share of the childcare responsibility. Amidst the backdrop of meeting with numerous female leaders over the course of the week and crossing paths with the protestors outside of the Supreme Court multiple times, the exchange was a good reminder that oftentimes food politics and women's rights politics are united in being progressive politics. The general trend of the two can and should move in tandem as progressive women motivated by the issues surrounding childcare, health, food, and climate add their efforts to the growing progressive movement in America. Would childcare and formula shortages (which undoubtedly affect both parents and might've been preemptively addressed in a hypothetical single-payer system) be less of an issue if more gender diversity in politics had been attained decades ago? I think so, and it's something I wish were the case. But as of now, we're left with a scarcity of not only things like formula or childcare, but representatives that take these issues seriously enough.
After about an hour of fielding our questions and sharing stories from his decades of experience, Jerry had to get ready to leave. Dressed up in a tux, it wasn't until after he departed that we learned he was going to an event to be honored for his donations to the restoration of a 19th century fountain at the Cosmos Club. Given the intimacy and camaraderie with which we were invited into his home, it could have been easy to forget the impact and legacy of the work he has created, and the urgency of the topics at hand. But make no mistake – in a world affected by what seems to be an ever-increasing number of challenges, accurate and timely reporting on food will continue to require contributions from journalists doing important work like Jerry and those that will pick up the mantle and follow the tradition of this indispensable form of public education.
This blog is part of a series from the May 2022 Washington D.C. Immersive component of the Swette Center graduate programs. Students met with federal food and agriculture focused officials at USDA, the White House, and Congress alongside many other important influencers of policy in industry and non-profits.