An Interview with Foodprint
Project’s Nicola Twilley and Sarah Rich
Between the ongoing fracas over high-fructose corn syrup, New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against soda, August’s salmonella outbreak, and the renaissance in community gardens (thanks in no small part to the First Lady digging up the South Lawn last year), you might be wondering more and more about the origins—and contents—of that grapefruit or slice of meatloaf.
Enter Sarah Rich and Nicola Twilley, the driving force behind the Foodprint Project, an exciting exercise in the geography of food. From its production to distribution to consumption, food provides endless opportunities to examine the relationship between what we grow (or herd, or slurp down in the drive-through) and the spaces we inhabit. Food, so the geographical narrative goes, profoundly shapes the economics, culture, politics, and day-to-day living of communities. The results are often surprising. Take, for instance, Rutgers Professor Kathe Newman’s recent theory that the spread of cupcake bakeries canvasses urban gentrification better than the demographic data city planners usually lean on, like property taxes.
Co-founded by Rich and Twilley, Foodprint Project is an ongoing series of city-specific panels that map how foods and living cities shape one another. Going well beyond the usual suspects in conversations about food and cities—farmer’s markets, food deserts, and CSAs—Foodprint Project’s recent panels in New York and Toronto tackled subjects anything but shopworn: lost urban greenhouses, 3-D food printing, the interlace of zoning and food distribution, and the lucrative “flavor industry.” These panels are unusual in their interdisciplinary array of speakers: designers, architects, academics, policy-makers, scientists, culinary historians, food retailers, and residents.
Foodprint Project is not about the local food movement per se — it’s about the relationship between a community and its food. – Nicola Twilley
Newfound caught up with Foodprint Project to talk about upcoming events, the project’s origins, and where to get killer ice cream in San Francisco.
CAMERON TURNER: Next January, you’re bringing Foodprint to Los Angeles. How has the project been transformed by your experiences in New York and Toronto, and what ideas have you encountered for other cities expanding their food consciousnesses—whether the SoCal megaregion, Austin, or Des Moines—to consider stealing?
SARAH RICH: New York and Toronto were quite different in terms of both the panelists and the conversations we ended up having. In New York we mostly covered the socio-economic and racial/ethnic breakdown of different neighborhoods, and how the food system and food industry form themselves according to how they expect different communities to consume and relate to food. For example, we looked at liquor advertising in African American neighborhoods and the inventories of bodegas in Central American neighborhoods and dug into how alcoholism or obesity could potentially be alleviated through the redesign of systems and environments. In Toronto, we talked about long-term food security and preparedness for the Ontario region in the face of environmental disaster or other large-scale collapse. Of course, these things intermingled and overlapped, but I’d say one thing we learned is that even within the consistent program template we are setting up for these events (same four themes/titles for the panels), what happens within that template will be very region-specific. And that’s a good thing. It provides a nice way of assessing the differences between places when we have an established set of parameters.
I think with LA we probably want to expand the programming beyond just a “sit and listen” format to have some more interactive events out in the city, like a walking tour. We also may add a fifth “wildcard” panel that is more specifically targeted to LA food and design topics. That could involve any number of things—water issues, immigrant enclaves, transportation…
NICOLA TWILLEY: As Sarah points out, the project is still very much evolving. I think we’re definitely realizing that the ground we want to cover in our discussions is too big to do justice to in four forty-five minute discussions, however articulate our panelists are and no matter how intense the debate gets. Tied into that is the fact that even though we move onto a new city, we would love to keep the interdisciplinary conversations and connections going after each Foodprint event. We know of some cases where that’s been happening informally, but we’re talking about ways we can actively facilitate it. So we’re constantly talking about format changes (like adding on workshops, or structuring the panels differently) and also other creative ways to extend the project beyond a one-time physical gathering.
The other important point in your question is how to share the ideas that come up in one city with other places that might find it useful. We live stream our events and archive the video online, we’re putting together our first issues of the “Foodprint Papers” (e-booklets with transcripts, images, and follow-up Q and As) — but you’re right, there have been some fantastic insights in each city that I would love to make sure come to the attention of people confronting similar issues in other cities. It’s another ongoing discussion for Sarah and I, and we’ve also reached out to our mailing list and Twitter followers for suggestions.
By way of some examples, in Toronto, we had a really interesting discussion about scale and sustainability — whether and how to expand local food activist projects or small businesses, and what the trade-offs are. There’s a tendency to see projects that work, and say, “Great, let’s just make that bigger, and all our problems will be solved” — but McDonald’s started out as a local food business once. In Toronto, too, we heard about the city’s Food Business Incubator and its fantastic community food center (The Stop), among many other projects, institutions, policies, and ideas.
Meanwhile, in New York, our panelists discussed any number of equally inspiring projects, including Natalie Jeremijenko’s CrossSpecies Adventure Club, with its mission to expand our conception of the food web, and the Center for Urban Pedagogy‘s work with school kids to map and analyze urban foodscapes.
TURNER: When Foodprint spoke with Varick Shute of the Urban Omnibus in February, Sarah mentioned that “It’s not very sexy to talk about any kind of system. But there has been increased interest and awareness from the general public about distribution and processing as a result of the recent wide-spread food contamination scares.” It seems like the local food movement is fixated on the aesthetic possibilities and rustic romance of what we eat (chic farm-to-table trailers, the foodie blogosphere, slow food fetishizing, etc.). Especially in light of the recent salmonella outbreak, what role do you see designers, writers, and artists playing in shifting public attention toward the undercarriage of the food system?
RICH: I think Nicky and Geoff’s Landscapes of Quarantine is a great example of using art and writing to explore themes around contamination, disease, safety, etc. There have been quite a few other great ones, too. Amy Franceschini’s Futurefarmers project that had a fruitstand full of oranges with the origins of the fruit printed on them…. It’s a really ripe topic (pardon the pun) for creative exploration since it’s not just about, as you say, the aesthetics of food, but also politics, geography, law, commerce, etc.
TWILLEY: John Knechtel, a panelist at Foodprint Toronto and editor of the Alphabet Media imprint, had some really interesting things to say about the importance of these kind of creative explorations of a topic, actually. I’m with him — which is why, for me, the most exciting part of the Foodprint Project is gathering architects, designers, and artists who are interested in the relationship between cities and food and putting them in a room together with urban food activists, producers and retailers, and policy-makers — and then seeing what they have to say to each other.
TURNER: Trying to trace the lineage of today’s food movement is enough to drive anyone batty—from Luigi Veronelli defending Italian gastronomy to the muckraking spirit of the Progressive Era to the DIY/vegan ethos of 90s zines to 5th-generation farmers in Colorado who have suddenly found themselves abutting city limits, the cast of characters involved is huge. In considering Foodprint’s own influences, what books or experiences with food culture first started you down the path to where you are now, and why?
TWILLEY: For me, the Foodprint Project grew out of the interests that inform my own blog Edible Geography. One book in particular had a foundational influence on Edible Geography: architect Carolyn Steel’s Hungry City. Bizarrely, it doesn’t have a US publisher, but it’s a really fascinating and exciting look at the relationship between food and cities, and at the end, it proposes a research agenda that Steel is continuing to pursue: how can architects and planners use food consciously to design healthy, sustainable, and resilient communities? Another experience that informed the format of Foodprint Project was Postopolis!, an event series founded by Joseph Grima at the Storefront for Art and Architecture and Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG (who is also my husband). It’s a week-long event that has so far taken place in three different cities — NYC, LA, and Mexico City — and it invites a group of bloggers (from all over) to curate a back-to-back marathon of speakers (from the city). I have attended them all and was a blogger/curator at the most recent Postopolis! Although the events are somewhat chaotic and definitely exhausting, what they produce is a really interesting multi-dimensional X-ray of the city. I really like that model: going to a city and facilitating a conversation that (hopefully) pulls together existing threads into new conversations.
In terms of my experiences with food, I love to eat, and I’ve always loved peeking behind the scenes to see where it comes from and how it is made — I remember a family holiday to Wales when I was eight, where our visit to the local cheese factory was the highlight of the trip for me!
RICH: A good question. It’s hard to remember chronologically but I do remember meeting one of the directors of The Future of Food and watching the movie when it came out, and was struck perhaps for the first time by the ripple effect of industrial agriculture. Fast Food Nation was also a book I read early on in my interest in this area and the thing that stood out most to me in that one was all the stuff about flavor science. Amazing (there was later a great article about a flavor chemist in The New Yorker). I remember the impression Hungry Planet made on me, seeing a day’s supply of food for families around the world. I’d echo Nicky’s mention of Hungry City. And the research I did when writing the Worldchanging book was extremely valuable in terms of digging deeper into food from the perspective of design, economics, cities, etc.
We’re in a highly conceptual time right now as far as the future of food. I think it’s important to go through a process of imagining a radically different future but I think soon there will be a need to … implement some of these ideas, to find out how effective they are versus sticking closer to more conventional answers. – Sarah Rich
TURNER: How would Foodprint Project set up shop in cities that have a less visible or widespread local food movement than, say, Portland or Brooklyn? For instance, what would Foodprint Reno look like, or Foodprint Mobile?
TWILLEY: Well, I think that Foodprint Project is not about the local food movement per se — it’s about the relationship between a community and its food, and Reno and Mobile obviously have their own unique relationship to the food system. So I’m positive there would be plenty to talk about. I can definitely imagine structuring the event a little differently in different cities, depending on who is working in a particular area, and how many people have a broad analytic relationship to food and the city, versus a niche perspective — perhaps with workshops first, or short presentations followed by discussion — but fundamentally, the conversation would be just as exciting (perhaps even more so, for being unexpected).
RICH: The thing we do for big cities is probably the same thing we’d do in small ones, which is to scout some key local people in the design and food communities. Often we start with academic institutions or other organizations because it’s easy to deduce people’s involvement and interests. Then, from there, we get recommendations on other people who are leading new ideas in the cities, or in charge of interesting organizations or key businesses. That, combined with our outreach via social networks (namely Twitter) is how we find both speakers and audience anywhere we go.
TURNER: Based on your conversations in New York and Toronto, what’s the food future likely to look like?
TWILLEY: Pretty different, depending on who you’re talking to! I think our conversations so far have resisted trying to predict a monolithic vision of the future, and instead speculated on some of the issues and challenges inherent in different scenarios and their impact on the urban foodscape. So we’ve talked about scale, and efficiency versus resiliency in urban food systems; we’ve talked about the benefits and pitfalls of consumer pressure versus government regulation to reshape the food system; we’ve debated the possibilities and limitations of urban agriculture; and we’ve argued about technology in food, and the pros and cons of things like GM, nanofoods, and even a 3D food printer. We’ve also had really interesting discussions about education: thinking about food as a tool for learning, but also what we should learn about food, and how. It’s a conversation that relates back to what we can and want to do now, to redesign our food systems for the future, and, in particular, what issues we should be aware of as we try to do that.
RICH: I think we’re in a highly conceptual time right now as far as the future of food. People are very “blue sky” about the possibilities, especially in the design world, proposing things like skyscraper agriculture, 3D-printed food, etc. I think it’s important to go through a process of imagining a radically different future but I think soon there will be a need to get practical, to question the logistics of implementing some of these ideas, to find out how effective they are versus sticking closer to more conventional answers. I do think we’ll continue to have interest in local and urban food cultivation heading into the future, but the larger scale questions of feeding a planet of billions will still rest at the other end of that spectrum in the realm of large-scale bioengineering and that sort of thing. Solutions at two poles.
TURNER: What’s Foodprint Project eating these days?
RICH: Right now I’m on a Virgin America flight from SFO to DC and I just ate their airplane food, which is really damn good for airplane food. In general right now, I’m eating my weight in heirloom tomatoes and figs, while the season is high. And I am always eating a lot of ice cream from our local ice cream shops, Humphry Slocombe and Bi-Rite Creamery.
TWILLEY: I just moved back to Culver City in LA, and I am enjoying eating at all the new restaurants that have opened since I last lived here in 2007, as well as all my old favorites. But I’m already looking forward to having a real bagel in NYC when I go back for a quick visit next week! I also just got all of my stuff out of storage, so I’ve been making things from all my long-lost Nigella Lawson, Jill Dupleix, and Nigel Slater cookbooks. It’s like a recipe reunion!
Nicola Twilley is a freelance writer currently based in Los Angeles, and runs Edible Geography.
Sarah Rich is a writer and digital content strategist specializing in design, new media, food and sustainability. She’s a former senior editor at Dwell, co-author of Worldchanging, and co-founder of Longshot Magazine.