5 Steps To School Garden Success

Added on by Erin White.

post by Emily Auerbach

Here at Community Food Lab, we've been fortunate to be part of various school garden projects. Working with Powell Elementary School and the Durham Public School HUB Farm, we've helped create two very different school gardens - different in size, purpose, and start-up approach. In our piece for EducationNC, "Why School Gardens Are Important," we explored many aspects of these powerhouse educational tools.

We know that educators who want to build school garden programs often have few ideas on where to start. There are terrific resources out there for those who want to get started, like the amazing resource list and a more in-depth garden guide created by the Wake County-based Advocates for Health in Action. To complement those resources, and to help pull our own experiences into some simple advice, we’ve compiled a starting point how-to guide for enterprising educators who want to join the movement.

Read on for a step-by-step introduction to creating your very own school garden!  

1 People: Find your champions.

A great school garden program starts with a great team. Bring teachers, parents, administrators, and students on board with your dream. Form a Planning Committee with your champions. Your principal doesn’t have to be on your Planning Committee, but he/she should be included in the “plan” stage as much as possible.

2   Purpose: Identify the “why.”

School gardens can serve many functions, and as an advocate, it can be tempting to serve them all from day one. Pick your guiding principles from the get-go. Are you a food donation garden? A living classroom? A platform for nutrition education? Pick a purpose and stick to it- you’ll have plenty of time to branch out once the program is off the ground. Your purpose will guide your decisions in the “plan” and “program” steps.

Here are a few proven benefits of school gardens that you could pick as your purpose:

  1. Improve social skills and behavior
  2. Increase interest in eating fruits and vegetables
  3. Increase science achievement scores
  4. Improve nutrition knowledge

3   Plan: Dig in to the logistics.

It’s time to put your dream on paper. Pick a site, draw a plan, and get going. If you’re not sure where to start, click here to see example garden layouts by season. You want a site that has access to water and gets at least six hours of sun per day.

Once you have a plan, start thinking through the big questions:

  1. Who maintains the garden? Students? Parents? A staff member? School grounds staff?
  2. What is your garden calendar? Year-round or traditional?
  3. How will you keep the kids safe? What are your garden rules?
  4. Who can eat the produce?
  5. How will you store your tools?

Your principal should be the first person to sign off on your gorgeous garden plan. Then, go to your school’s Buildings & Grounds Committee if you have one. Depending on your county’s policies and what your plan looks like, you may need to submit a Facilities Modification Request to your county. (You don’t usually have to submit a Facilities Modification Request unless you’re building stationary beds or planting directly into the ground.)  Finally, make sure to test your soil if you’re planting directly in the ground.

4   Program: Build your curriculum.

A school garden needs programs and lesson plans to bring it to life. Happily, you’re not alone in wanting to provide hands-on learning for your children. Schools across the country have digitized their school garden lesson plans, and community groups such as the Master Gardeners can provide workshops upon request.

The Collective School Garden Network Lessons and Curricula database has hundreds of K-12 lesson plans available. For North Carolina-specific curricula, check out the Farm Bureau’s NC Ag in the Classroom website. Find a local Master Gardener network for your school here.   

5   Promote: Grow your network.

Now that you have your champions, know your “why,” understand the logistics, and have a program in place, it’s time to advocate for your vision. Apply for grants! Seek out in-kind donations! Organize a fundraiser! Bring your principal on board! A school garden requires all kinds of support, both monetary and non-monetary. Expand your circle of champions to include mentors, Master Gardeners, local business owners, and volunteers. These are the people who will bring your garden program to life.

Pro Tip: School garden advocates often stop short in the “promote” phase because the grant application process is intimidating. Remember that you have lots of options for funding the pilot phase of your program. In-kind donations from local businesses and PTA support can often get you where you need to be for your first step. If you do decide to apply for grants, GardenABCs has a great list of grant opportunities.

(6)  GROW.

You’ve put in the work. Now go build your garden!

How do you end hunger in Durham?

Added on by Erin White.

This is the fundamental question we tried to help answer for the community group End Hunger Durham at a recent workshop. As an action circle addition to the emerging  Durham Farm and Food Network, they are part of a growing momentum towards collective action in solving local food system challenges.

With support from Reinvestment Partners and Inter-Faith Food Shuttle, we designed and facilitated an event pulling together 30 leaders, thinkers, and do-ers in Durham's food security and food access world. The driving issue? How do groups that work all over Durham, and all over the Triangle, share information to better achieve their goals? What should a collective or community take on to achieve greatest impact? How can organizations that cover all parts of the charitable food supply chain learn how to connect better, fill gaps in delivery, and have better outcomes in reducing hunger?

Held in the new Bull City Cool food hub (another Community Food Lab project), this event was designed as a first step in identifying what the gaps and opportunities are. We looked at mapped data and we thought about where barriers in these efforts are. The group generated a long list of potential solutions: raw material for future action-oriented conversations to shift thinking on hunger in our communities.

Creativity and Collaboration in Food Systems

Added on by Erin White.

Food systems are complex. Let's start with that.

Finding solutions to wicked problems in food systems like hunger, obesity, farmland loss, and food security won't come through simple responses - these challenges require committed effort, creativity, and coordination of multiple voices. Solutions will have to be as complex, as rich, as the food system itself.

Today's food movement embraces the scale of these wicked problems with ambitious goals. Ensure access to healthy food for everyone. Drive vibrant local economies with strong relationships around local food. Make amazing places throughout small towns and big cities using food as the creative and community spark. Food systems ought to make people and places healthier, safer, and happier - it's an idea that resonates with committed food folks and attracts new players to the movement.

Who are these new players? Municipalities and nonprofits are exploring their roles in a better food system, recognizing the urgent need for better food systems as well as the incentives for doing food better. Entrepreneurs and investors are looking to socially-responsible business models that combine profitability with the energy of food system change. Consumers, especially, are looking for ways to be part of a better food system through brand choices and shopping patterns.

In the multi-faceted food system work at Community Food Lab, we've gotten to know individuals, neighborhood groups, faith communities, non-profit organizations, advisory boards, university initiatives, food policy councils, and municipal and county government. Some of the people involved are food experts, but many are brand new to food system thinking. Some groups are built as collective, non-hierarchical organizations, while some wrestle with deep layers of bureaucracy.

If all of these groups are ready to join in creating better food systems, what can they do when they show up?


Collaborate collaborate collaborate.


Collaboration leads to the resilient networks necessary for rebuilding a healthy food system.

The key element in effective collaboration is effective listening. Sharing a cup of coffee and big ideas is a great way to start a collaboration.

Collaboration isn't always easy, especially for groups with ingrained habits that limit constructive interaction and long-view collaboration. There are pragmatic challenges in collaborating, but as more groups and players see the importance of food thinking and investment, obvious opportunities to connect open up around shared food system interests. Connecting common food interests and building shared agendas through collaboration allows the resources from each group or organization to make greater impact around food problems.


Find your role in a comprehensive approach combining leadership, coordination, and creativity.


The food problems facing us are massively complex. How do you solve childhood hunger, for instance? Or obesity? Or the ageing out of our nation's farmers? Or building urban food production to keep up with rapidly growing cities?

First off, no single solution or single group will solve them. Remember 'collaboration,' above?

Solving these problems will require big picture vision and flexible strategy as well as energetic, anything-goes, passionate grassroots creativity. It's a top-down and bottom-up situation. To capture the impact and power of both parts of problem-solving, new mechanisms are needed to coordinate and support collaboration between top-down and bottom-up efforts so that successful ideas are replicated, extra resources can move where they are needed, and we can measure progress as we go.

Within growing collaborations and networked communities of food action, leadership, coordination, and creativity are critical to develop. Every person, organization, or group will have their own natural fit into these areas. Some may be strongest with a singular focus. Others will find themselves pushing all three.

Most important? See your work as part of a larger, collaborative, multi-level approach to changing the system.



Who brings people together to discuss and define problems? Who pushes to develop a shared vision that inspires everyone's best efforts? Who gets out in front with statements of commitment and contributions of resources, building confidence for other groups to get involved and stay involved in food system change?

Leadership can come from many different places within this diversity of groups, and need not be from a single source. Effective leadership focuses on making everyone's work better and celebrating everyone's best ideas and achievements.

It's a leader's task to constantly remind us where we are heading, making corrections as we go. But it's important to remember that if everyone focuses only on the destination, you'll miss the opportunity around you. An effective leader knows that it's not just about the destination, nor is it really about the leader. It's about



We need new coordination tools and energy to rebuild smart, resilient food systems that leverage all kinds of creativity and new forms of resources to move shared efforts at large-scale change.

Resilient systems are built on relationships. Healthy food systems are incredible at building and sustaining the many relationships that allow information to travel through the system like a network, keeping everyone updated and keeping the system smart.

A smart, more resilient food system is capable of shifting and flexing against outside forces, and ensuring that our food system is secure and sustainable. The problem our food systems face in this regard is that we have lost many of the means by which a resilient food system is built. Coordination today is about connecting the diverse, separated parts of the food system, and rebuilding a network of communication to support better use of resources, develop new markets, and create opportunities for new ideas through open dialogue across silos. 


Landscape of Creativity

Creativity can be stifled or fostered.

Envision, for a moment, a landscape. In this landscape there are steep hills and gentle valleys. There is hot sun and there are shady pathways. There are natural places where we are drawn and are comfortable, like a quiet riverbank or meadow.

Now, imagine creativity as a traveler in this landscape. Where does it naturally want to go? Does it want to walk a level path, or thrash uphill through rocks and brush? Does it want a breeze? A place to sit? Or will it climb mountains for the view and sense of accomplishment?

If this is the landscape of creativity, we can push and pull the features to help direct creativity where we want it to go. Creativity is a living thing that we can nourish and direct, and naturally it will travel the most rewarding routes.

If we want to attract creativity to food systems thinking, to bring innovative community and business solutions to these problems, we need to shape the landscape to do that. We need to remove barriers and create a welcoming place that will attract creativity and help it linger. The Heath brothers talk about shaping the path in Switch, and this is a similar idea.

An environment with barriers to trying new things or cultures of closely-guarded secrets tend to diminish creativity. On the other hand, the creativity of an entire community can be magnified if ideas are treated as a shared resource, incentives are developed for creating new solutions to our shared problems, and the barriers to innovation are smoothed out.

Creativity is required to solve our serious food system problems. Guided by capable leadership and linked to coordinated resources, creativity can help move us out of traditional problem-solving and begin capturing the disruptive opportunities infusing many other industries and the power of innovation.

Creativity means escaping from the traditional patterns in order to see things differently.  - Eliot Coleman



Belief in Tomorrow: City Fruit Raleigh

Added on by Erin White.

Guest post by Sally Parlier

 “To plant a garden is to believe in tomorrow.” – Audrey Hepburn

On Saturday, November 14, Community Food Lab partnered with local organizations, community residents, and volunteers to plant fruit trees in South Park, here in Raleigh. Meanwhile, many people around the world were (and still are) grieving from attacks in Paris and Beirut. Our labor of love with City Fruit might seem small in comparison to the global news, but the juxtaposition also reflects the importance of building healthy communities. Planting fruit trees is an investment in the future—the bare branches we see today will eventually bear delicious food. In the meantime, our “belief in tomorrow” is the reason we prioritized planting perennial plants that will produce fruit annually for many years.

In planting our apple trees, fig trees, blueberry bushes, and blackberry canes, Community Food Lab, GrowRaleigh, Awesome Foundation, Greenscape, and volunteers were making a statement about the kind of community that we want Raleigh and our world to be. At various community gardens and homes, these trees will make fresh fruit freely available to many. They will teach others about seasonal availability and just how good berries picked right at ripeness can be.

As the Greenscape volunteers and I planted trees at the Passage Home Community Garden, the non-profit’s chef and case manager Ann stopped by to take a look at our work. She exclaimed, “I’m going to cook with these someday!” and picked up information about caring for the trees. One resident carefully selected the location of her blackberry bush in her backyard, envisioning that the location on the fence would allow her neighbors to be able to easily pick berries as well. Another community member commented that there is no reason the whole neighborhood can’t be full of fruit trees. Although it will take time to bear fruit, these fruit trees and bushes are already becoming part of a community member’s vision of the neighborhood.

At all of the planting sites, groups of volunteers who were strangers in the morning found common ground while digging up the earth. At the end of the day, volunteers asked for each other’s contact information to stay in touch as friends and acquaintances. Several asked when the next City Fruit planting day would be.

Although we never could have guessed what global events would precede our community fruit tree planting day on November 14, they served as a powerful reminder of purpose beyond providing healthy, accessible, and tasty food and bringing attention to issues of food justice in Raleigh. In volunteering to work with our community, we dedicated ourselves to community resiliency, sustainability, and vitality.

As we approach Thanksgiving, I will think of Ann and the people of Passage Home. I’ll imagine the apple pies and blueberry cobblers made with City Fruit that in a few years will anchor the Thanksgiving table and nourish our community not only in body, but also in spirit.   

Listening Better: the South Park Food Conversation

Added on by Erin White.

Last summer we held an experiment. We invited a chef to cook some healthy food out in front of the Galley Store in Raleigh's South Park neighborhood. We brought in a nutritionist, and we invited neighbors to come and eat. We planned on asking people about food in the neighborhood. Nothing too specific, and no higher expectations than simply trying to listen. 

We knew that in order to do meaningful food system work in a low-income neighborhood, we needed first-hand connections to that community. From our work to develop the Raleigh Food Corridor, we knew that effectively engaging and working with this neighborhood was important not only for the Corridor, but also to start breaking down food insecurity and equity issues throughout Southeast Raleigh. We also felt that in addition to bringing fresh and healthy food to food deserts, healthy corner stores could also act as community spaces in neighborhoods lacking community centers or safe outdoor public space. So we reached out to the Galley and got permission to use part of their front parking area. 

We didn't know what to expect, but at that first event we had some illuminating conversations and shared a lot of food. The store manager liked what we were doing, and the chef had a great time. So we did it again.

Now we are 11 months into our project at the Galley and we can reflect back on what we've created. There have been challenges, and reason to doubt what we're doing there. What are we actually achieving by feeding about 30 or 35 people a small meal once a month, in a neighborhood full of free food giveaways that we clearly aren't members of, and showing up with the intention of somehow getting to know the neighborhood by doing it? We could be seen as naive or presumptuous at best. So why do it? Along the way we've asked ourselves why this matters, and what difference we think we are making. Why is this little, low-key event one day a month worth doing? We decided up front that if we could learn new ways to engage communities, make a tangible difference in that neighborhood's food system, and make new collaborative connections that it would be worth it. Looking back on the first year, we know that we are getting there. Not perfect, but getting there.

Last winter, Wake Co Human Services joined us, and we've been partnering with them since February 2015. In March, one of Wake County's state representatives joined us for a meal. We discovered that some students from the Chef's Academy in Morrisville live in the neighborhood, and they've pitched in as sous chefs and neighborhood connectors. We've had teenagers jump in first as prep assistants to cook the food, and then as an energetic sales team encouraging more people to try something new. We've had over 6 different guest chefs join us to share their ideas, vision, and enthusiasm. We've built trust with the store management to the point where we can start having conversations about how the store can be an even stronger asset to the community. We are building relationships with other neighborhood organizations and looking for ways to encourage new connections. And over the last two months we've piloted new information gathering methods at the event itself, to survey people on lots of different questions. 

The project is an excellent fit for Community Food Lab. It's active community engagement that is at the same time research about community engagement. We are learning as we go. The project is pushing our design abilities in new ways, as we wrestle with challenges related to race and identity, participatory vs expert design, and the need for empathy as a first step in any human-centered design work. Because this counts as design to us - building trust, asking questions, and feeding people healthy food. All these are open-ended, complex problems that force creativity, iterative problem-solving, and the knowledge that we may never get it quite right. 

So, what have we found? Here's some of what we've learned:

  • Less than a quarter of people we talked to in July drive themselves to the grocery store. The others are driven by friends or take the bus.
  • Over 60% of people we talked to in July cook at home everyday.
  • Having chefs show up and only cook with ingredients found at the Galley is a great format, a good challenge for the chefs, and an effective follow-up for recipe sharing 
  • Kids activities help everyone stay longer
  • Sitting and eating together is a terrific way to start and maintain conversations

And many thanks to our guest chefs: Ryan McGuire, Andrew Ullom, Cherisse Byers, Stacey Sprenz, Chef Kabui, and Meghan Malka. 

Food Systems are like Apartment Buildings

Added on by Erin White.

And we're all in this together. 

Picture an old apartment building, maybe 8 or ten stories tall.

Now imagine standing in the damp, dim basement of that building with 20 others who live in the building with you. You all stand staring at the building's foundation wall, made of old and crumbling brick, where the mortar is mostly worn away, and groundwater is seeping through. You look up at the thick floor beams above you and wonder how much longer this wall can hold them up, and the rest of the building above.

Look around at the others gathered here in the basement. Some are nervous, some are merely curious. Some are terrified, some outraged. Many are new faces to you. How often do you actually say hello, or speak with them on a normal day? But today is different. Here, together, gaping at the evidence of a failing structure, each of you worry that everything of value to you - your families, your memories, your health - could all tumble down.

"Who let this happen? It's completely irresponsible to let the building fall apart."

"This is a disaster."

"We all need to get out."

"We can't leave - we have nowhere else to go."

"Same with us."

"Us, too. Can't leave. There's nothing to do except try and fix this."

Here's the last piece of the story: the only people who can repair this building, that can keep the upper floors safe and intact, are the ones standing here with you. Somehow this diverse band of residents must find a way to work together to repair the crumbling foundations. How do you start? How do you get everyone on the same page, and how do you create a shared plan to repair the ailing building?

photo by Lee Storrow

photo by Lee Storrow

What if all of the skills and resources needed to repair the building were standing there in that group? What if all you had to do was identify the carpenter, the mason, the cook to nourish the repair crew, and the coach who could motivate the team each morning?

Our food system is like this apartment building.

Like a food system, the building depends on a complex network of parts to support life within it: a physical structure, water supply pipes, electrical wiring and hardware, exit signs and staircases. Like a food system it supports many different people. Some of these people know each other and many don't. Some of these people understand the system that is supporting them, but many aren't really aware of it.

Our food system is like that building in that it's failing us at almost every point. We throw away 40% of the food we grow, we are losing farmers and farmland, our mainstream agricultural practices are increasingly dependent on chemical inputs and corporate interests, and in the face of all of that we are as hungry as ever.

If our food system is like that building, then scattered within our real-world communities are those 20 people staring at the failing foundations, starting to realize that it's up to us to solve this. These are the few people already engaged in food system change, but they aren't enough. Whole communities need to bring their energy and assets to keep the food system from falling down.

At Community Food Lab, where we work as food system thinkers and local food system designers, this apartment building story leads us to two conclusions.


First, we all need to be part of the solution. Participation in your food system matters. Grow vegetables, buy local, attend a policy meeting, start a food business, or start a community garden. Instead of waiting it out in an upstairs apartment, we need everyone down in the basement figuring out how to help. Everyone's got different skills, experiences, and resources to contribute to the effort, and only with all of our assets on the table can we craft a lasting solution.

Important in this participatory approach is the need to include the user of the food system in the design of its repair. John Thackara's design thinking and the human-centered design work of IDEO explain it well. By including the members of the community in solutions for the community, the solutions will reflect the community's actual interests and the plan will be better supported over the long term.

Another key point about participation? It fosters ground-level and grassroots solutions instead of top-down solutions. Top-down thinking can be useful, but it limits user input, tends to over-simplify complexity, and rewards efficiency over resilience. The more we can participate in our own solutions, the more resilient and intelligent our solutions can be.

Our second apartment building conclusion is that design thinking must be part of the repair work. The food system, like an old building's structure, is a wicked problem. The food system's ambiguities and moving parts mean that any solution to problems like farmland loss, childhood hunger, or eroding local food supply chains will happen in the context of all the entire food system. There will be no single solutions, and there isn't what could be call a single 'right answer.' Numerous possibilities exist for repairing the broken parts. Solutions can be equally effective at the regional scale and at the neighborhood or front-porch scale. Finding the starting points in solving food system problems is the main thing, just as it is in the apartment building basement.

Design process squiggle from Central

Design process squiggle from Central

Design thinking will be an important part of solving these problems. Working with multiple stakeholders, finding clarity in impossibly tangled problems, and building deep context into decisions about complex systems - these are part of the designer's toolbox and they are typical demands of food system problems.

Designers and design thinking won't actually be the solutions, however, and this is as important in food systems as in old apartment buildings. Check out the GrowDat Youth Farm in New Orleans, and you'll see what I mean. Design helps bring the parts and purpose together, but design isn't the activity that puts teachers and volunteers and youth shoulder to shoulder in a tomato field. Particular skills like farming, teaching, marketing, food inventory management, policy development, or community organizing are critical in a healthy food system. The skills and assets within our communities, however, will only be as strong as the system that connects them, that empowers them and catalyzes their innovation.

Standing in a dark, leaky basement with 20 strangers is a way to picture how design thinking comes into play. These strangers can all be introduced, and their interests and skills and histories can be connected into a system of social possibility. They can all participate in assessing the condition of the crumbling walls, and together can decide to make change. Drawn together in the confidence that their collective crisis can be made clear and can be solved together, the strangers become a community, and the process of becoming a community provides them with the tools to create change.

Let's go downstairs and fix this together.

A Place for Food Webinar

Added on by Jennifer Truman.

On July 3rd, we listened into a webinar on placemaking from Community Food Centres.  The webinar featured a strong panel of active community builders - women with years of experience working in neighborhood parks using food to bring people together.

The panel discussed the heart and soul they pour into their parks to make them lively urban spaces, where everything centers around food. In each park there are opportunities for gardening, cooking, buying and selling at markets every day.  They discussed their inspirations, their successes, their failures and the impact of their newest programs. A big takeaway was that strong community organizations engaged in the programs and the park itself have been able to work over the years with local government to adapt and change regulations regarding gardening and commercial cooking.

The panelists:

Jutta Mason of Dufferin Grove Park, worked there since 1993. She started by baking cookies for cranky adolescent hockey players to make the ice skating rink more fun for everyone. Now the project has grown into a community garden in the summer, an active farmer’s market, community wood-fired baking ovens. and weekly community programs. 

Sabina Ali of Thorncliffe Park, worked there since 2008. In a neighborhood of immigrants, the park brings neighbors together to get outside, form bonds, promote cultural heritage and empower women and men alike through open markets and gatherings. An imported tandoor oven used for traditional South Asian breads forms a central story for the park, attracting crowds whenever it's fired up. A farmer’s market was started by the farmers and a community garden was started by the community, many of whom are immigrants that missed farming in the old country. The farms and gardens are now ways for this community to share their farming knowledge across generations and cultures.

Liz Curran, of new Regent Park Community Food Centre, moderated.


Of course, there was plenty of tweeting during the webinar, so we’ve gathered some of the highlights:

Featured at FoodTank, the food think tank

Added on by Erin White.

Community Food Lab was featured recently on the excellent blog of the Food Tank, an organization built around the need to fix our broken food systems. Their passion and energy come through all the work they do, and we are excited to get our name out there on such a great site!

As much as we need new THINKING on global food system issues, we also need new DOING. Around the world, there are examples of people and organizations that have developed innovative, on-the-ground solutions to the most pressing issues in food and agriculture. Through years of field visits (and years of trying to eat better in our own communities), Food Tank will continue to highlight and promote the best practices.
— from FoodTank.org
RUBENSrender tags-01.jpg

our kickstarter needs you!

Added on by Erin White.

We are getting our kickstarter on, raising money to produce a booklet series on local food, and we need your support! (plus, you'll love our video)

OPEN FOOD is a series of single topic booklets that introduce, explain and share various parts of local food systems. Our goal for the OPEN FOOD booklet series is to build participation in the food system.  We are designing these booklets to spark conversations about local food systems with information and graphics that are easy to share. All the details at our kickstarter page.


An earlier blog post on the project tells it this way: "Because urban agriculture is a frequently misunderstood yet rapidly growing phenomenon with immense benefits, our design team is currently working on a booklet series meant to inform readers about urban agriculture and local food."

Take a moment to explore our campaign! Hope you love it, share it, and decide to become a backer. We'd love to have you on board!

local food, graphic design, systems that make a difference

Added on by Erin White.
tricycle gardens

tricycle gardens

fresh produce on display in Church Hill convenience store

fresh produce on display in Church Hill convenience store

community garden in church hill

community garden in church hill

From informal sidewalk interviews:

Person A does not think there is local food around Church Hill.

Person B does think there is local food (at tricycle gardens ).

Brooke Chornyak teaches systems in graphic design at VCU, and spends a lot of time teaching food systems. Her premise, that one can learn graphic design by studying food, relies on consistent principles shared among all systems, and on the idea that the familiarity we have for food systems can effectively teach these consistent system principles, and can instill curiosity in general. All of which is important for the emerging designer because "the complexity and scale of today's design problems needs design practitioners with insightful research methods. . . Designers now and increasingly will be asked to collaborate with social policy advocates and anthropologists, cognitive psychologists, governmental and business leaders" (gdes 343 syllabus) 

A few weeks ago, I helped lead a workshop with Brooke's class on food systems, local food, and understanding food in urban settings. In a 20-block area of the Church Hill neighborhood in Richmond, VA, the class explored the presence of food in the city through photographs, mappings, interviews, and discussion. We talked about socially-driven design, about how systems can become stable and resilient or brittle and fragile. We read a thought-provoking interview with Sarah Rich and Nicola Twilley about food, cities, and design. We had a long talk about what local food actually is.

This is the students' brainstormed list of what local food is, on the course's tmblr. This is the flickr site they've set up to collect their Church Hill food photographs.

We went out and spent a morning in the Church Hill neighborhood, which I'd only visited the day before. The students were tasked with surveying the physical neighborhood, looking for food, any kind of food, any evidence of food. They were asked to photograph what they saw, and locate on a large map what they found. They were also asked to interview people they encountered along the way, revealing widely divergent perspectives on food in Church Hill. The area and its food assets were new territory for most of us. I enjoyed getting to know the urban fabric there, reading the apparent shifts in economy and culture typical of transitioning neighborhoods, but seeing a flavor of Southern historicism that is probably unique to Richmond, and maybe to just this neighborhood. 

So what about local food, then? We found some in Church Hill. How can local food relate back to systems, and inform the teaching of designers?

If we're talking about systems as way to teach graphic design, then, doesn't the question of local lead away from the underlying logic in systems? Doesn't the idea of local food, instead of teaching about universal systems behavior, take on us on a tangential exercise further and further from stocks and flows, from formal patterns and rules, and the real meat of systems thinking?

Well of course it does. Talking about local in food isn't like talking about graphic design's formal systems, and talking about local in food isn't equivalent to talking about the food system's formal rules. Local food is about interaction and performance, is about the subject-object relationship that every designer realizes. Talking about local food is like talking about the user or the audience in design. Framing food as local can reorient the entire food system into a relationship with a person, a family, an actual place on the map. The local that matters 'here' is different from the local defined by 'over there.' Knowing that location, situation, and context are all part of the local food experience can teach amazing lessons for designers. When a design student describes local food as: "only interactive, meaning (that) I have a relationship with those that grew or produced the food", then that designer is capable of forming a relationship with the user of their designs, and capable of valuing the individual, particular, human experience.

Local food is a relational idea. Local food leads to systems that make a difference.


New grant: Seeding Food Studies at NCSU

Added on by Erin White.

ncstate university, with decades of land-grant experience and lots of really smart people, is in a perfect position to be a flat-out, cutting edge leader in food studies. 

we just got a part of a seed grant to help it happen.

led by Sara Queen, assistant professor of architecture at NCSU, we are partnering in an NCSU foundation grant to study the state of food research, teaching, and extension throughout the university, and then create new conversations and connections among the parts. called "seeding food studies: food systems research, assessment + innovative solutions for ncsu," our project will start by taking a comprehensive look at everything about food going on at ncsu. then we'll map it, identify existing connections and collaborations, and build transparent structures and processes like a website and workshops and in-person gatherings to create new links and flows of information. in simpler terms, we are aiming at bringing disparate corners of food studies together at ncstate, so that the incredible work going on can expand through collaboration and shared investment.

attention is growing around food. globally, locally, culturally, economically, and socially. ncstate has enormous capital in mind power, statewide connections through extension, big and small research dollars, and established national and global capability. ncstate also has incredible food-centered initiatives, centers, individual projects, a forward-thinking dining service, and departments that are already gaining big attention for their difference-making work. our proposal is that by bringing all the high-powered work onto the same playing field, new partnerships can emerge and new innovations in asking questions around food, communities, and learning can get opened up.  

grant period runs through summer 2014


urban food and the open city

Added on by Erin White.
garden tours.jpg

One of the difficulties working in local food systems is communicating why these kinds of systems, and local food, are important. The interconnections, the convergent benefits, the local love. There are, honestly, enough benefits in local food to attract anyone to get involved, if you can angle the conversation the right way. The challenge, see, when you have so many sales points is choosing the right one for the right audience. For some people, seven colors of local carrots and ten heirloom tomatoes at the farmers market is enough reason. For others, fresh food access in chronically poor neighborhoods is the reason to push local food production and distribution. In other settings, the rationale is about public health, or economic development, or nutrient recycling and soil creation. The reason we have so many ways to hype local food is because food, especially in fresh, nutritious, whole forms, is foundational to life and to our social structures. Because food runs so deep, it connects to just about everything. So when I meet someone new, or speak to an audience that needs some of the backstory, I get to choose which parts of the local food system will get their imagination going.

But when I start talking about local food to people that already get it, the conversation goes a little deeper. 

Here's the thing, really. The reason I work in local food systems is because our society is becoming more and more polarized and more and more divided. Politically, economically, culturally, racially divided. This is a huge problem that has led to diminishment of understanding, of the ability to cooperate, and the ability to govern ourselves. A great book on the subject, The Big Sort. These separations within our society are driven by many interconnected factors, and as a result of our seeking out like-minded and like-looking people, our cities have fewer places where we can honestly encounter difference, and hear others' points of view. The physical city has started to reflect our disinterest in open, democratic, public spaces by leaving them out of new developments, streetscapes, or events. 

But if you believe, as do the coiners of the term the 'Open City', that we can learn to design cities and public spaces so that co-existence and multilicity are celebrated, then perhaps we have tools to work against the divisions in our society. By making places that bring people together, allow side-by-side labor or dialogue, perhaps the Open City can become a real thread in planning our places. Because allowing the media, our political machine, and marketers to steer us away from one another isn't a good choice.

So we come back to food. Growing, cooking, and eating food creates human connections. New friends are made in a community garden. Ideas are shared waiting in line at the best taco truck in the neighborhood. The smell of grilling meat in your front yard is certain to bring curious sniffers asking about your smoking technique. Neighbors are met when looking for scrap material to build a compost bin. These are the unmeasurable connections that make communities, and make places. These connections occur in an Open City, and these connections are the social capital of resilient, not divided, societies. 

urban ag booklet series

Added on by Erin White.

Because urban agriculture is a frequently misunderstood yet rapidly growing phenomenon with immense benefits, our design team is currently working on a booklet series meant to inform readers about urban agriculture and local food. After sifting through countless reports and studies, the booklets will engage readers with easily digestible, graphic representations distilled from complex empirical data.

working sketch of benefits that urban farms bring to cities

working sketch of benefits that urban farms bring to cities

The first booklet focuses on the various potential returns on investment in multiple forms of urban ag, including community gardens, urban farms, residential gardens and market farms. We are finding that cities benefit from increases in tax revenue and lower municipal costs, communities benefit from better health and social connections, and local economies benefit by multiplying the spending power of local dollars.

Families who participate in community gardening are able to offset typically 30 to 40 percent of their produce needs by eating food grown in their own gardens
— http://www.policylink.org/atf/cf/%7B97C6D565-BB43-406D-A6D5-ECA3BBF35AF0%7D/URBAN%20AG_FULLREPORT_WEB1.PDF

Our plan is to launch a kickstarter campaign to cover printing costs of this first booklet, and then continue the series from there with topics on community gardening, urban ag zoning explanations, urban livestock, and more. If you have topics that you'd like to see explored please let us know!


starting points: the architect and the local food system

Added on by Erin White.

My formal research and design into local food systems began in 2009, and led to the production of this masters thesis. The design problem: intervene in the physical and economic environments of Durham to bring about change in local food system participation. By design any proposal would require balance between top-down initiatives, strategic investment, and grassroots organization and capacity building. 

Between 2011 and 2013, the principles I developed in this work and the ideas I proposed have led to the body of work, relationships, and practice methods I've decided to call Community Food Lab. It is a touchstone, a solid ground from which to leap off into a hybrid model of practice, in which the designer becomes a strategic partner in food system policy, planning, and development.


Architectural thinking and operation ought to extend from the building to include the system; ought to extend to the programming of system interventions; ought to extend to and internalize socio-cultural implications, ecological responsibility, and community-based solutions.

Design thinking is especially well suited for intervention in complex systems. Characterized by critical spatial analysis, interdisciplinary engagement, and open-ended problem solving, design thinking provides the opportunity to read and react to the economic, social, cultural, and physical aspects of real-world systems in meaningful, sustainable ways.

This project posed the following question: How can architectural and urban design strategies strengthen community food system initiatives and interventions? One proposition is that an architect’s role in helping build healthy community food systems should not be limited to client-initiated service design, and that research and active speculation into local food communities may reveal productive territory for place-based and place-supportive design.

Through tools such as design, advocacy, and engagement the architect and designer can reach beyond a service-based model and create methods that link social intention with design outcomes. In this East Durham design proposal, strategic investment is centered around existing neighborhood nodes, to build critical mass and mutual benefit of adjacency. Corridors are identified between nodes, and along these corridors multi-mode transportation is encouraged while at the same time grassroots initiatives are encouraged that lead to a physical expression of an interactive local food system. It is a flexible scheme driven by principles of diversity, inclusiveness, and participatory opportunity into the local food system as more than just consumers. 


inter-tidal zone: extended metaphor for a hybrid design approach

Added on by Erin White.

In an ecological sense, the zones where particular systems meet are the richest in species diversity, are quickest to respond to environmental shifts, and are places to learn not about either system specifically, but rather about how systems interact. On a rocky coastline, for instance, a particular ecosystem of grasses, lichens, snails, mice, and perhaps tall pine trees can be found above the high tide line, and another ecosystem with corals, sea slugs, fish, seaweed, and maybe a lobster or crab exists below the low tide line. In between is a space that is sometimes submerged, and sometimes dry. The tide washes in and brings seaweed and fish, but prevents trees from taking root, or mice from making nests. The tide washes out, drying the roots of some salt-hardy plants, and exposing the rocks and shallow tidepools to shorebirds. This in-between space is sort of both, but also neither. There is an overlap, but in this overlap are also species that only exist in the in-between. Barnacles, limpets, and snails thrive in this part-wet and part-dry zone, this thin ribbon of both-and that wraps the entire shoreline, anywhere the sea meets the land. 

source: http://www.ispot.org.uk/node/9919

In the same way that ecosystems overlap to create the in-between zone of species richness and the emergence of new multi-state habitat occupied with creatures like limpets and barnacles that thrive there, any other kinds of systems can overlap and produce diversity and greater capability for resilience. Design systems, political systems, food systems, or educational systems - these all have overlap and in the overlaps are the in-between. 

As a design firm in the process of defining itself, we think of ourselves as part of an in-between zone, working the space between design and food systems, developing expertise and experience in both, and most importantly building the new forms of inquiry and partnerships that can only live in the in-between. Because it is a process of self-definition, and because we are looking for the new, right forms and methods, it will be an iterative process towards success. Some attempts will fail, some will teach us how to succeed. Learning is the nature of the in-between zone.