(Re)Designing the Food Systems – April 2022

In late April I was excited to collaborate with the FORK organization at EFood 2022 in Lisbon – their third international EFood conference focused on a critical theme: Experiencing and Envisioning Food: Designing for Change. 

FORK is a group we should all know more about at this historic juncture when the criticality of the food system’s role in meeting human nutritional needs within planetary boundaries is incredibly clear, yet we are falling far short on both counts – particularly in terms of hunger, nutrition, and climate.

Change is needed – at a transformational versus incremental level – and design thinking drawing on  multiple perspectives is essential to drive that change.  That’s where FORK comes in. 

FORK grew out of a series of conversations between Sonia Massari, Mariana Eidler, Ricardo Bonacho and Pedro Alvarez, who saw the need to connect the dots between many players (and key themes) in the food system.  They wanted to create a provocative organization to drive big change, with a design focus at its core, which resulted in FORK.

FORK is an acronym for Food Design for Opportunities, Research and Knowledge.  It is an innovative think tank, pulling together designers and food system experts, practitioners, and researchers from multiple sectors (industry, academia, culinary) around the globe with a focus on rethinking and redesigning food systems. 

FORK’s vision is inspiring:  the belief in a world where better food systems can be envisioned and everyone can become #foodchangers.  Central to this vision is the idea that design methods can help to “increase people’s awareness, activate innovative solutions, and engage all stakeholders” in identifying opportunities to improve food systems.

FORK’s mission is to create the space for multidisciplinary innovators (including designers, chefs, businesspeople, students and academics) to develop their ideas in tangible fashion to amplify impact, applying design thinking to food with the goal of creating a healthier and more equitable, inclusive world. 

Much of what FORK seeks to accomplish is encapsulated in its Manifesto, which includes the following key goals:

  1. Change the food system
  2. Empower the international food design community
  3. Drive research pathways
  4. Support funding impactful projects
  5. Create links between food and design knowledge
  6. Disseminate food design opportunities
  7. Feed food innovation challenges
  8. Engage food communities to find solutions
  9. Break the conventional boundaries

The group emphasizes the power of collaborative networks to drive food system change, bringing people together and activating partnerships within four key areas: Research and Education, Food Supply Chain and Industry, Gastronomy, and Food Design.

Impact through EFood

Now in its third iteration following events in 2017 and 2019, the EFood 2022 conference is a great example of the connective power of FORK – and the sheer breadth and depth of the three-day programme is extremely impressive. 

The purpose of the EFood conferences is to bring “the world of food and design together with other scientific areas,” gathering individuals from multiple disciplines, harnessing their ideas, research, and passion to explore potential solutions to the many current challenges of the food system.  There’s an inspiring action focus to EFood among the participants, all of whom understand the importance of designing and driving systemic food system change to ensure a sustainable future.

The conference called for papers with a design focus on topics such as sustainability and the 2030 SDG agenda, social innovation, food design education, food policy, nutrition and health, and gastronomy.  It also supported research initiatives on topics such as food products/services and experiences, food waste, edible materials for food waste reduction, solutions for the food industry (including producers, suppliers, and retailers), new habits and diets for consumption, food narratives and storytelling, educational models in food and design, food and cities, and more.

Session topics covered a wide spectrum, exploring topics in kitchen design, disruptive food, knowledge preservation, service design, developing the SDGs in restaurants, designing food for a healthy and sustainable future, food insecurity, design education, entrepreneurship, ethics and humanism, Mediterranean design, food supply chains, and functional nutrition, to name a few.

Driving Food System Transformation

Through its many initiatives (EFood, Word Food Design Day, Design Festivals, and research work), the FORK team is leading connectivity and marshaling the multi-disciplinary perspectives of inspired individuals to design a better food system. 

And at this inflection point in history, where we must rapidly transition to a more sustainable, equitable, regenerative food system, we can’t get enough of such efforts. 

In fact, in the weeks since the conference, as the threat to global food security escalates in the wake of climate change, conflict, and the lingering effects of the pandemic, the need for connectivity – and collaboration with the intent of enabling a sustainable food system and avoiding famine conditions around the world – is greater than ever. 

I addressed some of these themes in my talk, which was entitled “Finding Certainly Amid Uncertainty: Key Elements for Food System Transformation.”  I noted that numerous environmental and social crises (drought, fires, deforestation, floods, rising temperatures, conflict, Covid, food insecurity) confirm, in very visible ways, that we are at an inflection point regarding the health of people and planet – adding that the one certainty we face amid vast uncertainty is the need for food system transformation. 

I pointed to the nexus aspect of food, and the historic opportunity in front of all nations (and each one of us) to lead an urgent, collaborative reset of the food system to advance progress on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in this critical Decade of Action.  Citing several recent studies, I stressed the importance of assessing and embracing our current reality – and recognizing and harnessing critical signals of the need for change – while envisioning a new future.  I emphasized the importance of leadership for change, and the belief in the power of one.  Further, I highlighted the need to prioritize the value of food resources and the need to lead an educational effort to create a culture that values food – one that normalizes waste reduction and de-normalizes waste.  I also stressed the importance of addressing critical systemic challenges, such as the reinforcing cycle of overproduction and waste throughout aspects of the food sector and the need to shift emphasis up the food recovery hierarchy to waste prevention versus diversion.

In addition, I cited the need to accelerate redesign for circularity, noting the power in the emerging upcycling sector, while also pointing to the potential to leverage inspiring stories to drive change – and the need for an array of  legislative and high level policy changes to create a more sustainable food system. 

Last, I pointed to the need for positive activism, based on truth, noting that the erosion of truth and democracy that we are experiencing creates even greater barriers to the needed food system change – distracting the nations of the world from essential collaborative work on food security, climate, and the critical targets underlying the SDGs.  And I called for the great need for each of us to demonstrate that we care, and that we have the will, to lead the needed food system change to successfully feed the global population within planetary boundaries by 2050. 

With respect to that element of caring, a spontaneous and moving example occurred during the conference regarding the packaged food boxes that were provided to all participants.  These boxes were extremely well done, and also extremely full, designed to provide each participant with breakfast, lunch, and snack items to (food and drinks) to cover the long day of sessions.  On a break, one of the attendees asked if she could share one of the boxes with someone, or only take a partial amount, as the box contained far too much food for her and she did not want to waste any food.  A few other equity-minded participants immediately voiced a similar concern.

At this point, the organizers informed everyone that all of the excess edible food items and unopened boxes were being collected and donated to a local food relief agency at the end of each day.  Captured by that spirit, several participants began writing inspirational notes on the outside of the boxes for the recovery service and the downstream recipients – a simple gesture of caring, and community, that uplifted everyone involved.   

Special thanks Sonia Massari, Mariana Eidler, Ricardo Bonacho and the FORK team for putting on such an important event at EFood 2022 – they have created a special community of design-focused change leaders to advance food system transformation.

Also, thanks to the many participants (#foodchangers) who brought such great ideas, and enthusiasm, for designing a better food system – their ongoing research efforts are inspiring. 

For more on how FORK advances food design, see this video from June of 2021. 

And to all #foodchangers, look to FORK as a collaborative space to share your research and innovations, and stay tuned for EFood 2024 in Barcelona!