Editor’s Note: The Food Lab was renamed Food+City in mid-2015.
You’ve embraced farm to table, but have you considered the path of your food in a scientific and cultural manner? That may sound like a lot to take in. But in my food loving reality, I can honestly say I don’t spend nearly enough time acknowledging this aspect of my cooking, nourishing and noshing enjoyment.
The Food Lab based at The University of Texas at Austin (UT) is awakening the exploration, experimentation and innovation that forms the underlying map of our global food system.
How Many Layers Are in Your PB&J?
The Food Lab is a University based program, introduced by Director Robyn Metcalfe. A transplant to Austin, Metcalfe brought a wealth of life experiences and a hunger for the historic involvement, systems and conversations that take place today regarding food. The Food Lab facilitates these conversations for students and startups by bringing awareness to food related issues, while promoting research and engagement for innovation in food systems.
In an effort to easily express the meaning behind a food system and its history, Metcalfe mapped the rather miraculous creation of a simple peanut butter and jelly sandwich.
Let me address two items you may be wondering about:
- The Food Lab is not actually a lab at all. The team behind The Food Lab occupies a small office located in the College of Natural Sciences at UT. When I found this out, there may have been a hint of disappointment in my mind. But disappointment quickly dissipated after learning about the brilliance created in that small office.
- The conversations at The Food Lab are not initiated from an activist point of view. Instead, they’re intended to bring people together from different pockets of interest to talk about food. Those who may not normally come together to discuss these issues now have a means of communication. The Food Lab is an action based platform for engaging and pushing the complex and now more frequent conversations involving food.
Miracle of Feeding Cities
In 2012, The Food Lab hosted a conference encompassing the topic of food in cities. Many of the conversations led to the conclusion that we are undergoing a food revolution. Metcalfe said, “Much of our modern food system seems revolutionary. However, it’s historically evolutionary.” Bringing this topic to the table launched Miracle of Feeding Cities, a project from The Food Lab.
My conversation with Metcalfe turned to a passionate series of informative food geek notions. We considered these aspects of the food logistics system:
- How does your food get from point A to B? Not considering how it’s produced and/or consumed, but the actual motions that occur from boxing it, to shipping it, to moving it cross country and more.
- Who has their hands on your food during this time, and what does their day look like? How are people such as these emotionally invested in the system?
- Have you ever stopped to glance at the delivery trucks, the markets, the faces of these people and the images that are gathered in those moments?
I was both impressed and intrigued by these questions. It was at that moment that I realized The Food Lab and all of its contents are doing exactly what they set out to accomplish. The conversation is now at the forefront. The Miracle of Feeding Cities is actively shedding light on topics which Metcalfe says are often overlooked and need attention. “Some of the most fulfilled people in the workforce go nearly unnoticed. They are proud of their work and what they do,” Metcalfe shared.
Hosting a global collection of cities including New York, London, Istanbul, Buenos Aires and Tokyo, The Food Lab shows the food systems and people involved through stories, images and filmed moments. These conversations have stemmed the next project – a full length documentary that explores the story of feeding cities. For this food nerd, it’s a snow globe of human nature and food at its best.
The Food Lab initiated a business plan competition to Austin in a 2014 inaugural event. Entrepreneur teams were invited to bring food industry targeted plans to the table. Innovation, opportunity and execution are required and prizes will be awarded for multiple categories:
- Inputs and Production
- Processing, Packaging and Safety
- Storage and Distribution
- Healthy Eating and Food Education
Nearly 60 teams and over 100 people registered for The Food Lab Challenge in September. The challenge is allowing these entrepreneurs to build partnerships, network and get invaluable industry experience. Metcalfe said, “The challenge has given us an opportunity to work with other universities as well. We were delighted to see so many A&M people supporting the project and bringing their ideas.”
Finalists will be announced in November, then paired with mentors. Prizes of $5,000 will be awarded in February to the challenge winners, at which time they will compete for the grand prize of $10,000.
The Food Lab and Metcalfe have facilitated classes, and advised and participated in panels, speaking engagements and networking opportunities both locally and nationally. As far as the future of The Food Lab, I was given some exciting insight, and I’d recommend you keep a finger on the pulse of their up and coming projects.
Are you interested in the global food system and how food ends up in your hands?
Cover photo via Counse and Kristen Taylor via Flickr CC.