How might we jumpstart a dysfunctional food system?
Strolling around the Edgemere neighborhood in Rockaway, Queens you’ll see all the elements of a local food system, but production, sales and consumption are each entirely reliant on resources from outside the neighborhood. Our team was surprised to learn from grocers, local farmers and residents that this was the case, because on any day of the week one will see farmers chatting with neighbors as they work, shoppers converging outside delis and markets in direct view of multiple farms, and prepared food vendors at every high traffic intersections. These elements are very much an everyday part of life in this neighborhood and, unlike other social and economic systems, are both visible and tangible.
Through a combination of participant observation work on the farms, interviews and desk research, we were able to summarize the current state of the dysfunctional food system. We found that the farmers operated on the assumption that nutritional education was the way to get people to buy locally, but contrary to this belief, consumers were more motivated by price than quality, and retail outlets believed the local supply to be unreliable and unaffordable. Each actor in the system had an incorrect assumption about each other actor. Instead of working on a costly and time consuming information campaign while waiting for the system to spark on its own, how might we jump-start one slice of the market as a proof of concept?
We identified four points of intervention between two farms, one retail location and its existing customer base, and designed each intervention to have an impact across multiple actors in the system.
Prototyping & Insights
// Branding //
We designed a clear labeling system for products grown in Rockaway to help farmers communicate with their customers, whether businesses or consumers.
Our brand identity did not test well with consumers, as they found the abstract design not representative of a food brand. Farmers were very enthusiastic about the concept and were ready to place it on their promotional materials.
// Land Use Advocacy //
A shared document of available land and infrastructure was designed to help farmers cooperate in identifying land resources not currently in use by their owners, who controls access and usage rights to the land, and the relevant details about the land such as scale, facilities and next steps.
Farmers responded very well to a light-weight and easy to use mapping tool. It provided them with an opportunity to have a conversation anchored in their shared values. The resources needed to maintain the database was identified as the main flaw with this intervention.
// Business Transaction //
In order to convert the potential customer into an active customer, we designed a transaction document that can easily be populated with the information a customer needs to confidently execute their purchase. This includes a clear statement of services that the farm offers and emphasizes the offered services not typically provided by produce distributors such as delivery, promotional collateral, promotional events, and a deep product knowledge that can be passed on to the consumer.
The features of the transaction document satisfied all of a grocer’s needs for a smooth and efficient exchange. Price is the essential factor, and grocers are unwilling to raise their prices to cover the cost of a higher quality product.
// Customer Transaction //
In order to increase the ease with which consumers might purchase locally grown food, we will install popup stations in which customers can place an order in the morning and pick it up in the evening. Placing these popup stations in high traffic areas, such as subway exists, will help consumers develop new habits and rituals around making food purchases.
We found consumers to be interested in the convenience of a order/pickup service situated near the subway, especially if the products were to be sold at a competitive price.
While sufficient financial and material resources exist to see these developments through execution, what appears to be absent is the human capital able to negotiate in a neutral way across the three different areas of the food system. As designers were were able to gain access and trust, and found ourselves well positioned to execute next steps to make these concepts come into being. In order to maintain this neutral position we recommend a founding new group or organization to execute these proposals.