Food Democracy: What Role Can Design Play?

As food design develops and expands as a field of practice and research, it is inevitable that the stakeholders invested in it raise questions about its goals, values, and priorities. Is food design destined to become the creative arm of the food business and other industries geared towards producing and selling always new and enticing consumer goods? Or should it rather turn into an opportunity to rethink the food system in its various aspects, from food manufacturing to distribution, experience, service, and even disposal? Should food design be an extension of capitalism or an agent for social alternatives? This may not necessarily be a clear-cut dichotomy, but rather a spectrum in which most cases sit between two extremes. Moreover, the same project or object may have more than one meaning or use, as they can be hijacked, repurposed, or just evolve during their social life.

Food Democracy: Critical Lessons in Food, Communication, Design and Art, delves precisely into these issues. This large volume is a thought-provoking hybrid between a traditional collection of essays, a set of recipes (one for each essay), and a catalogue of visual and participatory art pieces and social engagement interventions. The format is the direct reflection of Memefest and its Festival of Socially Responsive Communication, Design, and Art, whose participants and contributors believe that academia, social movements, and professional environments should not operate in silos, but interact and cross-pollinate beyond the customary institutional distinctions.

The 2013 edition of Memefest focused on food, and in particular on food democracy. The core of the reflection is that eating is not just a “natural” act in everyday life, providing the fuel that we need for survival, but it is actually enmeshed in the power negotiations that define our contemporary societies. Once one accepts this premise, innumerable questions can be raised that have a direct effect on the work of designers and artists engaged with food. Who profits from our food system? Who loses? Who gets exploited? What is the impact of food production, distribution, and consumption on national and international labor relations, the environment, and flows of people, money, and ideas? Who makes decisions about the structure of the food system?

As Vodeb observes, design as a tool to imagine the future is far from being peripheral to the food system. It expresses itself “in the form of systems, packaging, advertising, branding, identity, code or the very physical design of food – the feel, taste, crunch and color of what we eat fundamentally shapes how we relate to food. Design is inherently part of food as a commodity and almost always defines our relationship with it” (379).

As design has expanded in past decades to include experiences, services, and systems, going beyond more traditional approaches of focusing on objects and spaces, food design also reflects this shift, with inevitable changes in its role and its social relevance. Overall, the authors included in the Food Democracy collection tend to favor a greater public engagement. An approach that several designers and artists in the volume explore is the shift towards more localized food systems and smaller exchange networks, where actors are embedded in communities with their own priorities and challenges. Food democracy would thus not only facilitate greater participation in the decisions that shape the food system, but would also ensure justice and food security for larger segments of the population.

The volume leaves us wanting for more. How can designers and artists, coming from very different backgrounds and using radically diverging approaches, collaborate to achieve specific and concrete goals, especially when they embrace public engagement as a form of practice? What different contributions do they bring to the table, when on the table there is food?

The full-length review of the volume Food Democracy will be published on the International Journal of Food Design.

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