designer | researcher | educator

Van Alen CC

Van Alen Climate Council

DESIGNING FOR THE FUTURE OF FOOD
2019

Founded in 2018, the Climate Council is an interdisciplinary group of designers whose purpose is to investigate critical climate-related issues, inspire change-making design projects that can improve the environment and promote healthy communities, advocate changes in mindset regarding climate issues, and guide Van Alen’s innovative public programming, research, and design competitions. Designers and planners are uniquely situated as professionals who think abstractly, broadly, and radically while applying their ideas practically and locally. It is appropriate that the Van Alen Climate Council gathered in California, the source of most of the nation’s produce production, to learn about the nation’s food system. I was the Van Alen Climate Council’s research fellow that provided expertise, framework, and connections.

 
In January 2019 we visited the United Farm Workers Union, the nation’s first and largest farm workers union, in Madera, California. Immigration restrictions, low wages, and difficult working conditions are the greatest challenges that the workers face, all which are exacerbated by the labor burdens of contract work. Despite the Central Valley being one of the richest food-production and farming areas in the world,  it also has one of the highest rates of food insecurity for families and children . Additionally, a study showed that  45 percent of farmworkers in Fresno County, the country’s most productive agricultural county, are food insecure . Photo by Lisa Richmond.

In January 2019 we visited the United Farm Workers Union, the nation’s first and largest farm workers union, in Madera, California. Immigration restrictions, low wages, and difficult working conditions are the greatest challenges that the workers face, all which are exacerbated by the labor burdens of contract work. Despite the Central Valley being one of the richest food-production and farming areas in the world, it also has one of the highest rates of food insecurity for families and children. Additionally, a study showed that 45 percent of farmworkers in Fresno County, the country’s most productive agricultural county, are food insecure. Photo by Lisa Richmond.

In July 2018 we visited the Morningstar Farms Factory in Williams, California located 1 hour north of Sacramento. Over 90% of the nation’s processed tomatoes come from California and that Morning Star processes more than any other tomato processing plant in California, processing 1,350 tons of tomatoes per hour for 100 days between July – October every year. The processed tomatoes go on to become ketchup, salsa, and canned tomatoes sold at grocery stores. Cans of processed tomatoes may sit outside for 1-2 years before they are distributed. The structure and surrounding landscape looked eerily similar to a coal mining plant. It was sterile, remote, place-neutral, and a highly controlled environment where we did not see a single tomato, or even a picture of a tomato, the entire length of the 1.5-hour tour. Photo by Vanesa Wright.

In July 2018 we visited the Morningstar Farms Factory in Williams, California located 1 hour north of Sacramento. Over 90% of the nation’s processed tomatoes come from California and that Morning Star processes more than any other tomato processing plant in California, processing 1,350 tons of tomatoes per hour for 100 days between July – October every year. The processed tomatoes go on to become ketchup, salsa, and canned tomatoes sold at grocery stores. Cans of processed tomatoes may sit outside for 1-2 years before they are distributed. The structure and surrounding landscape looked eerily similar to a coal mining plant. It was sterile, remote, place-neutral, and a highly controlled environment where we did not see a single tomato, or even a picture of a tomato, the entire length of the 1.5-hour tour. Photo by Vanesa Wright.

In January 2019, we visited Yolo Press Farms, a small farm owned and managed by Mike and Diane Madison. Photo by Lisa Richmond.

In January 2019, we visited Yolo Press Farms, a small farm owned and managed by Mike and Diane Madison. Photo by Lisa Richmond.

In this research we asked the following questions:

What is the role of designers in designing the future of food?

What ways are the people who comprise the food system—the farmer, the farm worker, and the consumer—impacted by climate change?

How can interdisciplinary design professionals enhance the security and resilience of communities that support or are conversely supported by the agricultural industry?

 

The economics and practices of farming have changed significantly in the past 30 years, and farms of all scales have had to significantly shift their farming practices to keep up with industrialized ag, environmental policies, and increasing demand to feed a growing population. While the Central Valley provides one of the greatest resources to the nation’s food access and quality, the investment into the communities is not commensurate with the value that the Central Valley brings. Climate change exacerbates the social and environmental challenges of a community that is already struggling with drought, food insecurity, poor air and water quality, and high unemployment.

The Climate Council visited the Central Valley in July 2018 and January 2019. The summer 2018 visit involved trips places associated with various facets of the region’s food industry, ranging from a large-scale farm to a tomato processing plant (read more about the 2018 Climate Council visit here). During the return visit in January 2019, the Climate Council built upon members’ foundational knowledge and delved into the social dimensions of the food system, focusing on the farmer, the farm worker, and the consumer.

 

Key findings:

We learned about advanced technologies and ambitious policies applied to increase efficiency and production output while responding to the realities of a changing climate. A discussion on the last day of the trip helped bring the trip to a close by identifying four themes for creating opportunities to advance sustainable food-systems solutions:

  • Create opportunities to Change People’s Perception of Food by celebrating and educating them about local food and culture.

  • Promote Alternative Industries through investing in tourism and technology.

  • Imagine Predictable, Resilient Systems by creating better housing, providing community resources and sustainable and reliable transportation, developing resilient practices, and passing regulatory change.

  • Provide spaces to Connect People and Culture by creating networks and physical spaces to bring people together in appropriate cultural areas.

Read more about the July 2018 trip and the January 2019 trip.

A discussion with the climate council to discuss opportunities to advance sustainable food-systems solutions (2019). Photo by Steven Baumgartner.

A discussion with the climate council to discuss opportunities to advance sustainable food-systems solutions (2019). Photo by Steven Baumgartner.

Presenting the findings to Bowles Farm in Los Banos, California (2019). Photo by Steven Baumgartner.

Presenting the findings to Bowles Farm in Los Banos, California (2019). Photo by Steven Baumgartner.

Merced County Food Bank is the largest food bank in the Central Valley, Merced, California. Photo by Lisa Richmond.

Merced County Food Bank is the largest food bank in the Central Valley, Merced, California. Photo by Lisa Richmond.

In January 2019 we had a workshop discussion with academics, design practitioners, and policy experts facilitated by Hans Hanslein in Davis, California. Photo by Todd Kohli.

In January 2019 we had a workshop discussion with academics, design practitioners, and policy experts facilitated by Hans Hanslein in Davis, California. Photo by Todd Kohli.

In July 2018 we received a tour of the strawberry fields from members of the Strawberry Commission in Salinas, California. Photo by Vanesa Wright.

In July 2018 we received a tour of the strawberry fields from members of the Strawberry Commission in Salinas, California. Photo by Vanesa Wright.

In July 2018, post-doctoral researcher Nicole Tautges gave a presentation of her research on Russel Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility. Photo by Vanesa Wright.

In July 2018, post-doctoral researcher Nicole Tautges gave a presentation of her research on Russel Ranch Sustainable Agriculture Facility. Photo by Vanesa Wright.

Most food at the food bank are non-perishables, high in sodium and preservatives. Photo by Lisa Richmond.

Most food at the food bank are non-perishables, high in sodium and preservatives. Photo by Lisa Richmond.

In January 2019 we visited farmworker housing on site at Bowles Farm in Los Banos, California. Photo by Steven Baumgartner.

In January 2019 we visited farmworker housing on site at Bowles Farm in Los Banos, California. Photo by Steven Baumgartner.

In July 2018 we visited General Produce Distribution Company in Sacramento, California. Photo by Steven Baumgartner.

In July 2018 we visited General Produce Distribution Company in Sacramento, California. Photo by Steven Baumgartner.