Despite research showing clear links between food insecurity and lower socio-economic status, chronic health problems, depression and reduced educational outcomes, urban food deserts persist. Myriad efforts have emerged and there are hints of promise at a neighborhood level, but these efforts are often disconnected, leaving many deeper issues out of focus and systemic factors unaddressed. And, despite frequent attention, access to fresh food is only one part of the problem.

BLK SHP founder Peter Sims and I began discussing the passion I’ve had for this issue and what we might do about it somewhere in the middle of America during the BLK SHP bus tour.  Last week, a group of BLK SHP gathered at the GOOD offices to kick off a new effort to address this problem by building collaborations between disparate nodes in the system to unlock new solutions. Operation: Eat Right will leverage the power of creativity and networks to connect unlikely partners and identify food desert solutions using design thinking and agile approaches to complexity using Los Angeles as its inspiration. Through this process, we’ll amplify the promising sparks through media and rapid prototyping to share insights with others in ways that provoke our civic imagination.

  The evening included edible provocations as introductions to new perspectives on how and what we put on our tables.   Left to right: lemons from my backyard showed up as party favors epitomizing the potential of  fallen fruit ; dinner provided by Groceryships' founder, Sam Polk's latest effort,  Harvest , redefine affordable grab-n-go nutrition;  Bar and Garden  asks us to consider not just the farm-to-fork movement but what's in our glass as well; and  Fonuts  added a sweet reminder that unprocessed alternatives provide vegan and gluten-free options that still deliver.

The evening included edible provocations as introductions to new perspectives on how and what we put on our tables. Left to right: lemons from my backyard showed up as party favors epitomizing the potential of fallen fruit; dinner provided by Groceryships' founder, Sam Polk's latest effort, Harvest, redefine affordable grab-n-go nutrition; Bar and Garden asks us to consider not just the farm-to-fork movement but what's in our glass as well; and Fonuts added a sweet reminder that unprocessed alternatives provide vegan and gluten-free options that still deliver.

BLK SHP is a "loose guild" and movement of leading creative thinkers, writers, policy-makers, artists, entrepreneurs, investors, and social entrepreneurs. The mission of BLK SHP is to build and nurture ecosystems that help unlock the creativity and voices of socially conscious innovators, while providing a platform to create and disseminate cutting-edge thought leadership, art & culture, and socially influential ventures to a wider public.  Operations focus innovation efforts around some of the most pressing issues of our time, instigated bottom-up, to rally the BLK SHP network at large, so we can collectively place little bets, learn, iterate and implement.  We also aim to explore new ways of sharing insights and solutions within these complex systems. 

Each operation is led by an Entrepreneur in Residence, and I’m honored to be at the helm of Operation: Eat Right.  But, as with all things Curious Catalyst, the power is in the connections and interconnections.  The inaugural gathering was a fitting first step, engaging members of the City of Los Angeles Innovation team, bold leadership behind vibrant organizations like the Social Justice Learning Institute, Groceryships, and LA Master Gardeners, documentary filmmakers and journalists, experience designers and social change agents across media platforms, disruptors of education, entertainment, and economics systems – it was a group unabashedly tackling poverty, human rights, and environmental justice on a daily basis.

We gathered to swap stories and questions around the idea of what it might mean to “eat right” – the how and what, the past and the future, the nuance of our individual and collective rights here and abroad and the kind of nourishment we need to allow every member of our society thrive.  Our BLK SHP story foragers, Watson Hartsoe and DeKoven Ashley, helped capture some of the seeds we’ll sow, bringing together unlikely allies to support and build connective tissue and creative capacity in the community through rapid ideation sessions with citizen stakeholders, leaders and changemakers.  And Ishan Shapiro helped visualize the start of these themes using his collaborative digital mapping tools, which we’ll continue to explore as a way to share systems-level insights.

   
  
 
  
    
  
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     You can explore many more nodes from the Operation: Eat Right Kick-Off dinner at  https://metamaps.cc/maps/1931

You can explore many more nodes from the Operation: Eat Right Kick-Off dinner at https://metamaps.cc/maps/1931

We wrapped up the evening underscoring, quite literally, the critical element of improvisation and raising our voices - for how we innovate, orchestrate diversity as an ingredient for cooking up rich solution spaces, and listen deeply with empathy when designing for the world we'd like to inhabit.  One of the original BLK SHP, Harold O’Neal, treated us to the soundtrack he heard emanating from the unlikely dots being connected - wrapping up by prototyping a powerful duet with multi-hyphenate artist and social change agent, Aloe Blacc, who uses music as a force for good.  In an aptly named setting, with good food, good music, and good friends, new and old, we could not have concocted a more auspicious start.  Stay tuned for more updates and ways to get involved as Operation: Eat Right takes shape!

Posted
AuthorKaz Brecher

What strikes me about a recent Huffington Post article "Food Insecurity, Food Security" by Christina Weiss Lurie and Joan C. Hendricks is that, in raising the specter of the growing health problems stemming from food deserts, they highlighted the role veterinarians can play.  This is not a common angle in the discussion of why both obesity and malnutrition are on the rise in the United States.  But it is a perfect example of why complexity theory is so important here at Curious Catalyst when we consider urban challenges.

Take a look at the map below, which shows one of the reasons South Central Los Angeles is often called a food desert - an area commonly recognized for having no fresh produce available within a mile radius and populated by citizens with limited access to transportation.  Based on this data, you might be tempted to think that the best way to address this challenge is to attack access head-on.  You'd be wrong.

FoodDesertMap.jpg

Complexity theory is the science of system dynamics in all their glory, taking into account actors (people!) and the factors which influence the way they behave and, thus, shape the system itself.  It integrates ideas pulled from chaos theory, cognitive psychology, computer science, and evolutionary biology, among other sources of inspiration, to address systems as they are. This means that complexity science acknowledges that complex behavior emerges from a few simple rules, and that all complex systems are networks of many interdependent parts which interact according to those rules.  These systems underlie the most persistent of problems we face in cities today, and food deserts are a worthy subject for examination.

The first step in orienting around a solution space is to ruthlessly identify the myriad contributing factors.  As we began looking in our own backyard in Los Angeles, talking with people from those who work in urban farms in housing projects to those who've tried for years to tackle various aspects of this epidemic, it became clear that the human factors are more important than the infrastructure - though addressing both will be critical for any kind of long-lasting progress.

 These are just a few of the considerations around why eating habits have developed in food deserts as we see them today.

These are just a few of the considerations around why eating habits have developed in food deserts as we see them today.

The Huffington Post article highlights why food security is such a pressing concern, "with 17 million children food insecure, the chronic health consequences requiring long-term health care are enormous. The cost of this threat to the US economy in terms of healthcare is a staggering $167 billion a year. So what can we do as a nation? Who can we turn to for help?"  The authors raise a rallying cry around the quality factor by exploring the role of veterinary medicine in the food chain.

"Veterinary medicine is the profession that is intimately tied to food safety and production. Veterinarians help ensure egg, cattle, swine, and poultry safety, including the spread of infectious diseases in animals. They also provide guidance to farmers on modern farming production like the herd health program which checks the efficiency of milking machines, as well as waste management, reproductive efficiency, and immunization programs. Access to protein-rich foods is crucial because a lack of milk, meat and eggs can lead to malnourishment. Vets can have a direct and positive effect on malnourishment."

We couldn't agree more.  But from our human-centered design perspective, this is not a high-leverage point for turning food deserts around.  Our exploration of one idea in this solution space, using re-imagined food trucks to combine increased access to both fresh produce and healthier prepared foods, is an example of how a complexity frame can address more of the elements playing into the simple rules keeping food deserts a persistent urban challenge.

Very few people get excited about tackling complex problems or using complexity theory to see them in new light (though we know a few from our involvement at THNK), but we believe it makes all the difference.  If you're interested in rolling up your sleeves with us, please get in touch.  We always have time for a chat about complex systems provided coffee is within reach...

Posted
AuthorKaz Brecher
CategoriesFood Security