On a chilly December morning, Bri Warner gave us a tour of her kelp facility in Saco, Maine. The room was filled with giant tanks of seawater containing thousands of baby kelps. “We change their tanks constantly,” said Bri. “We play them music. When nobody's looking, I'll lean over and be like, ‘Hi, babies.’” On another occasion, we spent an entire afternoon chatting up Larisa Jacobson of Soul Fire Farm, a BIPOC-centered community farm committed to ending racism and injustice in the food system.
How’d we end up on this culinary carousel, from learning about kelp’s role in addressing climate change to understanding the significance of seeing kernza, an unusual perennial grain, in the cereal aisle by 2040? We spend our days working in the food world, hearing about its challenges: Hunger is rampant, but so is food waste, and the food system is responsible for 25 percent of global carbon emissions. This leads many to believe that the system is broken. But it’s not broken—it was designed this way. And if it was designed this way, then it’s time for a redesign. That’s what IDEO’s new narrative podcast, Food by Design, is all about.
The experts featured are living proof that we can create a system that’s nourishing for people and the planet. Below are some of the new ideas, staggering statistics, and inspiring stories they generously shared with us. Let’s dig in.
The food system is inherently about food, but without humans, the system doesn’t work. Improving a system that’s been ravaged by multilayered crises—health, racial injustice, climate, and economic—depends on how we value those doing the actual labor in it. The role and importance of human-centeredness and equity (and the current lack of both) can’t be ignored.
We spoke with Saru Jayaraman, a professor at the University of California Berkeley who leads the Food Labor Research Center and founder of the non-profit One Fair Wage. In episode seven, she explains how the legacy of slavery still impacts how much money restaurant and food service workers make today—sometimes as low as two dollars and thirteen cents an hour—despite the cruel irony that the industry is the largest and fastest growing in the U.S.
Dr. Ricardo Salvador, Director of the Food and Environment Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, adds to Saru’s perspective in a later episode: “We've been creating people that are affluent and at the same time we've been creating people that are poor,” he says. “All of that is a direct consequence of the way that the agricultural system in the United States was born. The system of slavery did not completely disappear. It has been transformed.”
We’ve been told that individual action is enough, but we’ve also been told that it isn’t—we need bigger changes. Eating red meat is often the subject of this debate, as animal agriculture is the second-worst contributor to greenhouse gases after fossil fuels. But here’s the thing: we need both individual and structural change to design a better food system.
While doing research for our second episode, we met Lisa and Loren Poncia of Stemple Creek Ranch, cattle ranchers who now consider themselves carbon farmers. Through practices like rotational grazing (which allows pastures to rest and regenerate), they actually sequester carbon into the soil, keeping it from being released into the atmosphere where it contributes to greenhouse gases that cause climate change. When we recorded the episode, Stemple Creek Ranch was sequestering enough carbon to offset 285 passenger vehicles per year, and that number is growing.
With additional incentives, like those baked into the Federal Farm Bill, even more ranchers like Lisa and Loren might adopt these practices. “I wish that the federal government would jump on board and subsidize carbon and carbon sequestration instead of corn and soy,” says Loren. “In a very short amount of time, we'd have a lot of carbon stored in our soil.” (That’s a good thing.) In our sixth episode, we talk about how producing red meat conventionally can create nearly 10x the emissions of vegetables. But if individuals buy regenerative red meat from carbon ranches like Stemple Creek Ranch, it could help shift the rest of the industry this way and lead to more structural policy changes, having a huge impact on the health of the entire system.
Another example of the need for both individual and structural efforts comes from Karen Leibowitz and her partner, who established a climate-minded restaurant in San Francisco. Every detail of the Perennial aimed to minimize carbon emissions, from using recycled appliances and napkins meant to be fed as compost to worms to hydroponically-grown vegetables.
But just one business can't change the system. Armed with this insight, Karen and her partner closed the Perennial to scale their ambition across many restaurants—creating a more effective way to fight climate change. Their nonprofit Zero Foodprint asks restaurants to add a one percent charge to their bills and use those funds to fight climate change.
Again and again, the individuals we interviewed shared that in order to create a better food system for all people and the planet, we must build something entirely new—whether reimagining the restaurant business model, altering what we believe is edible, or redefining the meaning of sustainability.
We talked to chef and restaurateur Camilla Marcus in our seventh episode, who is rethinking the power dynamic that gave rise to the harassment and racial and gender inequities in the restaurant industry. Her restaurant west~bourne turned the “front-of-house, back-of-house” hierarchy—which Camilla describes as a caste system in disguise—on its head. During an intensive training program, every team member becomes fluent in all areas of the business, from dishwashing to wine tasting. “If you envision a world a different way, you have to start from the beginning and be willing to redesign how everything is done,” says Camilla. “You can't just hope for a different outcome and keep using the same process and system.”
Like Camilla, Mr. Lyan—a professional moniker for Ryan Chetiyawardana—is another food visionary. Mr. Lyan was crowned world’s best bartender in 2015, and his bar Dandelyan, now reopened as Lyaness, was named the world’s best bar in 2018. He’s known for experimenting with “closed loop cocktails”—any waste from the production of these drinks is used as ingredients for future drinks. For instance, he pressure-cooks leftover citrus and uses the resulting flavorful stock to create fruit jelly desserts. He doesn’t stop at fruit: Mr. Lyan even boils down cardboard delivery boxes with lemongrass, chamomile, sugar, and water, then strains it and turns it into a syrup. “People saw it as an affront,” he tells us. “So much of what we faced was this idea that the world that we were inhabiting—you know, luxury food and drink—was at odds with the idea of sustainability.” (Until, of course, a restaurant critic said that the drinks were the best he’d ever had in the city.)
Nearly a year before we found ourselves professing our love to baby kelps, we were carpooling home from IDEO’s San Francisco studio to our homes in Oakland. As our conversation quite naturally ping-ponged from an upcoming CSA delivery to methane-producing cow burps to Indigenous agriculture to aquafaba (a chickpea byproduct) to workers’ rights, a creative lightbulb went off. And the idea for Food by Design was born.
We wanted to connect the dots across all these topics and better understand the potential opportunities for design. So we set out to explore the question: How might we build a climate-positive food system that favors the many instead of the few? We hope the array of voices and stories shared on Food by Design not only demonstrate the breadth, interconnectedness, and gaps of the food system, but just how many people depend on it being sustainably and equitably redesigned, and can help us do this, together. Listen to some of their stories today on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you tune into your podcasts.