More Good Food Jobs Than You Can Imagine (or Five Tips for Job Seekers from the Just Food Conference)

We’ve been making the rounds of winter farming conferences in the region–from NOFA to PASA–and we just got back from the most urban of these, Just Food’s 2012 conference at the High School of Food and Finance in Hell’s Kitchen, which included a job fair organized by Good Food Jobs and workshops advising on how to start a career as a farmer, raise money for your food startup, or launch your food-related nonprofit.

A Good Food Jobs seeker demonstrates a few essential skills.

We’ve been making the rounds of winter farming conferences in the region–from NOFA to PASA–and we just got back from the most urban of these, Just Food’s 2012 conference at the High School of Food and Finance in Hell’s Kitchen, which included a job fair organized by Good Food Jobs and workshops advising on how to start a career as a farmer, raise money for your food startup, or launch your food-related nonprofit.

I spoke on the “Dream Jobs” panel, where my esteemed colleagues included Celeste Beatty of Harlem Brewing Company, Natural Foods Chef Andrea Bearman, Kopali Organics founder Zak Zaidman, and SchoolFoodFocus‘s Kathy Lawrence. (Little known fact: Lawrence founded Just Food back in 1995.)

The panel was a blast, but as is often the case during such extemporaneous dialogs, it’s only afterwards that you think of the most helpful and important things to say. In particular, in the Q&A, one attendee expressed her concern that the good food job market seems hopelessly saturated. (She lives in Brooklyn, where all her neighbors are either starting a food business or already have done so.) She asked whether the panel felt there was still potential for growth in this field.

Here’s what I would have said if I had more time to plan out the answer: Rest assured that while your neighborhood might seem saturated, we’re just scratching the surface. According to a recent report form the Kellogg Foundation, the share of “good food” in the American food supply–defined as organic, local, humanely-raised or otherwise eco-labeled–is just 5%. Just 5%!

And that’s the highest estimate I’ve seen of this market. In other words, despite awesome growth in farmers markets and CSAs, good food still hasn’t moved into the mainstream, meaning supermarkets, school cafeterias, fast food joints and all the places most Americans do their eating and shopping. So here’s what job seekers should keep in mind:

1. Good food companies are growing. Companies like Whole Foods Market and Organic Valley–both represented at the Good Food Jobs fair–as well as brands like Niman Ranch and other good food leaders are experiencing rapid growth. Which means they need good people.

2. Mainstream food companies need good people. As this movement grows and evolves, all food, drink and hospitality companies are going to need employees who are sustainability minded. My sister-in-law, just out of culinary school, got a job at the Hilton Headquarters in Virginia, helping the head chef implement sustainability initiatives.

I recently learned about Eat’n Park, a restaurant and food service company in the MidAtlantic, which has launched all sorts of sustainability initiatives in recent years, including purchasing 20 million pounds of local produce a year, and eliminating 100,000s of pounds of paper and plastic waste from their operation. They need people in their rapidly expanding procurement and waste management areas. Or think of Gene Kahn, the organic farming pioneer who left Cascadian Farms to be come the VP for Sustainable Development at General Mills. From schools to hospitals to mainstream restaurant groups, there is a need for new blood.

3. Non-food companies need good people. Even more potential lies with non-food companies that are improving their employee offerings in the food and health realm. Think of Eileen Fisher, the venerable clothing brand that provides a CSA pickup, juice stations, and other food-related perks for its staff. Google headquarters in Chelsea Market has six staff cafeterias, I’m told. These firms need good food people in-house.

4. Small food startups need support. Not everyone can be a small-batch grassfed beef jerky maker. But with an explosion of food and drink artisans, urban farmers and other relatively small food and drink entrepreneurs, there are other links–supportive links–in the food chain that need filling. On the East End, a local lawyer has made a name helping farmer and food artisans with their food safety paperwork. And I’ve heard of several web designers focusing on farm and restaurant clients, all of whom want and need to roll out blogs, social media accounts and other channels of communication. Consider companies like NewYorkMouth or FiveAcreFarms, set up to help find customers for farmers and food artisans by handling distribution, marketing and fulfillment.

Happily this list is probably incomplete, and even more opportunities will emerge in the next few years. So, as our panel told the audience, focus on what you love to do, practice the needed skills–whether farming, writing, cooking–and be tireless in your pursuit of good food jobs. Good things will come, we’re sure.

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Brian is the editor at large of Edible East End, Edible Long Island, Edible Manhattan and Edible Brooklyn. He writes from his home in Sag Harbor, New York, where he and his family tend a home garden and oysters. He is also obsessed with ducks, donuts and dumplings.