The future of our food supply

2020-07-21

If the early days of grocery shopping during coronavirus are remembered for empty shelves and flour hoarding, our present-day food system might be characterized by lines. Lines are a symbol of the burdens of the pandemic, as more people wind down blocks waiting for food aid. They’re also a sign of our adaptation, with socially distanced queues of people waiting to enter stores, and separate check-outs for delivery workers buying groceries on behalf of somebody else.

How we get our groceries is a visible stand-in for a food system in flux. As with so many things, we’re confronting pre-existing problems that have only been exacerbated by coronavirus, from food accessibility and affordability, to supporting local food suppliers, to improving conditions for the food workforce. 

“When we look at the big picture of what’s happening I think even within the food industry, this is not new information. It’s more of a reveal,” said Vivian Barad, managing director at IDEO, a design consulting firm focused on what is known as human-centered design

CityLab talked to Barad and her colleague Holly Bybee at IDEO’s Design for Food Studio about the future of local food systems. 

Some changes involve small but essential design tweaks to make our experiences safer, like one-way lanes at the grocery store and freezer door handles you can open with your foot. Many others involve the economic repercussions of delivery’s rising popularity. 

The focus of our conversation is the behavioral and systemic changes that hint at what comes next: People are buying more food directly from restaurants or farms. Some are becoming distributors within their own neighborhoods of scarce necessities like yeast. Food workers facing spikes in demand and risk are demanding better protections. And while some of us are spending more time in the kitchen baking bread or pickling, others are becoming food insecure and have less time for cooking amid riskier work and limited child care. They would benefit from affordable prepared foods. 

Inside the grocery store, the rise in food delivery raises its own set of design questions: What happens when more than half the customers are actually delivery shoppers whose goal is to find products as quickly and efficiently as possible? And as the economy collapses, Barad suggests grocers may decide to focus on fewer options, rather than offering 18 kinds of cereal. 

“I’m a big believer in the beauty of design constraints anywhere in our lives and I think what we’re facing with food are design constraints,” said Barad. “People are going to think differently about the whole supply chain versus, you know, just it tastes good.”

Below is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

What has been at the top of your mind in terms of how your own work will shift in the wake of this pandemic, or even during the pandemic?

Barad: What we’re seeing is: It’s not that the food system is broken. It’s doing what it was designed to do — to work super-efficiently to get food to two primary sectors. There’s retail and grocery, which is getting food on your table at home, and then there’s food service, which is getting food to places like schools and hospitals and restaurants. What we see happening is that one half of that food system shut down. Schools have shut down, people have been sent home from work. That business has seen just an incredible drop. And so this food system, which is so incredibly efficient, is also very specialized. [That specialization] actually makes it fairly rigid and pretty impossible to pivot quickly. 

I would add that the food sector generally speaking is now actually having to take a hard look at how it supports or pays or cares for its workers in a way that I think it hasn’t had to, because so much has been revealed publicly. Things like the Covid outbreaks in the meatpacking plants, or farmworkers having to try to pick produce in 100-degree heat in PPE wear. Or even just getting your workers to and from a food factory and keeping them safe. I think it’s brought up a whole new discussion around that. 

This is not a sort of edge-of-the-marketplace question, because the food industry employs something in the neighborhood of 14% of the U.S. workforce and it has the lowest median wage of any industry. I think the figure we’ve seen is one in six restaurant workers are living in poverty. That’s pretty extreme.

Bybee: This is the space that we have been thinking the most about when thinking about the future of our food system. Because we have all realized that without these people we would not have food on our tables. And the organizations that are paying them, who are responsible for their care, are themselves pretty vulnerable, like farmers for instance. And so now how does the entire food system begin to collaborate to take responsibility for creating the support and the safety nets and the living that these people deserve  to be able to continue to do the work?

Farms have been picking up market share in some places as we’re seeing more people buying directly  through Community Supported Agriculture-type models. And in some cities, restaurants who had a surplus of food started selling groceries rather than just prepared meals during the pandemic. Do you anticipate continued shifts in food sources? Do you expect that to be perhaps a permanent part of a restaurant’s future, or are there other players that you think will come to the fore?

Bybee: On your point about restaurants now selling pantry items: Conversely, we’re also seeing small grocers offering to-go prepared meals for families as a way for them to be able to keep all of their staff employed and to be able to also provide better and more services for the communities that they serve. So I think that the link between what is food service and what is food retail is going to get increasingly blurred.

One of the areas that we think is really interesting is a possible future where communities are actually going in on purchasing products together, so using a more community-based collective bargaining to buy products in bulk that they then distribute amongst themselves. We’re seeing that around yeast and flour in neighborhoods, where communities were just posting: “Does anybody have flour or yeast?” And then somebody in the community was going and buying flour in bulk because it was the only thing accessible, and then putting it into ziplocs and running it around to the community, selling little pieces of it or giving it away. That’s something that we think is potentially going to be a big change for the future in how people purchase and consume their food.

Barad: I think the bigger question here is just how people are reconnecting with their regional food systems, and that’s a very good thing. It doesn’t mean that we don’t need the larger global food system. They need to work together. But in communities where there’s been no investment in a regional food economy, it’s increased the feeling of food insecurity and crisis. I had one person share a story with me that I thought was great. She was talking about other crises that have happened in the U.S., with 9/11 being a great example. During 9/11, when Manhattan shut down all the bridges and tunnels, the government leadership realized that actually it had shut off the food supply and there were only 36 hours’ worth of food in Manhattan. And that realization led to a series of conversations and eventually reinvestment in the regional food system. So now you have the Hudson River Valley burgeoning with farms, and really lively amazing food markets in the cities.

There’s a great New York Times article that talked about small farmers, who have seen big increases of like 25% to 30% at the weekend farmers’ markets. That for me is a really exciting opportunity and I don’t see a reason why retailers can’t be part of that. I just think they need to think differently about how they’re sourcing and where they’re getting food from, so that it’s not overly reliant on that larger global food system, but also incorporates some of the regional food system. For example, I know I need flour. I know I can go to my bodega, which is half a block away and he’s got plenty of flour. But if I go to a Safeway there’s nothing on the shelf.

The example of 9/11 is a great segue to my next question. Any other past instances where food systems have adapted that we can look to now?

Barad: We’re really grappling with just the sheer numbers of this economic downturn. We’ve seen past economic earnings downturns, of course, so that you can look at patterns from that, but recently Feeding America shared an estimate that there could be 54 million Americans who are food insecure in 2020, which is just a mind-boggling figure. [Editor’s Note: A recent UN estimate projected the pandemic could usher in a dramatic spike in chronic hunger worldwide.] I know in past economic downturns things have adjusted. Things like being able to use food stamps at farmers’ markets are a big thing. 

Bybee: One of the greatest opportunities for design right now is thinking about: How do we include those people who are currently receiving the services in the food system itself? Because they’re very much a part of it. We have been designing workarounds to ensure that people can access food who have difficulty accessing it through the current channels. But it’s an incredible opportunity to think about: How do we intentionally design for better access for all people to the food they need, versus just basically taking surplus from a system in order to be able to provide for customers of food banks. I think that’s a huge opportunity for design at the moment going forward.

Are there any particular ideas that you see emerging for making food stamps more available at farmers’ markets? 

Bybee: A lot of farmers are thinking about how to make the transition to regenerative agriculture, and one of the ways to promote the soil health is to use cover crops. We’re starting to see some farmers who are planting cover crops as food that can serve their community. So as the food or the cover crop is starting to come to fruition, they are enabling the community to come in and access that as a part of creating a much more resilient local food system. One of the other things that we’ve been seeing, and this is particularly through the work that WWF [World Wildlife Fund] is doing, is the potential of food hubs that exists between farms and food banks, or other places where people will access food. What these hubs can do is to enable secondary processing to extend the shelf life of the crops that are being recovered from farms: Canning, drying, those kind of processes that enable the food to be turned into something else that’s still delicious and accessible. So it’s a way to be able to extend food life, create a more complex and diverse product mix, and a way to ensure that more food is reaching people who need it.

Is this a food waste situation, where it’s food that would have otherwise not have been eaten by anyone? 

Bybee: In some cases it is. In some cases food banks are contracting with farms directly. Raw ingredients are not always the most helpful for families who are trying to to feed themselves and work. For instance, we have seen that empty food service kitchens are now being leveraged to be able to take raw ingredients and cook meals for families who need them. So the potential for prepared foods in those kinds of environments is really big. 

Let’s take it down to the level of the grocery store. Do you have expectations and observations about how grocery stores will change or adapt? 

Barad: Many of our clients and partners have developed e-commerce strategies that they were planning to roll out over sort of a three- to five-year horizon. And in this moment they’re having to make it happen in three to five months. It’s really a very intense moment from the business side of things and really important to create a strategy for how to meet the demand, and the demand’s shifting so quickly to delivery and contactless. 

Holly: Another thing that we’re anticipating because we’re starting to see signals is that the grocery shopping experience is likely to be increasingly intermediated. An example is my local farmers’ market. It has become impossible for people to pick their own produce from just a public safety standpoint. So now what they’re doing is they’re creating a way for consumers to be able to go online to pick their produce, and then the people working at the farmers’ market in advance of consumers showing up are selecting produce, packaging it and just handing it to them. It’s no-touch payment and it’s being made to be a lot more efficient. What that means is now there are these intermediaries who are picking the produce and putting it together, which is a similar kind of experience to Instacart, for instance. 

And then the question becomes: What is the relationship that begins to be built between these intermediaries and the people who are getting us the food? How is the trust built? How do they communicate with each other in new ways so that people still feel connected with their food, while enabling a much more efficient and publicly safe experience? 

From a more prescriptive point of view, what are the changes you think we should be making? To take the farmers’ market example you just gave of more intermediaries, for instance, is that even scalable to grocery stores? Should it be? 

Barad: I think in order to kind of deliver at that scale for retail, some of the things I would encourage them to be thinking about is there are some clear logistic issues. For example, there was a grocery store here in San Francisco that now has two lines going into the store. One line is for shoppers doing their own shopping. The other is for Instacart. And the Instacart line’s been a bit longer than the regular shopper line. But even if you just take those two user groups, they have very very different needs. Where a shopper might be wanting more of an experience in the store, to have it be more sensorial, an Instacart shopper is trying to most efficiently and effectively get the right product for their customer or their client. It’s quite a different way to navigate a single space. So how do you design for different modes of use in that space? 

We had one of our designers share a great story about how he wanted to buy some wine, so he called a local wine shop and was on Facetime as the owner walked him through selections. You can see there could be a very high-touch version of retail service that might emerge from this which is super different than the current grocery model. I do think that’s one of the limitations of Instacart. Especially in this time of bare shelves, there is a real disconnect between what we might see online and what’s actually in the store. Another big challenge for retailers is going to be how they use software or some kind of automation to better connect the supply with what people are looking at online. Because there is nothing more disappointing to a shopper than to have a delivery come and it’s kind of a random collection of almost what you ordered.

Bybee: We anticipate that there will be significant changes in the product mix that’s showing up in retail based on how people’s lives have changed and therefore, the kind of products that they want to access in that environment. For instance, we’re not on the go anywhere near the level we used to be and so much of the food merchandising and retailing has been increasingly oriented around convenience and grab-and-go and all of these things that may not be as relevant for a very long time. 

You could imagine a world where the brick-and-mortar experience is beneficial for those things that you really want to be able to pick and curate for yourself like produce. The kind of mix of what I want to get into brick-and-mortar and what I can get online may look different.

Barad: Retailers have an opportunity to have a really different relationship with consumers, where they might be delivering and using some kind of subscription model, a more bulk or monthly order of a product that could be in a container that gets reused. So they’re delivering and then they’re doing a return trip with the empties. And that I think gets super interesting because it serves a lot of purposes. For retailers, they can have a more loyal customer base. And then in addition, just the increased efficiency and obviously the improved carbon footprint of going for a subscription model on those kinds of shelf-stable or bulk products. And there are some companies already doing this in this space.

bloomberg.com, 21 July 2020
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