Playing the System: How We Can Reinvigorate Food Through Play

“The future of food is food. It’s not tech. It’s not design. It’s not consumer research. It’s food.”

This statement by Ali Bouzari, a culinary scientist and cofounder of Pilot R&D, kicked off the reThink Food conference co-hosted in Napa California by the Culinary Institute of America and MIT Media Lab. It was a provocative yet refreshing opening statement for one of many conferences held only hours away from Silicon Valley to discuss the future of an industry.

Bouzari’s statement highlighted how there is no magic bullet in food science or tech that will replace the sensorial – and often social – experience of food. Despite the food industry’s ongoing quest for zero-calorie carbs or the perfect sugar replacement, only so much can be done to change the structure of ingredients without compromising on taste, health, and cost. Nonetheless, the food industry will continue to play with its food.

Despite the unlikelihood of finding the perfect sugar replacement, this statement touches on something larger. The future of food is, and should be, food – the best aspects of food. Food that nourishes our bodies, communities, and world – from soil, to shelf, to satiation.

The Social Function of Food

Beyond its functional nutritional value, eating is most often an intensely social activity. From an anthropological perspective, our cultural notions of personhood, kinship, and sharing are all expressed in the way we acquire, prepare, and consume food. Food is a symbol of both security and affection; it is an integral part of our lives, from dinner dates to the ceremonies, celebrations, and other rituals that make up our lives and cultures.

Yet this notion of food as pleasure is at odds with the environmental and social issues that threaten our food system today. These looming issues are numerous and interconnected, and include climate change, increasing populations, labor abuses, and the increasing rates of obesity juxtaposed with food scarcity. According to the CDC, as of 2014, nearly 40% of American adults were considered obese, while according to the USDA, 1 in 8 Americans are considered food insecure. Even within Silicon Valley, 1 in 4 people are at risk of hunger, as reported by The Guardian in December 2017. In more extreme cases, food scarcity becomes intertwined with existing environmental or economic issues, such as natural disasters, high unemployment, and inflation. The social value of food can be abruptly overtaken by physiological necessity.

Such issues, while nothing new, have been intensifying since our post-WWII food system gained traction. Often described as “broken,” our food system was actually designed purposefully in this manner: We decided to add sugar and scale food, but we failed to consider how the output of hyper-processed foods would influence the environment and the wellbeing of consumers.

Despite our awareness of these issues today, we still tend to gravitate toward playing with the superficial within the food space, whether through fleeting millennial trends or highly speculative and fantastical food futures. While we may gain some practical insights or inspiration by speculating about what food will look like 20 years from now, thinking so far ahead often prevents us from solving the looming issues of today.

Revisiting Sustainability

Fortunately, there are some signals of hope. Among certain eaters, there is an increasing desire for food transparency, local produce, and more sustainable products and diets. Attitudes and behaviors surrounding health, sustainability, and social status are shifting, while many people today – especially Gen Z-ers – believe they can assert more power and influence through what they consume (and what they don’t) than through voting.

The market is responding to these preferences, especially in the startup space, where a breadth of food innovation is taking place. Imperfect Produce, for example, is working to reduce the amount of food wasted, a figure currently estimated at 30% across the world, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. Imperfect Produce estimates that more than 20% of fruits and vegetables grown in America are considered “below-standard” for many grocery store standards of perfection. The company gives “ugly” produce a home, sourcing directly from farms and delivering to customers for 30-50% less than grocery store prices. Other startups, including Impossible Foods, Beyond Meat, and JUST, Inc., are leveraging their food science capabilities to create new alternative meatless and dairy-free options. Meanwhile, the newly launched Ripe.io is utilizing blockchain technology to transform and optimize the supply chain of produce, enabling data transparency from “farm to fork” and, in turn, reducing health risks and concerns, food waste, and the carbon footprint of produce distribution. There are high-profile players in this space as well: Kimbal Musk, Elon Musk’s brother, has devoted his professional career to improving the food system through various projects, including Square Roots. Square Roots is an urban farming accelerator based in Brooklyn where aspiring urban farmers are trained to grow food in hydroponic farms inside large metal shipping containers – and many more founders, entrepreneurial chefs, and farmers are building new kinds food communities and systems all over the world.

Several Big Food brands are investing in such startups. While the startups work in isolation and are free of the culture, bureaucracy, and slow-moving internal systems that make it challenging for larger companies to go beyond incremental innovation, multinationals have the scale and power to create significant change in our food system. A few recent examples include Kellogg’s acquisition of RXBAR, Unilever’s acquisition of Pukka Herbs, and Tyson Foods’ investment in Beyond Meat.

Solving Big Problems in Big Food

While these examples are markers of change, many innovative food trends and services are only accessible to a small percentage of the population – more specifically, to those in urban, affluent areas of North America. If the future of food is food, how do we make healthy, fresh food available and accessible to all communities in the face of increasing income inequality? To solve these systemic problems – as well as those around obesity, food scarcity, and ethical product value chains – we must reimagine our food system – as eaters, as citizens, and as designers, innovators, and other experts in the food space.

As eaters, we can seek and support companies that drive positive impact. As citizens, we can demand brave and bold leadership within the food industry and government to create change within our food system – leadership that invests in and commits to measures and initiatives that reduce food scarcity, obesity, and unfair labor practices, and that divests from harmful foods and practices while investing in alternatives that nourish our bodies and planet. These demands might seem at odds with the bottom lines of organizations and government; however, if there is enough market demand, we can collectively change our food system and food future.

As designers, innovators, engineers, marketers, and problem solvers working within food, we can continue to leverage human-centered, design-driven strategies – especially among populations with limited access to healthy, sustainable food choices, and among those who are less aware of the impacts of their food choices. While there is tremendous innovation within the food space today, we need adoption to catch up to innovation in order to create change at scale. This might include the adoption of more sustainable foods and diets, the empowerment of the next wave of farmers, the provision of food education, or the support of waste-reducing food brands.

We can also recognize that different eaters and communities require different solutions – not everyone is interested in petri-dish food, soilless vertical farms, or connected food devices and systems. Mass adoption and change requires a human understanding of overlooked eaters across states, cities, and communities. This is especially true for eaters who are less aware or more averse to alternative ingredients, diets, or food sources that enable a more sustainable and healthy food future. We can also work with different eaters, communities, and workers to solve critical problems across the supply chain. This might involve engaging overlooked eaters, such as those in rural communities, eaters averse to real foods or new food technology, farmers and laborers, local food organizations, or lower-income families that rely on food from lower-tier retailers. By acknowledging the nuanced cultural norms, traditions, and attitudes surrounding food, we can move away from the one-size-fits-all approach and inspire unique solutions for sustainable and healthier shopping and eating habits. This engagement with a broader set of eaters and experts could also inspire long-term solutions for communities; it could result in a new generation of farmers, or in the development of a local-food network that makes real foods more appealing and accessible.

Our relationship with food is ultimately a reflection of our relationship with the environment – and with one another. As eaters, citizens, and designers and innovators, we are active participants with the power to shape what and how we eat in the future.

We can create meaningful shared experiences around food and eating, whether that means designing the grocery store of tomorrow or simply sharing a meal. Broadening our understanding of people as eaters will only make the creation and experience of food that much more enjoyable for everyone.

the author

Kathleen Pekkola

Kathleen Pekkola is a strategist and ethnographer based in San Francisco.