Virtual Exchange: Food Sociality
Global Food Outlook hosts Virtual Exchange on Food Sociality
On September 18, 2013 IFTF and Food Tank partnered to host a virtual exchange on the future of food sociality. The conversation used refrigeration as a classic example of a transformational technology with lasting implications for the ways that people purchase, prepare, store, and socialize around food. You can join the conversation about what it will mean to eat together in the future, as well as other topics in the virtual exchange series, at #Food4Future. Download the podcast or read the summary of the exchange below.
- Miriam Lueck Avery (@myravery), Co-Director of IFTF's Global Food Outlook and Health Horizons programs
- Ellen Gustafson (@EllenGustafson), Co-Founder of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank (@Food_Tank)
We experienced some technical difficulties at the beginning of the audio recording. The podcast misses Miriam and Ellen kicking off the conversation by introducing the speakers and setting the context for how our food technologies can shape our social practices. The recording then picks up with Nicola Twilley discussing transformations in the global cold chain.
Virtual Exchange Summary
Refrigeration + Sociality
In the early days of refrigeration, the thinking was that it would be a central utility (like electricity) that came into our homes through pipes. If this had been the case, our cities, homes, and daily meal routines would be very different than they are today. Nicola started with this example to provoke thinking about how the design of food technologies shapes culture and social habits. Looking to the future, Nicola is paying attention to China, where the growing middle class is often prioritizing the purchase of a refrigerator over other home furnishings. In America more than 70% of food passes through the cold chain. In China, this number is in the low teens. A future where “China adopts the cold chain that the US has would be disruptive to the entire world,” Nicola said.
Nicola also referenced an anthropological study done at UCLA that looked at behaviors of middle class American families in their homes and revealed that people spent the most time in front of the refrigerator. “The fridge is the 21st century hearth, the center of the family,” she said. It is a site to gather around and graze for food, but also a hub where important information or family schedules are posted. Our traditional notions of what it means to gather or share a meal as a family is a product of time and place, and technologies in the home influence how these practices evolve.
Resurgence of Food Hubs
On the other end of the spectrum, Matt is leading a project to bring back the communal meat locker as a way to increase the availability and decrease the cost of local, ethically raised meat. Most people do not have room in their personal freezers to store bulk meat purchases. From his ag-economist perspective, meat lockers offer an exciting opportunity both for farmers and consumers. Buying a half or quarter animal makes local meat cheaper per pound than grocery store meat. Selling in bulk is most efficient for farmers. CSA’s and meat shares were not initially fueled by technology, but online platforms make connecting farmers directly to consumers much less clumsy.
Matt’s plan is for the meat locker to become a new kind of community hub. When people pick up their meat shares local producers will be there selling produce, bread, and cheese. “Technology [has the potential to enable] individuals to become less dependent on the community,” he said. “Communal freezer space is getting people to come back together again… it’s an opportunity to bring people back together over food instead of giving them the technology to stay apart from each other.”
The resurgence of food hubs in the United States is an interesting contrast to the disappearance of wholesale markets in places such as Brazil. Thabata talked about the growing tension between the trendy demand for local food and the desire for everything to be fast and convenient. Municipal markets are disappearing at the same time high end restaurants are advertising locally grown food. If this trend continues, it may decrease the availability of fresh food in low income, rural areas. Nicola wondered if we could “reinvent the municipal market to work in today’s climate rather than get rid of them all together?”
Leapfrogging Sociality Practices
For places like Brazil, India, or China, where there is not a legacy infrastructure of personal refrigerators and big-box grocery stores, there might be potential to leapfrog certain consumption practices. This could mean a huge global population buying and storing food in ways that don’t require supermarkets or individual refrigerators. Online technologies can eliminate the overhead costs of a supermarket but keep the efficiencies of scale. However, Thabata described how personal refrigerators can be seen as status symbols in Brazil, which might deter consumers from passing them up in favor of new offerings.
A sought after amenity in new urban apartments in the US is the “freshdirect room” where a doorman could receive delivery of fresh food and keep it refrigerated until you arrive home. The rise of online grocery shopping is pointing toward a future where human connection is completely removed from food procurement. However, Nicola thinks that with some thoughtful design we could combine the convenience of online grocery delivery with a more social process. Creating space to swap leftover meals or extra ingredients could also start to put a dent in food waste. “In the cold chain in general, refrigeration is a great thing at preventing food waste,” Nicola said. “At the domestic level it works the other way around - we stuff our fridges with things and then don’t get around to eating them.” Nicola thinks we are at a turning point - as we reinvent our food systems they can either enable more individualistic consumption, or they can be designed to enhance social connection.
Nicola also talked about how the one-stop-shop supermarket has made it easier for women in the workforce. “It is sort of a luxury right now to be able to shop in any other way,” she said. “To pick up this at your local butcher and fruits and veggies at the farmers market, there is a class divide right now in the luxury of time. We forget that before the advent of the refrigerator and grocery stores it was harder for women to join the workforce and still feed a family.” A revolutionary system would be one that combined the efficiency of shopping in one place with the ability to source food locally. Matt originally expected to get interest in the meat locker from the “foodies,” grad students, and apartment dwellers in Ithaca. As news about the project spreads, he is also getting interest from lower income households who typically don’t have access to local meat. New community level consumption practices could create more equal access to high quality, healthy foods.
Trust + Transparency
These community practices, however, create new issues around trust. There are apps that allow you to post and share leftover foods, which is a good step to connect excess food to hungry mouths, but raises concern about verifying food safety. This is another place where new technologies could come in - smart packaging and cheap sensors could allow for rapid, at-home testing of food. Nicola is also looking to China here. As a country with a long history of food safety scares, Nicola thinks we might be able to learn and adopt new innovative practices.
One main reason people are attracted to local food is the transparency that comes from knowing your farmer. Matt explained that while large cuts of local meat might not go through USDA inspected slaughterhouses, consumers will be able to know what the animals ate and how they were handled.
While we have good reason for our food safety germophobia, food preservation techniques such as fermenting or pickling have recently made a trendy comeback and also come with beneficial bacteria. “As we start to understand what is helpful to have in the gut, and how many different diseases are connected to the microbiome … there will be an increased value placed on some of those fermented or preserved foods that come with their own bacterial buddies,” she said.
Thabata also described the different sides of eating preserved and pickled food in Brazil. Wealthy diners will pay a premium for them in high-end restaurants. At the same time, many Brazilians rely on the techniques because they do not have refrigerators.
Sustainability + Making the Future
The conversation ended on a note about sustainability - Ellen mentioned that 14% of the average American home’s energy use comes from refrigerators. As the cost of energy continues to rise and concerns about climate change grow, we may have to rethink our refrigeration systems. In addition to the electrical costs, the refrigerants also have environmental consequences. Nicola described innovations using helium, deep-water sources, and even sound waves that could use less power and no chemical refrigerants.
Miriam closed with a reminder of how important it is to be intentional about what kind of future you are creating. As new technologies transform the food system we must think about how they will actually fit into people’s daily life. Through the narrow lens of refrigeration, this conversation showed how there is a potential to design our new food technologies to be more community driven, social, and inclusive.