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Eat smart: IDEO's Vivian Barad on rethinking global food systems

EconomyAug 31, 2021 01:00AM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Vivian Barad, Managing Director, Design for Food at IDEO, poses in an undated photo obtained by Reuters on August 30, 2021. Courtesy IDEO/Handout via REUTERS

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) - At a meal, few people know the long and complicated process of how the food ended up there.

Vivian Barad does.

As managing director of the food practice for global design firm IDEO, Barad is always mulling over the complex systems that produce and deliver what we eat, not to mention the quality, access and climate impact.

Her mission is to help foundations, corporations and food banks deliver better food to more people. She talked to Reuters about rethinking and redesigning what we swallow every day.

Q: When you look at a plate of food, what do you think about?

A: I think most particularly about the people who grew it, harvested it, packaged it and got it to my plate. When I go out to eat, I'm also thinking about the people who make my food and serve it.

This is my dream job, and it's all about designing a more nourishing, equitable and climate-positive food system.

Q: I imagine you think not just about the potential of our food systems, but all the waste too?

A: The statistics are staggering: Globally, world hunger affects 2.3 billion people; meanwhile, we are wasting up to 1/3 of the food we produce.

We are constantly asking questions about how to design a food system that nourishes everyone.

Q: How can we move the needle?

A: We helped launch the Food Waste Challenge, asking people around the world for their best ideas about how to curtail waste and rethink our relationship with food. More than 20,000 people from 113 countries took part.

Ultimately, a number of grants were awarded, and we also launched the Food Waste Alliance as a platform to stay engaged. We don't just want to be the originators of ideas, we want to accelerate all work being done in the field.

Q: Can you give an example of a project you have worked on?

A: We have done a number of projects with the Rockefeller Foundation, one of them in partnership with Hyatt to look at food waste in hotels.

With hotel buffets, for instance, often our eyes are bigger than our stomachs. We looked at how to change behavior at buffets, by making small changes in service and helping them create smarter portions.

For instance, instead of putting out a giant serving bowl of yogurt, which encourages us to laden our plates down with too much, they can set out smaller bowls with individual servings.

Q: How are you redesigning food access for low-income Americans?

A: We have been working with organizations providing food assistance outside of Chicago. We helped them create a digital online pantry, which is accessible 24/7 to their clients.

The cool idea was to measure success not just in terms of tons of food distributed, but in terms of customer satisfaction. If people can select the food they want, and say no to what they don't want, then you will have satisfied customers and there will be less waste. It's about designing with people, not for people.

Q: COVID has disrupted almost every aspect of life. Has it disrupted food systems as well?

A: Hugely, and the big global food companies are really feeling the impacts. The primary ones we hear from our partners are a rise in raw material costs, which makes it tough to maintain a successful business; disruptions to the supply chain, like not having enough trucks to get products to various places, or to access supplies at the right time; and finally a lot of issues of labor shortages.

Q: How is the climate crisis threatening food production?

A: The impact of the climate crisis might be here to stay. Our task is to help the food industry create systems that are more resilient. Interventions can include things like creating more sustainable packaging solutions.

Many iconic global brands need to rethink their products, to be honest. This is going to start being a real barrier for consumers, as they consider the climate impacts of their food choices.

Q: Are you hopeful or worried about the future?

A: There are a lot of threats to food security right now, but we believe in the power to redesign systems. There is an opportunity to use design to reimagine what communities need and want in order to access fresh, healthy food. We believe human-centered design and ingenuity will help us create a new future that's more resilient and sustaining.

Eat smart: IDEO's Vivian Barad on rethinking global food systems

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