How to See Food - September 24, 2012

"...I wonder, can designers change the way we view food?"

As this country developed westward, the cattle industry drove out sustainable communities with land theft, intimidation and a whitewash of dollars headed to Congress—or so that’s how Mari Sandoz tells it in her 1935 book Old Jules, which I’m reading now. Today, ranchers get special grazing privileges on national forest land, where their stock competes with wildlife and plenty of food-conscious advocates like Michael Pollan have demonstrated the detriments of the cattle industry, from the waste of grains to pollution in transportation. If you saw the modern feedlots yourself, you might think differently about eating beef, which begs the question: how are those involved with industrial farming not bothered?

On a cross-country drive earlier this summer, Melina and I stopped in a small Kansas town to stock up on groceries. We found the worst off-brand food items imaginable, full of high fructose corn syrup, GMOs and unpronounceable ingredients that contained the explanation “for preservation” in parentheses.

We’ve become accustomed to farmers’ markets and co-ops, providing salad greens plucked just the day before and peanut butter that contains salt as the only other ingredient. Raised in post-industrial Ohio, I wasn’t surprised by all the artificial ingredients in Kansas—only that the brands available contained many more strange words than I had seen in a long time and that the grocery store didn’t offer any alternatives.

As we struggled to find a workable spread for our apples or perhaps a cheese that didn’t glow neon yellow, we talked about the irony of bad food in America’s Heartland, but then we stepped outside: thousands of cows fenced into dirt-packed acres, the tractors spewing diesel smoke over rows of commodity crops, and the towns lacking any tenable green space for gathering form a relationship. Suddenly, we understood the relationship between the food inside the store and the food being grown outside not to be ironic, but connected. They both treat food as function.

As an arts writer trained in the spirit of Black Mountain College, I wondered how a change in the appearance of those feed lots and corn rows might change the way residents of that little town view food. We moved to a farm in part because of our interest in how food is grown and what roll food plays in forming communities. And when we walked out into the field every day, we saw diversity and potential. We saw garlic, lettuce greens, cabbage, kale, berries, cherries, peaches and apples. The labor we invest in nurturing each of them went to our plates. Farm town Kansas saw uniformity and function in its rows of commodity crops and cows at the trough, the product of its labor disappearing into semi-trucks.

Black Mountain College was built on the notion that artistic practice and field labor inform one another. David Grey, the head of Santa Fe University of Art and Design’s graphic arts department, told me once that the mindfulness learned in the field aids what he calls “contemplative design.” And his associate at the university, Maggie Macnab wrote a whole book on the notion of using nature to inform design. It’s called "Design By Nature," and it’s next on my reading list.

But these are ways that food (or nature) informs art. Ask designers like Grey and Macnab about this function on a large scale, like for cities and green spaces, and they’ll probably say, in so many words, that it describes how we think and feel about the place we live. Conversely, it can also instill in us a sense of ownership and pride for the place we live. I’ve certainly heard design come up as a key strategy for the hopeful redevelopment of the St. Mike’s corridor, but I wonder, can designers change the way we view food? Advertisers already use design to paint pretty (false) pictures about where food products come from, which affect our purchasing habits. So can art and design affect farming practices?