Tasty values

Posted on March 23, 2011


In this Ted talk, Architect Carolyn Steel looks at how food shaped our cities, from being the core of our relationship with nature and of urban social life to being at the centre of a highly unsustainable system.

Now, food is a subject I’m pretty obsessed about, not only because I’m a French hedonist, but also because I feel I inherited most of my values relating to sustainability from cooking and sharing meals with my family and friends.


Firstly, growing up in an environment where taste buds were central to most conversations resulted in one thing: I love eating. And I consciously use the word “love”, because it implies “intimate relationship”. And “intimate relationship” implies “trust”.

So, in some way, this made me consider the importance of knowing where what I eat comes from. As Carolyn Steel points out, in urban settings, food pretty much embodies our relationship with nature. In this sense, the way we consume our food shapes the way we value our environment. Ready cooked meals and pre-sliced packaged ingredients in supermarkets, however convenient, are symptomatic of how we have been distancing ourselves from nature – and somehow believing that we are “above” nature, rather than part of it. Farmers markets and seasonal products delivery schemes, which seem to be blooming in western cities, address part of this issue, as they re-establish a direct link between producers and consumers. This is also probably what many brands are starting to realise, by emphasizing the story behind their products on their packaging.

The People’s Supermarket, which I have recently joined, is an interesting model, as it pushes consumers to rethink the value they place on their relationship with farmers and producers, without compromising on affordability or convenience. It works because it is a cooperative, and every decision is taken democratically. The 500+ members being also owners, they have the opportunity to take responsibilities regarding how the shop is managed, and which producers and suppliers are chosen. It is a truly empowering experience, as it makes us, as consumers, realise that change is in our hands.


The second thing that cooking made me aware of is the value of resources, which I think this quote summarises fantastically:

“The most remarkable thing about my mother is that for 30 years she served the family nothing but leftovers. The original meal has never been found.”

Calvin Trillin

Cooking is about using food as a resource, from which one has to make the most of. In this respect, design is very much like cooking: it’s a transformative practice, that turns raw materials (resources) into something that can be consumed (goods) by adding value to them.

In some way, both actions of designing and cooking are about placing oneself between the producer and the consumer, which means taking on responsibilities for both sides: being aware of the value of our resources – not only in terms of quality but also of environmental and social impact – as well as making sure that the impact of our design outcome – or meal! – is going to be positive for who is going to use – or consume – it.


This probably deserves another post altogether, but a final link I see between valuing food and sustainability is the fact that cooking and eating can be a vehicle for social cohesion. Talking about how food markets used to be the centre of urban life, Carolyn Steel acknowledges the social value of food distribution systems – which supermarkets also undermine:

But the actual act of preparing and consuming food – eating, which is what we are all interested in – is also a great pretext for social bonding. Cooking for someone or sharing a meal is an obvious way to maintain a friendship or get a conversation going. It simply creates a convivial setting – comparable to the pub? – that allows stories to be told and relationships to happen. Now, these are casual and informal initiatives, largely depending on individuals’ own culture around socialising. It is interesting to ask, though, if there is an opportunity to promote food as a convivial experience in a more conscious way to address social sustainability.

The following example, which is probably not an isolated case, might be the beginning of an answer: one day every summer, the city council of Montreuil, a town in the suburbs of Paris, encourages residents to set tables in their street and share a meal with their neighbours, during an event called Repas de Quartiers. I don’t know about the actual impact of the initiative – does it really foster long-term social cohesion? – but I find interesting that food is almost valued as a “town development” tool, that can take place outside of a private setting, and might have deeper societal effects.

* by Fan Sissoko

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