Food Tech Guide: UX Research for Plants, People and our Planet

Mapping the food and agricultural ecosystem across digital products and organizations shaping the future of food sustainability in a time of a global pandemic.

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

Earlier this summer amid San Francisco’s shelter in place, the nationwide protests of #BlackLivesMatter, and another quarterly remote meeting while working from home, I came across a proposal request stating: How do we destroy the poisonous paradigms seeping into all areas of our lives?

Like many of us on the world wide web, I left the tab open, carried on to my next task and went to bed. The difference this time is that I kept coming back to it, over and over as the days went by while thinking how to best answer this provocative question. After another day of zoom calls, a run to the ocean, and preparing the 39th meal I had made from scratch at home, it dawned on me: We have to revisit our relationship with food.

The next morning, with a fresh cup of coffee and the usual avocado toast, I started my search to find answers. After weeks of investigation, multiple phone calls and zoom conversations with farmers, foodies, professional and amateur chefs I felt like I was getting somewhere. I carried on conversation after conversation reaching entrepreneurs, product designers and researchers and kept understanding the larger picture of this food and technology landscape.

Lastly I reached out to Charlie Costello, a Bay Area colleague and local seed & soil advocate who is well versed in the local food movement to get his input and thoughts. After 8 weeks of research here’s what we came up with:

Effects of a global pandemic

Since the beginning of 2020, the world has been experiencing a time like no other, a global health crisis causing widespread changes at home, our communities, and our workplaces. This happened in a matter of days and weeks and looks to continue into 2021. In doing so, it has redefined our relationship with food and soil, causing a paradigm shift in people who are now asking, “just where does my food come from?”

Aside from oxygen, clean water and food are the most vital resources for life on Earth. For a good part of the last century, our relationship with food stayed like a distant relative we only saw once a year. In short, we buy food, consume it, and throw the remainder out. Most of us don’t even know the origin of our food. So, how do we talk about what we do not talk about when we talk about food?

I believe we can start moving the needle by promoting awareness, searching for information, and spreading the word about existing products and technologies that are changing our relationship with food today. All the while, acknowledging changes that are taking place, as positive waves are impacting industries and unprecedented behavioral adaptations are taking place. On July 1, 2020, the state of Vermont passed a Food Scraps law banning food scraps from the trash.

Hailey Conick, former Country Manager for Too Good To Go details in her op-ed “Coronavirus Is Going To Change Our Relationship With Food Forever” how many people are beginning to see how much food is wasted each day and helps us get some insights into what’s been changing and the impacts taking place today.

Without a doubt, our relationship with food has changed like no event in the last century. The pandemic has caused more and more people to prepare multiple meals a day, every day. People are exploring new cooking skills and styles, and also seeing each meal’s potential for adding flavor and variation.

Similarly, global shutdowns and reorganization of supply chains have impacted how much time we spend at home with recent reports highlighting nine out of 10 adults report that they are more aware of how much food they are wasting, while we still manage to lose or waste over 12,000 tons of food every 5 minutes across existing global supply chains. In addition to a shortage of many household items, there became a shortage of seeds too. Populations who did not necessarily have experience growing their own food began buying up seeds from seed banks and libraries, quickly depleting them of their stock.

So where do we start? Mapping the food ecosystem

It starts with recognizing all the activities that revolve around what we think when we think of “food”. In an attempt to provide a framework around this research guide, we categorized eight principle areas of food activities that create an attempt of a closed-loop system:

  1. Conserve
  2. Grow
  3. Store
  4. Shop
  5. Consume
  6. Reuse
  7. Share
  8. Compost

Respectively each section contains a definition, opportunities, products, organizations and insights. By no means is this an exclusionary list, but more of a start to break down the overwhelming sensation we get when we think of food systems, existing global supply chains, and where to start to chip away at this complex problem space. Let’s get started!

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

Conserve: Setting the stage for success

Definition: To protect something from harm or destruction.

Opportunities:

  • How might we protect the environment and create better soil to grow more nutritious and plentiful food?
  • How might we support a local food movement in our communities.
  • How might we use technology including AI and machine learning to optimize growing food?

Products:

  • My Soil App: View a map of the soil in your local area, retrieve descriptions of the soil depth, texture, pH, soil temperature, organic matter content and dominant habitats. Available in the UK.
  • ContinuumAG (Website): Quantifying, improving and implementing soil health.
  • TopSoil.ag (Website): A tool developed by Continuum Ag to provide soil fertility recommendations and research.
  • Prezi.com — Principles of Soil Health (Website Presentation): Walks you through five principles; soil armor, minimal disturbance, plant diversity, continual live plant/root, and livestock integration.
  • IndigoAG (Website): Harnessing nature to help farmers sustainably feed the planet
  • Nori (Website): Driving climate change into reverse by purchasing carbon removed from the atmosphere.
  • Soil Health Institute (Website): The Soil Health Institute is a non-profit whose mission is to safeguard and enhance the vitality and productivity of soil through scientific research and advancement.

Organizations:

Insights:

  1. People are more interested than ever in growing their food and there is an opportunity to educate the consumer on how important the conservation step is to a healthy food system.
  2. With programs like cover cropping and intercropping, we can feed the soil naturally, sequester carbon and provide a diverse mix of plants to compliment the plant, animal and microbial biodiversity in our environment.
  3. There is a technology gap in products available for users to learn about their soil and best practices for successful gardening beyond recreational purposes. Most technology available focuses on gardening, herbs and not necessarily on providing a more robust understanding of real soil and food conservation.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

Grow: How is our food grown, harvested and distributed?

Definition: To increase gradually in size and changing physically; progress to maturity.

Opportunities:

  • How might we ensure safe environments to grow a healthy garden in our homes?
  • How might we rethink the way we set our community gardens?
  • How might we monitor species and plants in our backyards?

Products:

  • Garden Answer (App): Garden Answers is an easy-to-use and incredibly popular identification app that can instantly define over 20,000 plants, coming with some very useful information.
  • Gardening Companion (App): Read information about the plants that interest you, set reminders to help you care for your garden and track and share information about your garden.
  • Community Gardening (App): They make community gardening simple with custom-built digital tools for garden managers and gardening organizations.
  • iFarm Growtune (App): iFarm Growtune SaaS Platform stores knowledge of hundreds of professionals in farming — agronomists, plant health specialists, engineers, biologists, etc. — and lets you make smart decisions to achieve greater yields.
  • AeroGarden (App): Tracker for your plants and seeds growth using an AeroGarden indoor garden system.
  • Shared Earth (Website): An initiative sponsored by Sustainable America, connecting landowners with gardeners and farmers by finding common matches, sharing tools and growing food across communities.
  • Lettuce Grow (Product): Grow outdoors or indoors year round with this farmstand product, regardless of space, time, knowledge, income, or experience.

Organizations:

  • Vertical Farming: Smart technologies for growing food indoors using hydroponics and vertical farming principles, inspired by the amount of food we can grow, not the amount of land we use to grow it. Local U.S. examples like Wilder Fields, 80 Acres Farms, Plenty, Unfold and abroad in Europe like iFarm and Infarm.
  • Indigo Agriculture: Indigo improves grower profitability, environmental sustainability, and consumer health through the use of natural microbiology and digital technologies.
  • WWOOF (Website): World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms: This is a worldwide movement to link visitors with organic farmers, promote cultural and educational exchange, and build a global community conscious of ecological farming and sustainability practices.
  • Bi-Rite Market (Website): Bi-Rite is a lifelong pursuit of Creating Community Through Food.
  • Edible Schoolyard (Website) — The Edible Schoolyard Project is dedicated to transforming the health of children by designing hands-on educational experiences in the garden, kitchen, and cafeteria that connect children to food, nature, and each other.
  • Black Dirt Farm (Website): A farm in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont that collects food scraps from the local communities to support regenerative agriculture and the creation of sustainable food systems.

Insights:

  1. Vertical farming is on the rise, as technology, data and manufacturing has decreased in cost, it’s allowing for a new surge of innovations in the field.
  2. There’s a vast range of products and organizations that provide resources, education and community around food, yet most of them are in a specific physical location and community.
  3. With remote and distributed environments, there’s a market opportunity to bring educational resources closer to user’s homes regardless of geographic context.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

3. Store: Where do we save our food beyond our cabinets, pantries and fridges?

Definition: A place where food items of a particular kind are kept.

Opportunities:

  • How might we track and organize the food we store in our homes?
  • How might we envision technologies that help us prevent food expirations?
  • How might we reduce food waste at home?

Products:

  • USDA Foodkeeper (App): Can help consumers use food while at peak quality and reduce waste. The storage times listed are intended as useful guidelines and are not hard-and-fast rules.
  • Pantry Check (App): The easiest household inventory system, it includes grocery and food inventory, expiration reminders and a barcode scanner. They are focused on organization and avoiding expiration dates.
  • No Waste (App): Easily track, organize and manage the food in your home.
  • Home Food Storage (App): Organize, scan and achieve your home food storage goals the easy way.
  • CoZZo (App): CozZo is a food, home & personal supplies manager, combined with a versatile shopping and cooking planner that helps you avoid food waste by tracking what you have and when it expires.

Organizations:

  • The Hobby Farm — Hobby Farms is a bimonthly magazine highlighting rural living for pleasure and profit for hobby farmers, small production farmers and those passionate about the country. They help define how to store things grown in your urban garden or form.

Insights:

  1. With more food grown at home, canning, and storing food is back in the larger population mindset.
  2. This is by far, one of the largest sections of the food action chain that gets overlooked in the user’s experience since most of our foods are by default stored in refrigeration equipment like fridges, or simply shelved in pantries.
  3. Possibilities to learn from other sectors like healthcare, security and home improvements to observe trends and ways in which customers are already locating food in their homes to observe areas of opportunities.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

4. Shop: What’s the consumer buying purchase?

Define: The act of going shopping, especially for food and other items needed in the house.

Opportunities:

  • How might we encourage users to make local food choices that are better for the consumer, the farmer and the planet?
  • How might we bridge the gap between customers and their edible goods?
  • How might we repurpose produce that would otherwise be thrown out?

Products:

Insights:

  1. The consumer is used to buying all food products, all the time, not even knowing that some of these products come to them from halfway around the world.
  2. The local food movement and an edible education in schools are beginning to pay off in the increasing popularity of farmers markets.
  3. There is a growing market and demand for delivery of goods, local produce and meal-kit deliveries, yet there’s an increased awareness of the waste, carbon production and overall wasteful supply chain behind this convenient method of shopping.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

5. Consume: Let’s start with what’s in front of us

Definition: The act of using up a resource.

Opportunities:

  • How might we promote better eating habits?
  • How might we help households consume healthier meals?
  • How might we assist amateur cooks to prepare and plan for more balanced diets?

Products:

  • Tasty: Offering recipes, step-by-step instructions, and even ‘my recipes’ page which serves as your very own mobile cookbook.
  • SuperCook: Supercook is a recipe search engine that finds recipes you can make with the ingredients you currently have at home.
  • BigOven: A recipe organizer, grocery list and menu app for home cooks.
  • Chefling: Smart kitchen assistance app for meal prep.
  • Pix Food App: AI-driven food app with advanced photo recognition.
  • Epicurious: Find the world’s best recipes and watch incredible food videos. This platform puts more than a thousand food videos directly at your fingertips.
  • FoodNetwork: Cook alongside the Food Network chefs with live and on-demand classes.
  • Yummly: The smart cooking sidekick that learns what you like and customizes the experience to your tastes, nutritional needs, skill level, and more.
  • My Fridge Food: A web-based product that allows users to list all the ingredients at their disposal to generate recipes.

Organizations:

  • The Happy Pear: The Happy Pear is a movement to create happier, healthier lifestyles and build community.
  • Cool Food: Cool Food is a global initiative that aims to help food providers sell dishes with smaller climate footprints.

Insights:

  1. More people than ever are cooking at home because of the aftermath changes of lifestyle during the ongoing global health crisis of Covid-19.
  2. An increasing number of users are looking for easy recipes, help in cooking meals, guidance in using food apps and channels to improve their diets and ultimately searching for more food content than ever before.
  3. This is likely one of the richest and busier sections of the food activity chain, as it’s the obvious one when we think of food. Food consumption is at the core of our human need and it’s by far one of the largest repeating actions we do as individuals on earth.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

6. Reuse: How are we saving our food surplus?

Definition: The act of salvaging or restoring a discarded item to yield something usable.

Opportunities:

  • How might we battle food waste?
  • How might we share ingredients with others?
  • How might we connect people with local chefs?
  • How might we divert good food from landfills?

Products:

  • Olio (App): On OLIO, you’ll find millions of people giving away food & other household items to their neighbors, all for free.
  • Too Good To Go (App): Named the #1 anti-food waste app.
  • Karma (App): A food rescue app that allows retailers to sell their surplus food to consumers at half price — instead of having great food go to waste.
  • Farmlink Project (Website): Fighting food insecurity is their mission — repurposing surplus produce is their solution.
  • FoodCloud (Website): A non-profit social enterprise with a vision of a world where no good food goes to waste.

Organizations:

  • ReFed: ReFED is a multi-stakeholder nonprofit, powered by an influential network of the nation’s leading business, nonprofit, foundation, and government leaders committed to reducing U.S. food waste.
  • Ridwell: Focusing on sustainable pickups directly with consumers, making sure it gets reused or recycled.
  • Copia: Food waste and hunger are inextricably linked issues, and Copia has developed the world’s first end-to-end solution that addresses both.

Insights:

  • This area of food touches on the balance of individual vs. collective welfare, as some cultures and contexts are more in touch with what it means to reuse foods and goods in a positive spirit to help others in need.
  • There’s a stigma that continues to persist in the practice of reusing food, alongside limitations in the law, governance and adequate practice when re-allocating foods from one individual to another.
  • There’s a growing interest to reuse more resources more than produce from scratch due to the infrastructural and energy consumption it creates to generate goods from scratch.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

7. Share: How are we giving or receiving food in our communities?

Definition: Use or experience something at the same time as somebody else. It can also be defined as the act of dividing something between two or more people.

Opportunities:

  • How might we create shared economic systems to fight food deserts?
  • How might we share food in communities to decrease food poverty?
  • How might we share seeds to grow vegetables in our community?

Products:

  • Good Neighbor (App): Good Neighbor — a hyper-local ingredient sharing platform that unites friends, neighbors, and strangers through the “feel good” of sharing food.
  • Cookpad (App): Japan’s largest recipe sharing service, with 60 million monthly unique users in Japan and 40 million monthly unique users globally, allowing visitors to upload and search through original, user-created recipes.

Organizations:

  • Endless Orchard: The Endless Orchard is a collaborative fruit sharing map by Fallen Fruit. Anyone, anywhere can help expand the project by mapping fruit trees in public space or by planting more fruit trees next to sidewalks in front of their homes, businesses, or community centers for everyone to share.
  • Freedge: Is a sharing mechanism aiming to reduce food insecurity and food waste, building a stronger community. We promote equal access to healthy food through the installation of community fridges (public refrigerators) that are used to share food and ideas at the neighborhood level.
  • The Love Fridge: The Love Fridge is a Chicago mutual aid group grounded in food, working to place community refrigerators across the city. In short, it’s a community-sustained refrigerator powered by kindness, generosity, and love.
  • BuddySystem: A Miami based organization that uses a community fridge as a refrigerator located in a public space that enables food to be shared amongst the community. Anyone can put food in and take food out.
  • Tea With Strangers: Is a community organization that’s all about making our cities feel more like neighborhoods by breaking the barriers between strangers.
  • Eatwith: Eatwith is the world’s largest community for authentic culinary experiences with locals, available in over 130 countries.
  • The Supper Share: Your guide to making the most of a virtual dinner party.
  • The Food System Vision Prize (Website): An invitation for organizations across the globe to develop a Vision of the regenerative and nourishing food system that they aspire to create by the year 2050.

Insights:

  1. With communities turning to their local efforts, there’s a significant observed increase in overall communal sharing of foods and goods across the country.
  2. Virtual experiences are on the rise as well. Small and large players are shifting their focus to create remote experiences shared via telecommunications-based technologies.
  3. People come together around food all over the globe, yet sharing a meal often implicates cultural, societal, and security differences that are often hard to overcome.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

8. Compost: Where can my food scraps go?

Definition: A mixture of decayed (destroyed by natural processes) plants, food, etc. that can be added to soil to help plants grow.

Opportunities:

  • How might we dramatically reduce waste by transforming our relationship with food?
  • How might we monitor our soil to improve the way we think and create compost?
  • How might we help customers arrange and discard produce and food scraps?

Products:

  • ShareWaste (Website): Connects people who wish to recycle their kitchen scraps with their neighbors who are already composting, worm-farming or keeping chickens.
  • Re-Nuble (Website) : Enabling farms to transform food waste into plant-based organic hydroponic nutrients for soilless cultivation.

Organizations:

  • CompostNow: Closing the loop on food waste by empowering community members and local businesses to divert their compostables from the landfill and, instead, use those nutrients to build nutrient-rich soil.
  • CompostCab: An organization that makes it easy for you to take action every day in support of the environment and your community by composting at home.
  • CompostCrew (Website): The company was founded to rescue unwanted food scraps from the landfill, helping to retain valuable nutrients by converting the food scraps into a rich soil amendment — compost.

Insights:

  • A large majority of users are not familiar with the term composting. There exists a hard entry point for users new to sustainability practices to learn what composting is, how to conduct it properly, how to dispose of it appropriately and the importance of this practice.
  • There’s a gap in the mobile app landscape to educate users to learn how to compost at home.
  • Due to the lack of public infrastructure available depending on the user’s localities and cultures, there’s no clear standard nor procedures to compost across county, state and local government.

 

Illustrations by Maddy Beard

Next steps: Where do we go from here?

This guide was created to connect the dots across digital products in the food world while planting the seed of change and empathy to collaborate across systems to succeed in designing the future of food, together.

As we move through this pandemic, one thing is for sure, more people than ever are engaged in our food system. They are interested in starting in self-sufficiency with initiatives like starting their garden at home, in their communities or even in the medians of the road. Wanting to learn about healthy nutrition and zero waste practices to minimize impact, and ultimately achieve a gorilla closed-loop system that starts at home.

At last, we ask ourselves, and you the reader: How can we continue to educate current and future generations about where our foods come from to better design a food system for everyone?

Like the organization Eat Just states: Fostering a view of a healthy planet starts with our most important choice: what we eat every day. More than anything else, this decision matters most.

Acknowledgements

This guide was co-written with Charlie Costello.

All illustrations are created by Maddy Beard specifically for this project.

This research was prompted by the Interaction Design Association’s 21 conference proposal call’s under the theme Design for Perilous theme and prompt “How do we destroy the poisonous paradigms seeping into all areas of our lives?”

This work couldn’t be possible without the help of individuals like Panhartin Ean and Chris Brown and organizations like OpenIDEO.

Thanks to Olivia Dube and Harmony Jackson for proofreading this article.

Disclaimers

None of the aforementioned organizations, companies and technologies have sponsored nor supported this article. All insights are derived from personal views and observations of a limited landscape of available technologies, products and organizations.

Remarks

Original article published on Medium.com December 10, 2020: https://medium.com/swlh/food-t…

Thanks for reading if you made it all the way here! I would love to hear any feedback or thoughts you have about this guide or answer any questions. Please feel free to leave a response below or shoot me an email directly to francescostumpog@gmail.com. I’d love to hear from you!

 

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