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Buzzword Decoded: A Sustainable Food Lexicon

Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok

Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok

When my wife started a goat milk ice cream company in 2004, I didn’t know much about our food system. While I had previously documented Italy’s Slow Food movement for a book, that work mainly focused on the cultural aspects of food. I knew nothing about the complex faceless journey food often takes to reach our plates. Watching my wife negotiate with trucking companies and storage facilities about shipping a frozen product, then haggle with supermarkets that required her to purchase ads in their papers or pay to stock the shelves when introducing a product, and even helping her scoop ice cream at endless supermarket and farmers market demos, gave me more insight into how truly difficult it is to profit from producing value-driven goods in a low-margin world.

The experience also showed me how opaque our food system has become. The simplest products — like soda crackers — have hundreds of ingredients, many of which can’t be pronounced. But what bothered me most about the industrialization of our food system is how brazenly companies have hijacked terms like “sustainability” to explain their business practices.

Defining the lexicon of sustainability

In 2009, my wife and I asked ourselves a question: What if we took the meaning of sustainability back? What if we identified the key terms and solutions that really define sustainability in food and farming, then sought out thought leaders across the U.S. who best exemplified these ideas. And then, what if we translated their knowledge into information artworks and films and books and academic materials that would raise the level of discourse and hopefully lead people to live more sustainably?

We began by making information artworks with farmers and food producers in our Northern California community, which includes West Marin and Sonoma counties, then looked across the Bay toward Berkeley and San Francisco. I use “with” instead of using “of” because each artwork displays the actual words of the photo subject we document. This highly personal, handmade approach is time intensive, but the results create a more authentic representation of these people’s valuable ideas.

Conscious of being too geographically focused, we quickly extended our project to cover the rest of the country, even traveling up to Alaska and crossing the Pacific to Hawaii. At first we worked alone, but volunteers and interns quickly appeared (it remains a mystery how these angels always arrive at critical junctures in our project’s development). And while we initially self-funded our work, a mix of companies, foundations, NGOs and even individuals eventually came forward with financial support. Their vote of confidence continues to remain vital to our project’s success.

Part of the lexicon: Erika Allen's garden in Chicago defines food security. Credit: Douglas Gayeton

Part of the lexicon: Erika Allen’s garden in Chicago defines food security. Credit: Douglas Gayeton

Our initial perceptions about sustainability, at least as it applied to food and farming, have shifted greatly in the years since. The centralization of nearly every aspect of our food system has dismantled much of the infrastructure necessary for local food systems. Many of these systems must be rebuilt: local slaughterhouses, mills, dairies and processing centers for raw goods that disappeared must return, not only to ensure food security, but also to create the sense of place vital for any community.  Who knew food had so much attached to it?

New food movement  has no center or single leader

Despite the challenges, this New Food Movement reshaping our country has no center or no single leader. It isn’t composed of people waiting for governments or companies to step in with solutions. Instead, these people are doing it themselves — everywhere.

To capture the explosive growth of locally-based food movements across the country, the Lexicon has expanded to include more than 200 information artworks, a series of short films with PBS called “Know Your Food,” a book called, “Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in America,” and an educational initiative for high school students called Project Localize. In all our initiatives, our core principles remain the same: Use words as the building blocks for new ideas, ideas that create conversation, foster an exchange of new ideas and hopefully shift the way our country looks at food.

The New Food Movement’s rapid growth has made it fractious and hard to unite. Competing organizations often stymie the coalitions so necessary to translate popular sentiments into legislative action. But words are powerful. They can become tools for building a common language. With that in mind, we will launch The List this summer.

Each week we will introduce talking points for a new conversation dedicated to a single term from the Lexicon. These conversations will feature a network of partners from across the food and farming spectrum. By collaborating to share their own unique vantage points on a shared theme, our partners will enable us to share compelling stories of innovative and inspiring sustainable solutions over a variety of social media channels, allowing users to translate these talking points into communities and conversations around ideas that matter. These conversations are open to one and all. If you’d like to join, sign up at thelexicon.org. As we often say, a conversation starts with words, and we’ve got a few of them.

Main photo: Douglas Gayeton makes a portrait of Xuyen Pham at East New Orleans garden. Credit: Dane Pollok



Zester Daily Soapbox contributor Douglas Gayeton is an information architect, filmmaker, photographer and writer. He has created award-winning work at the boundaries of traditional and converging media since the early 1990s. He is the director of the "Know Your Food" series for PBS, and author of both "Slow: Life in a Tuscan Town," and the forthcoming book "Local: The New Face of Food & Farming in America." He and and Laura Howard-Gayeton founded the Lexicon of Sustainability in 2009.

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