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Food is Culture

If the food systems of the future are to be sustainable they must have culture embedded into every layer.

Photo of Palmer Marinelli
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

Roughwood Table

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Small NGO (under 50 employees)

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 3-10 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?


Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States of America

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

Delaware Valley

What country is your selected Place located in?

United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

This is where I grew up, where I live, and where I work. It's my home. The Delaware Valley has fully developed cultures, and a characterizing mentality, unto itself. In this regard, it is somewhat unique in America. This is also the birth place of 'America' and American culture as a unified entity. It makes me feel the continuity of past regularly, makes me feel grounded, and helps me to understand what exactly it is we are working toward. 

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

The Delaware Valley is a place of abundance- for the people's who inhabited it before colonization, and those who ventured to settle here after. It was these people who developed the culture we might today call Americanisms. It is home to large cities and intense urban poverty. It is still largely agrarian, with the hardship that comes from there. In between is the excess fueled consumerism that has arguably led us to the point were we need to be considering the overhaul of our food system at all. It is a microcosm of modernity. Here though the culture of the past still lingers. It is apart of my everyday life. It is learning about these cultures that give me hope that there is a future food system that sustains us all.

What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

It's impossible to consider any of these topics in isolation- food systems are complex systems. Policy, by which we mean government, has the opportunity to initiate direct change, but is more suited to immediate, pressing needs. Food policy gets shifted to the back- the toothlessness of our local Food Council shows that. Business markets food to great effect, negatively impacting public health, increasing their own profits, but putting a very costly burden on the economy as a whole. If we were to price properly the negative externalities from environmental and health damage processed food on the supermarket shelf wouldn't seem so appealing. We exist now in a place of misinformation and mis-incentives. The idea that we can innovate out of our own problems is hubris at best; selfish and destructive would be more apt. If we are to get to 2050 in good shape we need to prioritize health above profit and society at large over endowed special intrests. We will need to commit ourselves to using economics to show us total costs. None of this happens without public buy in. I find it unlikely that tomorrow we will wake up and begin eating and behaving differently, or because someone told us to. We need collective reinforcement. In other words, culture: a unifying set of norms to show us how to function within this world.

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

The United States is a bit of a paradox- we are a nation of immigrants hellbent on assimilation to a cultureless norm. We need to encourage culture if we are to address the challenges to creating a sustainable food system. We will need an alternative buy in to facilitate change. My organization right now advocates culture, through food. We preserve varietals in danger, and send them back into the world. These seeds carry with them, like an archaic thumb drive, the techniques, stories, and foods associated with them. We can use this to kick start culture, to lean back into the world of wonder culture brings. This is being done to good affect in places like Peru and Ireland, but less so here. In a way, our challenge is greater- we need to reinforce all the cultures of the world, as that is who we are comprised of, and also to lift up that which is uniquely ours.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

What do you think the major selling points for our industrial food system are? It's so convenient! It takes no time! What a deal! It is fallacy on every level, but, hey, that's marketing. What do we hope to change? That people are more conscious and deliberate about what they eat and why. That they cook food, real food, and do so with others. This seems so trite, so small, but it will be the biggest difference. We need to care if we are going to make the dramatic changes we need to make. Getting that buy in, in the face of a mountain of opposition, will be profound.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

In this last section, I will revert to cliche a bit. Philadelphia is the city of the underdog, and straight talk, and it behooves me here to lean into both. I was very late hearing of this project, so I am scrambling to send something out because I think what we do matters. At the same time, I'm really skeptical of this whole thing. What visions are out there for the world? One where we do this or that, and we have sustainability? Where we just need to think global, act local? For $200,000 each? To do what, show an example of the world, that might not be one that anyone but the authors think is novel? We are hardly even looking at this in education- public schools do not have food studies. To my count there are only three universities in the the world with Food Systems programs, and none greater than 5 years old. We are lacking in expertise and political capital. Sometimes we aren't stark enough. My daughter is not quite two, and I worry about what the world will be like when she is my age. At the same time, I delight in sharing all the naughty processed food I loved as a kid with her. It is pure hypocrisy! I know! Any vision that doesn't accept that hypocrisy upfront is a lie. We are going to need to ease in, when we don't have the leeway or time to do so. "How are we going to achieve the impossible?" would have been a better question. I'll give you the answer I came up with after years of working in the food industry and a Masters in the very topic we are discussing here today: first we have to accept the fact that we are all full of it. On par, we like eating crap, but would like to eat a little less crap, because we feel a bit better when we don't. People in places that aren't 'fully developed' aspire to eat more crap, but really they shouldn't. People everywhere really don't like it when you tell them what to do. So any thought of, "we are going to pass these rules and do this and then unicorns and rainbows" is probably selling you unicorns and rainbows. It won't scale, and it will cause backlash (look at the global populism movement). Unfortunately, we will need to do things like that. Ban certain foods and industrial agriculture, set carbon caps, and forcibly change our food system. It will cause upheaval, for those at the top, used to living a life of permanent excess, and for those at the bottom, the twenty odd percent of American's who work in food. There can't just be the draconian approach (This is all assuming you can elect people who would do this in the first place. I've never seen a politician who cares more about principles than their job.), you catch more bees with honey. So how are we going to get, in my case Americans, to facilitate the changes necessary to change the food system to one that can support our public health and planet? We will need to 'sell' something exciting, personal, and inviting. We will need them to reclaim their food culture, and to do the work of cooking those vegetables and occasional animal products with care. We are going to have to re-teach them, or help them remember, how. I'm sorry this presentation is a bit of a mess, and I'm sure there are more considered, detailed approaches out there. I also think that they are all probably missing a dose of reality, which we in Philadelphia are always happy to provide. Thanks so much for your time, and I hope for some reason you pick me so I we can explore this further. 

How did you hear about the Food System Vision Prize?

  • Instagram


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