“Design is a conversation with materials.”
I love that quote by Donald Schön, highlighted in our book, About Face.
I’ve done interviews in the past and I’ll be the first to admit that I get nervous every time. Not the kind of nervous I get when I’m speaking to a large audience or even the nervous feeling I get before teaching that first week but still nerbous. No matter how many times I’ve done it, it still happens.
Perhaps because I feel pressure to ask the right questions; to be present and listen carefully; to pick up on clues; to be compassionate … I think because the people you interview are being extremely generous with their time and more importantly their stories and lives. There is a vulnerability to being interviewed.
But I digress.
Our interviews for this first project went well. Art, Roger and Jeannie were welcoming, kind and clearly passionate about what they do. We gathered a load of intel about food deserts, nutrition, farming, policy, perceptions, challenges, and most of all, information that caused us to think about our own biases and assumptions.
Below are summaries of our interviews with Urban Oasis Project and Urban Greenworks.
Urban Oasis Project
As I mentioned in my previous post, I was surprised to learn that the term “food desert” is frowned upon by some people who work with underserved communities unless they are speaking with policymakers or writing grants. In fact, the term, “food desert” further stigmatizes the people living in underserved communities. (There’s a psychological term for this but I can’t recall at the moment.)
The efforts they have made to help those using SNAP with EBT cards at farmers’ markets is quite an accomplishment. We also discovered that there are not a lot of farms in the Miami area. Land prices and development pressures are too high to entice young farmers to produce. Art emphasized how knowledge and skills about growing food or to scale up to be a farmer is missing. There are groups that have farm incubator programs but most agriculture schools/education don’t focus on practical skills. (Jeannie refers to the knowledge and skills as part of the Spectrum of Prevention Toolkit).
Behavior change is difficult which requires a cultural shift; proximity to grocery stores isn’t always the solution. Cultural barriers exist. Further, interventions need “buy-in” and that can only come with trust. (Designing WITH a community versus designing for a community). There is an incredible disconnect between people and food. We’ve lost touch with where and how our food is produced; take so much of it for granted (Roger hit on this as well, below).
Technology is supposed to enhance and improve our lives. We should not [be living] in a country without access to healthy food.
I would like to follow-up with Jeannie since she had some interesting things to say about health literacy; that health literacy is critical to helping people within communities understand why eating healthy, fresh food is important. She shared how campaigns don’t work with most communities mainly due to the language used (“infant mortality” vs “infant deaths”). Similar to how web page content reaches the most people when written to, I believe, a middle-school level, any intervention must use words that most people understand. Compounding this are the cultural and social differences within each community. “People don’t understand what they are being told.”
Note: I followed up with Jeannie today (9/9/18).
She shared a bit of history of SNAP and mentioned how important it is to keep an eye on what is shaping up at the USDA (she lost her last job due to funding being cut off). She shared with me the “Spectrum of Prevention”, a toolkit for public health practice that works from the bottom up to creating more lasting change. The steps are as follows:
- Strengthen individuals with knowledge and skills (education)
- Work with providers to create nudges (e.g. stickers on vending machines that say, “make sure to check the calories”)
- Foster coalitions and networking
- Change policy and legislation to backup interventions and goals
She is skeptical about the effectiveness of social media but is open to investigating more. Her main question: For organizations such as the Mayo Clinic, are the 1+ million followers legit? Who are they? She’d like to know and understand their demographics. Her main priority is literacy. What language to use to best communicate health and wellness? For her, much of change is in education; communicating in a way people understand.
Organizational coalitions are full of politics and agendas; sometimes hidden but persistence can pay off albeit very slowly. (Roger talks about breaking down silos and how organizations need to change how and what they do …). There are lots of personalities, efforts to claim credit and even more so today, limited funding. (Art also spoke about how many applications for grants have skyrocketed due to changes at the Federal level.)
Speaking with Roger is energizing and enlightening. We hope to follow-up with him as well. His view about “food deserts” is holistic; similar to how a naturopathic doctor or an integrative health practitioner looks at the whole person and not just the disease. He emphasized how important it is to design with the community; not just come up with ideas, gather people at a town hall and get feedback in an hour (this is how policy that affects people gets implemented). Establishing trust is mission critical to the success of any intervention. He also mentioned how the youth are critical to change. According to him, they are the change agents of any community.
There are many “problems” but funding is problematic in many ways. Apparently, there are “favorites” rather than need-based. Also, giving stuff (a.k.a. “entitlement”) such as backpacks, is also a problem. Farmer’s markets, he says, are “both the solution and the problem”. Evidently, a farmer’s market is a signal that gentrification is coming, which can demoralize a community.
It was interesting to note his example of a European model that is working: Foodscaping, where communities come together and decide which each person in the community is going to grow and then they share throughout the season. It is a “big farm” in the neighborhood. Everyone is invested and has an appreciation for farming. This is missing in the U.S. or rather, not popular. Again, it seems a disconnect between how food is grown and gets onto the shelf.
First-generation Farmer Upstate New York
David is a first-generation, small farmer based in Upstate New York. He admits he is not an expert on food deserts but took this interview as an opportunity to take a step back and think about food systems. His shares similar views to those of others we interviewed about health disparities; that because people lack access to fresh and healthy foods, there is a loss of traditions but also understanding of where our food comes from.
His view on farmer’s markets is an interesting contrast to others but his answers were more brief. There seems to be a disconnect compared to others we interviewed that farmer’s markets could simply be set up in food deserts, but this could be because he didn’t get into great detail.
An interesting idea that he offered was how offering precise instructions and exact quantities of food (Blue Apron does this) could help resolve the disconnect and cultural barriers surrounding food (e.g. unfamiliar produce). He also mentioned a food demonstration kitchen that runs in my hometown at the market downtown.
Interviews: Our Findings (so far …)
- The youth in underserved populations are most willing to participate and be the change agents within their communities.
- Design interventions must be created WITH the community. It is mission critical to the long-term viability of any solution. For example, starting a farmer’s market in a community without the support and trust of the people in the community will never take off or succeed.
- “Food desert” leaves a bad taste and further discriminates.
- Ideally, organizations who help these communities collaborate to address larger goals other than their individual missions.
- Health literacy is a core issue
- A holistic approach and view is critical to change; interventions in isolation are not effective.
- People and communities in the U.S. (and a growing number of places worldwide) are sorely out of touch with how food is produced, where it comes from and how it gets to shelves. Cooking with fresh foods seems to be a skill that needs to be taught again.
This is Part 5 in a series documenting my learning experiences developing a solution to address food deserts, food security, health literacy, and health for populations. This project is part of our Designing Innovation course with Professor Lien Tran at the University of Miami, School of Communication. I am an IMFA (Interactive Media Master of Fine Arts) candidate.