The 10 Best Food Innovations of 2012

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‘Tis the season to reflect on the year. Before we go making lists of to-dos for the coming one, we might gain some insight from what’s been accomplished in the food world so far. I’ve loosely based this top-ten list of events, discoveries and movements as “innovations” — rather than mere developments or trends — because I think each one underscores a gradual shifting of times. They’re not “inventions,” nor are they all new, and some of them were old before newly re-embraced (e.g. food swapping). But together, they help shape a path of where food trends and the food movement are heading, and what we might see more of 2013.
There is no numbering for this top-ten list, as that would be far too subjective. So, in no particular order and with all due subjectivity on my part, here are the most exciting things to happen in food in the last year.

Take-action food videos: The Story of Stuff must have really stuck. Or maybe it was all the commercials put out by big-pocketed businesses telling one or another version of the small family farm (notable mention to Chipotle’s sleek computer-animated ad). Whatever it was, I have never seen a food campaign come to life as much as in Food MythBusters’ first movie, Do we really need industrial agriculture to feed the world? Narrated by Anna Lappe, the video is chock full ‘o information in layers ‘o graphics, but takes all of six and a half minutes to watch. For an author whose latest book is more than 300 pages (Diet For A Hot Planet) and doesn’t have social networking tabs, this move is telling, and I can’t wait to see more.

WholeFoods bans red-rated seafood: At last, one big retailer is putting its money where its mouth is. Rather than highlight the most endangered, unsustainably sourced fish with a red symbol and weak warning yet still profit from selling it to customers at its stores, WholeFoods took the move to ban all red-rated fish in April. I can just hear the boardroom chatter over the issue (which must have went on for months): “But we’re telling them it’s unsustainable, so they can make up their own minds about buying it”… “But we’re telling them that these are our values, that we’re committed to them, and we sell them on this story while selling unsustainable fish”… Now all eyes are on other supermarket chains with sustainable seafood ratings on display at their stores.

Crowdsourced food business capital: We’ve heard of Kickstarter to get projects going, and it seems an ever more legitimate way to raise capital for restaurants (e.g. the acclaimed Brooklyn clam shack Littleneck). One of the more incredible food phenomenons I’ve been witness to this past year was a little plan to buy a brisket smoker in Texas, and somehow sell the smoked beef to people while learning how to perfect the craft by Dan Delaney. Before any cooking was underway, Dan set up a website for people to buy however many pounds of brisket they desired, which would be distributed at unknown places at unknown times during the summer. They all sold out. And after one sweaty summer of smoking meat, Dan has opened a bonafide restaurant, Delaney BBQ. To a restaurant owner, not having to worry about pesky investors and having a guaranteed audience for your food is… well, this could be a major overhaul of the whole system.

Specific-food CSAs: This is actually one thing I would like to see more of next year and on. As Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) has been increasing in popularity, a number of spin-offs and one-offs in the name of a certain food — such as meat or seafood — have been cropping up. Many traditional CSA shares focused on fresh vegetables from one certain farm offer add-ins of other types of food such as eggs, dairy, meat or even flowers for an additional cost. But the comparably low level of commitment and specific interest of single-food CSAs makes them especially appealing. (I would love to join a fruit CSA again should a local orchard decide to organize it, and I know a lot of folks who would eagerly opt into a cheese CSA with a farmstead cheesemaker.) But as they increase, let’s make sure that we understand what CSA means and does; typically, “community supported agriculture” groups pay in advance of harvest to ensure the farmer/producer has adequate funds for the season, and it also usually includes some participation like a volunteer shift to reduce administrative costs. Many food “shares” or “clubs” might follow the dictum of providing fresh product direct to the consumer, sans middleman like a retailer or distributor, but not the above tenets. Those are alright, they just might not be called CSAs.

Number of Farmers Markets Nationwide Has Doubled Since 2004: This statistic shows a major rise in demand for locally grown food. Don’t the phrases “farm to table” and “market greens” sound like everyday restaurant lingo now? The USDA reports that there are 7,864 farmers markets nationwide now, a 9.6% increase from 2011, and while these numbers might look small compared with Applebee’s or Pizza Huts, the growth rate is very promising for fresh, safe and fair food. Also, the area with the largest growth in the US from last year is the Mid-Atlantic region (Delaware, Virginia, Maryland), charting some new frontiers.

Extra-large soda ban passed in NYC: It wasn’t met with nearly the same kind of uproar as his ban on smoking in public places, but if it’s followed with as much fervor around the country, Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on sodas and sugary drinks in excess of 16 ounces in restaurants and concessions could be a big strike to Big Ag. We all know that banning the sale of pitcher-size cups of soda doesn’t eliminate their existence, but it sends a strong message, shaming those who participate and severing one strategy for companies to make hefty profits at the sake of your health. The ban has yet to take effect, and could still be blocked by a judge. So we’ll have yet to see how this city-imposed New Year’s resolution turns out for all.

Occupy Sandy: Leave it to The People to tackle the brunt of social work when disasters strike — wait, you mean those people, who wouldn’t leave parks for months? Absolutely. If critics thought that our current generation wasn’t nearly “active” enough, this year has gone and proven otherwise. The Occupy movement is the vast and hazy-rimmed realization of that, but even if their camps were broken up late last year, the sentiment of The People has unified in providing relief efforts in the aftermath of superstorm Sandy. Everything from food and blankets to temporary shelter and legal counsel was and is still being orchestrated by Occupy Sandy, with what some say to be done with more leadership and effectiveness than local or federally-funded organizations like the Red Cross. If people can rally together and make so much progress in times of need, think about what a massive, grassroots entity like Occupy can do for other goals once they’re targeted.

Food-swapping with strangers: Swaps for clothing, books, and other stuff are always a fun pasttime, but now the concept of swapping food has been taken to new levels of sophistication. Once an activity limited to circles of friends or church communities, you can now swap food with anyone in your neighborhood by joining your local network at Also, the founders of BK Swappers, which hosts events to trade and check out homemade foods in a lively communal setting, has launched an online hub for similar events and groups all around with Food Swap Network. Both concepts are predicated on sharing, and making the most efficient use of your time and expertise in the kitchen — and getting to know and appreciate your fellow food-loving neighbors, rather than seeing them as merely “strangers.” Oh, and also on the concept of making meals from scratch, a very restorative activity indeed.

At-home fermentation kits (for pickles): The popularity of homebrewing has spawned beer-making kits for the DIY-friendly, but what about those who love lacto-fermented solid foods, too? If you’re afraid of mightily screwing things up, you can now follow the steps on a package of tools. Coincidentally, two New York City-based artisanal kimchi makers, Mama O’s Kimchi and Mother-In-Law’s, have recently launched homemade kimchi kits, complete with everything you need besides the cabbage. There are kits, too, for making other fermented foods, like kombucha and yogurt, but what about sauerkraut? How about miso? The possibilities seem endless, and I’m hungry for them.

Online-ordered farm food: People have been tinkering with how to increase access to local, responsibly grown food from trustworthy farms and producers ever since apps and social media startups became all the rage. This year has seen the birth of some very bright ideas across the country. Launched in San Francisco, Goodeggs is a marketplace for delivered goods from any number of farms and artisanal food makers who set up a webstand — sort of like the Etsy of good food. In Austin, Citysprout connects consumers with local farms for offers of goods at pick-up times, places, and prices that they agree on. And in New York, a few new startups are aiming to broaden the reach of local farm food soon, including the iPhone app LocalSQR, and online marketplace Quinciple. Makes me wonder if all the new farmers markets that’ll crop up in the years to come will have their own online stores, too. Not such a bad idea, right?

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