Food helps us to understand our place in this world, therefore education relating to and involving food is crucial, but what form should it take and where are the new nodes of learning?
In this five-question series on food and education at The Common Table, we ask experts about their strategies and practices for fostering a healthier relationship with food. Here: architect Caitlin Taylor, Principal at MASS Design Group, whose Food System Design Lab aims to design and build the slow food movement of architecture.
The Common Table: How would you explain your perception of food as an educational discipline or tool to someone who might think that means just cookery lessons?
Caitlin Taylor: The food system is the world’s largest industry, and there are so many important stages that food goes through before it ends up on our tables: production, transportation, processing, and preparation. We need a lot of resources to sustain this system. Food production consumes over 50 per cent of the planet’s habitable land surface and 70 per cent of its freshwater and is one of the top contributors to ever-increasing carbon emissions.
We simply cannot solve the climate crisis without fundamentally changing the way food is grown, and changing the way we eat. But, food also reveals our deep interconnectedness with the world around us – ecologically, economically, culturally, politically, and historically, food literally shapes the world around us.
If we acknowledge that our globalised, industrialised food system was designed this way, then we can begin to understand the profound design challenge inherent in building new, ‘down powered’, and regional systems within ecological limits.
The Common Table: What are you doing/have you done to change understanding related to food?
Caitlin Taylor: Through example-building work across the Hudson Valley region in New York, MASS Design Group’s Food Systems Design Lab is applying design thinking to the reconstruction of regional, equitable, and self-determined food systems that nourish the people and places that depend on them. Our theory of change requires reconnecting fragmented parts of the food system using architecture and design. It includes building regional middle-scale infrastructure; increasing agricultural education and innovation; and creating interventions in institutional food systems like schools, prisons, and hospitals. We’re advocating for racial and economic justice in the food system, and rethinking Fringe Cities’ relationship between the city and agricultural countryside. We see this as a scalable model that, with a broad education, policy change and adoption, can alter the way we sustain ourselves for a future that calls for regional and socially conscious agriculture.
The Common Table: Who are you trying to reach and teach and why?
Caitlin Taylor: The rapidly accelerating crises of a global pandemic, planetary heating, structural social injustices, and vast migration converge on the contemporary conditions of rural America. The extremity and urgency of these crises, and the potential for massive infrastructural investment in response, require galvanizing new processes. Ones that draw dynamically on the regulatory muscle of government resources, the steady hand of regional planning departments, the creative foment of social change, and the community-defined values of commonwealth over profit.
Our work is about advancing layered solutions to these compounding challenges. In this unprecedented moment of pressure and potential, we understand that simple solutions with single-metric payback are not viable and that the possibility of meaningful transformation will be found through interconnected, regenerative, and radical reinvention. We aim to empower designers and architects with the unique processes with which to meet this moment, through pilot projects and partnerships.
The Common Table: Where would you like to take your work in this field; what are your goals?
Caitlin Taylor: By applying design thinking to the reconstruction of regional, equitable, and self-determined food systems, the goal of the Food Systems Design Lab is to better nourish the people and places that depend on them. Our hope is to design and build the slow food movement of architecture, through the design and construction of regional food systems.
Through both my design work, and more personally, on my family’s organic farm in East Haddam, Connecticut, I aim to push against the industrialised food system. It’s also an incredibly long game, and I strive to balance day-to-day advocacy work, the demands of individual projects, and the long-term objective.
The Common Table: What is the big-picture perspective for the future of food education and where is it coming from?
Caitlin Taylor: We are in an era of converging climate crises, and in a moment where we are facing the reality that the world our grandchildren will be born into will be unrecognisable to us standing here today. Addressing the design and construction of our food systems is the challenge of our time. If we can change the way food is grown and the way we eat, we can change everything.
Caitlin Taylor RA is an architect with a background in food and farming. In her role directing the MASS Design Group‘s Food System Design Lab, she develops interdisciplinary research at the intersection of food systems, regional ecologies, and the built environment. Caitlin is leading design projects around the country including The Land Institute, Stone Barns Center for Food & Agriculture and Kingston Food Co-op. She is a professor at the Yale School of Architecture and lives on the farm that she owns and runs with her family.