It would be easy in a town obsessed with food like Berkeley to make a podcast that’s just an audio version of Instagram. But Just Food wants to be more than that. The new podcast, from the Berkeley Food Institute, explores the many stories behind how and what we eat.
Each 12- to 20-minute episode in the six-part series, which is produced in partnership with the Advanced Media Institute at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, pairs university research with first-hand testimony. The result is equal parts evidence and experience, addressing state and national issues through a highly local lens. For example in the podcast’s third episode, Just Food investigates and analyzes the many consequences of the Berkeley soda tax by following the revenue and interviewing beneficiaries.
“It’s really about how we get our food and the aspects of our food that most of us don’t think about on a day-to-day basis,” said reporter Alissa Escarce. “It’s about being able to look beyond the research and into the human stories for how this research gets reported.”
Escarce is a freelance journalist studying at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York. She had been interning at KQED when she heard that Laura Klivans, the host of Just Food, was looking for reporters to research several stories for the podcast over the summer. As a bilingual journalist, Escarce was a natural fit for stories related to labor and farm worker health, including a yet-to-be-released fourth episode of the podcast on the UC Berkeley CHAMACOS, a longitudinal study on the impact of pesticides on pregnant women and children in the heavily agricultural Salinas Valley.
CHAMACOS stands for Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers And Children Of Salinas, as well as a slang word for “kids.” The study itself began in 1999, and in the 17 years since has tracked pesticide exposure alongside children’s growth, health and development.
For that particular Just Food episode, which will be released on Oct. 19, Escarce focused on a smaller portion of CHAMACOS: the impact of pesticides on teens living and working in the Salinas Valley. She reported how these teens are not just subjects of the UC Berkeley study, but also participants performing much of the research themselves.
“We’re good at finding the compelling human narratives that keep people listening,” said Just Food’s executive producer Lacy Roberts. As a member of the Advanced Media Institute, Roberts handles the audio editing of each Just Food episode.
Every story has its challenges. “Some stories don’t automatically have good audio,” Roberts said. At the easier end, a story on pollinators has some obligatory background buzzing of bees. Just Food’s fifth episode on soil health (to be released on Nov. 2), however, was a different story. Simply pointing a microphone at dirt was not going to be enough. For that story, the focus would have to be on human characters.
Roberts was particularly drawn to stories that handle the aftermath of an event. For example, the approach to an episode about the Berkeley soda tax would have to be about the consequences of the tax, not the struggle to get it passed. “That was a challenging one to do because there were so many layers to the story,” said Roberts. “But what we wanted to ask is ‘what happens when it’s no longer a fight?’” Curious listeners can find out exactly how the podcast approached the topic by listening to episode three: “Leveling the Playing Field: The Berkeley Soda Tax.”
The idea for the Just Food podcast began in March and almost immediately BFI staff set to work proposing topics, strategizing reporting and narrowing down the nearly endless number of possible topics to a final six for the season. After an initial April pilot, the podcast returned on Sept. 21 with new episodes released every two weeks until the end of the season on Nov. 16.
“We were really motivated to report on the interesting research being done at Cal that connects to critical issues in food systems,” said Ann Thrupp, executive director of the BFI. “And to do it in a way that makes people get engaged and inspired.”
It’s been a daunting, though rewarding experience to put the podcast together. “It’s been a really great collaboration,” said Thrupp “but it takes a phenomenal number of people to put this together. It’s been like theater.”
With so many stories to tell, inevitably some had to be shelved, but the BFI plans to run a second season of Just Food in the spring. Stories have yet to be selected, though Thrupp hopes that subsequent seasons can continue to focus on people and places. “We’re really interested in labor issues and food systems,” she said, though that might mean transitioning out of the fields and into restaurants and kitchens.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the majority Just Food’s listeners live in and around Berkeley. Though Thrupp hopes that hyperlocal listenership expands the more people get to know about the podcast.
Much of the research being done at UC Berkeley affects dialogue and policy on both state and federal levels — not to mention that as the nation’s leading agricultural state (California produces an estimated $47 billion in agricultural revenue annually) quite a lot of what happens in-state affects both the nation and the world.
“Some of the people here are working on international issues,” said Thrupp. “So we’re hoping to get listeners that go beyond this area.”
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