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.