This sponsored post is produced in association with Panasonic Lab 1.0.

Millennials are hungry — not just for inspired meals, but for the connection they represent, says Eve Turow, author of A Taste of Generation Yum. And while half of the 80 million American Millennials identify as “foodies”, this is a cross-cultural, generational phenomenon.

“In previous generations food was associated with golf and opera: it was not cool for young people to be talking about what they had for dinner last night. That was for housewives to share at their Tupperware parties,” says Turow.

For Millennials, however, food has evolved into a form of social currency. And technology is at least partly responsible.

“Food is being used as the ‘anti-technology’, like kayaking, or the rise in adult coloring books. But food satisfies this need in a way no other activity does,” she explains.

Join food author Eve Turow along with Alex Yancher from Pantry and Feastly’s Noah Karesh for Grocery-a-Go-Go – a spirited live discussion about the ways grocery innovation is changing our relationship with food. Part of Panasonic’s Lab 1.0, the event takes place Thursday, November 12th from 6 to 8 p.m. in San Francisco. Register now to secure your spot.

Four sprockets are driving this craving:

  1. Community. “The latest research about our integration in the digital space points to rising degrees of depression and loneliness,” says Turow. Millennials are reclaiming in-person time by making plans to go out to dinner, or joining dinner clubs. The food at dinner clubs is pedestrian, Turow hastens to add; participants are primarily there to connect.
  2. Sensory stimulation. People want something tangible they can see and feel and taste. Devices afford minimal tactile and visual connection. But “even looking at pictures of food stimulates your olfactory and gustatory cortices,” she says.
  3. Identity. Using food as a form of social currency is self-branding. Someone buying a kale salad at Whole Foods versus someone getting a burger at McDonald’s speaks to values, food awareness, and economic status.
  4. Control. “Our generation feels we severely lack control, in something as big as, ‘I don’t know if I can get a job’, or, ‘Can I afford a mortgage?’ all the way down to, ‘I have no idea how my iPhone works,’ or ‘Have I been hacked?’ There are a growing number of intangibles in our lives, and they create a deep discomfort that’s showing up as young people’s desire to break things down — and the easiest way to do this is with food.”

Chicken or egg? New grocery delivery models

How is this desire for connection affecting the grocery ecosystem? There’s a booming interest in Agtech. Acknowledges Turow, “People are becoming aware that the way we grow and distribute food in the United States is not efficient, and that there could be a better system, e.g., hydroponic farming technologies that tell you what nutrients your soil needs in order to grow a certain crop most effectively.”

At the same time, VC funding is pouring into new food delivery systems that enable people to eat healthy at a keystroke. If people are ordering meals online, or growing their own food in rooftop gardens, grocery stores are no longer entirely necessary.

Then there’s the issue of punishing work schedules. Services such as Blue Apron, HelloFresh, and Plated deliver apportioned ingredients for specific recipes. Though Turow believes this takes the fun out of meal preparation, it can be one answer for overtaxed adults who have full time jobs and kids, and don’t have time for meal planning and visits to the grocery store. The concept originated in Europe and has now caught fire stateside, and in China.

These services also cater to Millennial interest in exotic food. Instead of just a salad or burrito, they’re ordering Indonesian potluck. “There’s this drive to find something unique and delicious and new,” says Turow — which circles back to the innate human longing for connection.

But that’s the peculiar downside to food delivery: it removes community. “I’m starting to hear people in Silicon Valley lament, ‘My coworkers never go out to eat any more, everything’s getting delivered, they eat at their desks.’ For this reason, I’m not sure onsite meal delivery will become the norm, because we’re already seeing a backlash. I think it’s an indicator that we need more options: new delivery systems, new food distribution systems. A lot of people talk about being in a ‘computer-induced coma’, and food delivery doesn’t really give you time to break out of that coma.” 

The future of food

Gazing into her organic, locally-sourced crystal ball, Turow predicts a massive shift in the way people buy groceries over the next half-century, in the direction of farmer’s markets and edible urban gardens. Seed company sales have skyrocketed, and the main consumers are Millennials. Turow began growing her own food on her Brooklyn fire escape, and now has a raised bed in her backyard.

Logistics needs an overhaul. “Because of the technology we’ve mastered, Millennials are obsessed with efficiencies, and grocery stores are highly inefficient. They produce gross amounts of waste because they don’t know how much to order, so they have items on shelves that are near or past their expiration date. Then there’s the fuel required to deliver products to stores, and for a consumer to drive to the store, make their purchase, and drive home.”

Services like Amazon Fresh suggest immense potential in terms of tracking purchase behavior: how much dog food, rolls of toilet paper, or apples someone buys per week. This information can then be communicated to the producer or farmer. Groceries delivered directly to the home reduce carbon footprint.

Turow would like to see chains such as Whole Foods and Safeway improve their infrastructure for better tracking — and start working in tandem with delivery services like Amazon Fresh. Food nearing expiration could be given to food pantries — or to “second-hand” grocery stores that offer affordably priced items close to sell-by date.

Locavore love

Turow envisions a growing focus on local cuisine: people starting to connect with what’s made or grown where they live. “I would not be upset if my child didn’t grow up eating bananas and pineapples, because neither one grows in New York,” she asserts.

“We’re going to see a lot more home gardens, and more subscription services. More businesses are going to start growing their food in rooftop greenhouses — Whole Foods is already doing this in Brooklyn. A company called Bright Farms installs grocery store roof gardens to reduce the supply chain environmental impact, and to encourage consumption of whole, fresh, locally-grown food. When you think of the lack of farmland today, it’s a no-brainer.”

Not to mention a brilliant way to realign a generation with the sense of identity, control, and connection that everyone deserves. Bon appétit!

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