Prototyping Innovative Solutions to Address Food Waste
The world is faced with a myriad of complex, food-related challenges. Food loss and waste alone negatively impact food security, the environment and even the economy, accounting for an estimated US$1 trillion of losses for the food industry1. Global initiatives to remedy the food waste crisis are being led internationally by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization with 130 partnering countries, and nationally via academic, corporate, government and grassroots consortiums2. The significant effects of food loss and waste are multifaceted, requiring that we work together to develop transformative solutions.
University of California, Davis professors Charlotte Biltekoff and Lauren Shimek are taking a multidisciplinary approach to solving food system challenges. They believe that in order to successfully develop solutions to critical challenges in nutrition, health and sustainability, innovators should be informed not only by science but also by understanding the social and cultural conditions that shape and result from the food system, and the real contexts within which innovations are — or are not — taken up by users. Their course, Design Thinking for Food: An Innovation Lab, trains students in evolved design thinking and rapid prototyping, with the ultimate goal of developing a new generation of innovators and achieving real-world impacts.
About the Course
The course centers around what the instructors call “Food Studies-informed Design Thinking.” Design Thinking is an approach to innovation that considers technical feasibility, and business viability, but is also resolutely “human centered”. Food Studies is a multidisciplinary field that works across the food system — from production to consumption — to understand the relationship of food and the social order, and the values and beliefs that shape eating habits. The course brings together graduate and undergraduate students from across campus to learn and to apply these tools as they work in radically multidisciplinary teams to address real world food system challenges. In the first two years, the course focused on reducing food waste in campus dinning.
In project ‘CHEWS’, course veterans Kyla Broderick, Crystal Sandmire and Lauren Crawford built an intuitive sampling and customization platform designed to reduce unintentional food waste in the UC Davis Dining Commons4. The platform is intended to alleviate customer congestion during peak times (breakfast and lunch) and reduce food waste by reformatting the Dining Commons environment while meeting a fundamental need for students to find food that they like to eat. A food tasting station and made-to-order app enables customization according to food portion and dietary preferences while aligning inherent student needs with the goal of reducing food waste.
The current Dining Commons model has the potential to result in overeating and excess food waste. Students swipe a member card and self-serve in an all-you-care-to-eat system. CHEWS prototype team member and UC Davis Food Science and Technology doctoral candidate Lauren Crawford explains, “our challenge was to develop an innovative system to reduce food waste in the Dining Commons on campus and to focus on the suppliers, the chef, and customers (students).” The team posed the question, “How can we inspire them to reduce food waste?” 3,4
By studying consumer dining patterns, and redesigning the structural and functional flow of the Dining Commons, the burden of meal choice and wait time could be largely reduced. Food sampling before purchase informs customer selection, eliminates undesirable items, and may even act to satiate an appetite and prevent overeating. Professor Shimek points out that tackling food waste is not actually the number one priority for students eating in the Dining Commons. “What the student team uncovered is that the primary need (of the consumer) is to find something they like. CHEWS is a parallel path that pairs the opportunity to solve food waste with the existing desires people already have, without trying to change their priorities.”
Reducing Food Waste on Campus
CHEWS embodies an innovation process that engages the consumer experience and acknowledges the complexity of the sociocultural context to fully comprehend and adequately frame a problem. The CHEWS design incorporates a human-centered focus that seamlessly meets the needs of the consumer as well as the food waste reduction needs of the Dining Commons. The students are currently working closely with the Dining Commons to implement sustainable solutions to reduce food waste.
It is the “intersection of design thinking, food studies, and food science that is unique to this course,” says Professor Biltekoff. Engaging this form of thinking (food studies) and doing (design thinking) kindles the innovative spirit and ignites workable solutions. The Design Thinking for Food course beautifully exemplifies the practical and effective solutions that can emerge when the efforts of people in applied, theoretical and scientific disciplines are purposefully combined. The next Design Thinking for Food course will be offered at UC Davis in Fall 2018 and will focus on the challenge of addressing food insecurity on campus.
About the Innovators
From left to right: Crystal Sandmire, Kyla Broderick, Lauren Crawford
Crystal Sandmire is a 4th year undergraduate student at UC Davis, double majoring in Anthropology and Design. She is a designer and an advocate for multidisciplinary learning and collaboration.
Kyla Broderick is a 4th year undergraduate Food Science and Technology major and U.S. History minor at UC Davis. She is the president of the Food Tech club and works with fellow officers to help peers learn about the food industry and get involved in the department. She has also held various internships related to her career goals and has spearheaded food science projects on campus.
Lauren Crawford is a 3rd year PhD student in the Food Science and Technology department studying analytical chemistry. Her current project aims to create an innovative processing method for black table olives to increase nutritional quality, decrease the amount and toxicity of waste water, and to increase profits for olive producers while preventing any undesirable changes to the olive’s chemical composition or sensory profile.
Dr. Biltekoff is an Associate Professor jointly appointed in the Department of Food Science and Technology and in the Department of American Studies at UC Davis. She is an expert in the cultural politics of food and health. Her research focuses on the cultural politics of dietary health and the values and beliefs that shape American eating habits. She is the author of Eating Right in America: The Cultural Politics of Food and Health.
Innovation Institute for Food and Health
Dr. Lauren Shimek is the Founder and CEO of Food.Tech.Design and an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Food Science and Technology at UC Davis. She is an experienced innovation leader who uses human-centered design, cross-disciplinary collaboration and technical expertise to create strategic, breakthrough food and beverage products and to drive innovation culture within organizations.