Eat Smart: IDEO’s Vivian Barad on Reshaping Global Food Systems


Vivian Barad, Managing Director, Design for Food at IDEO, poses in an undated photo obtained by Reuters on August 30, 2021. Courtesy of IDEO / Handout via REUTERS

NEW YORK, Aug.31 (Reuters) – During a meal, few people know the long and complicated process of how food ended up there.

Vivian Barad does.

As Managing Director of Eating Practices for global design company IDEO, Barad is always thinking about the complex systems that produce and deliver what we eat, not to mention quality, access and climate impact.

Its mission is to help foundations, businesses and food banks bring better food to more people. She spoke to Reuters about rethinking and rethinking what we swallow every day.

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

A: I am thinking more particularly of the people who cultivated it, harvested it, packed it and put it on my plate. When I go out to eat, I also think of the people who prepare and serve my food.

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

Q: I imagine you are thinking not only of the potential of our food systems, but also of all the waste?

A: The statistics are staggering: globally, world hunger affects 2.3 billion people; during this time, we waste up to 1/3 of the food we produce.

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

Q: How can we move the needle?

A: We helped start the Food Waste Challenge, asking people around the world for their best ideas on how to reduce waste and rethink our relationship with food. Over 20,000 people from 113 countries participated.

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 source of ideas, we want to speed up all the work that is being done on the ground.

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

A: We have carried out several projects with the Rockefeller Foundation, including one in partnership with Hyatt to fight food waste in hotels.

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

For example, instead of pulling out a giant serving bowl of yogurt, which encourages us to overload our plates, they can arrange smaller bowls with individual servings.

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

A: We have worked with organizations providing food aid outside of Chicago. We helped them create a 24/7 online digital pantry for their customers.

The great idea was to measure success not only in terms of tons of food distributed, but in terms of customer satisfaction. If people can choose the food they want and say no to what they don’t want, then you will have happy customers and less waste. It’s about designing with people, not for people.

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

A: Enormously, and the big global food companies are really feeling the impact. The main ones we hear from our partners are an increase in raw material costs, which makes it difficult to maintain a successful business; supply chain disruptions, such as a lack of trucks to get products to various locations or to access supplies at the right time; and finally a lot of labor shortage problems.

Q: How is the climate crisis threatening food production?

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

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

Q: Are you optimistic or worried about the future?

A: There are many threats to food security right now, but we believe in the power to rethink systems. It is possible to use design to reimagine what communities need and want to have access to fresh and healthy food. We believe human-centered design and ingenuity will help us create a new, more resilient and sustainable future.

Editing by Lauren Young and Richard Chang

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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