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Multidisciplinary approach to food system challenges

June 26, 2017

SpeakersLauren Shimek, founder and CEO of Food.Tech.Design, and Charlotte Biltekoff, associate professor of American Studies and Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis (UC Davis), drew a large crowd for their session “Design Thinking for Food” on Monday morning at the IFTNEXT stage. With a casual setting and interactive presentation, the session encouraged forward thinking and collaboration—exactly what IFTNEXT is all about. Biltekoff and Shimek have partnered on a pilot class at UC Davis that brings together multidisciplinary teams of students to approach complex food system challenges in new ways. As Biltekoff explained to attendees, this 10-week pilot course is all about traversing the silos of the university system to “forge new pathways” and solve complex problems. The course brought together undergraduate and graduate students from disciplines such as food science, social sciences, and design, to address one challenge: Reduce food waste in a dining services context.

The students were mentored by Biltekoff and Shimek and received input from stakeholder partner Sodexo, in addition to advisors from Google and IDEO. Using the context of the UC Davis dining commons, the course invited students to tackle the food waste issue in four phases:

  1. Insight & Inspiration: Students conducted 25 interviews with students, meal planners, front and back of house workers, etc.
  2. Synthesis & Strategy: They then distilled the observational learnings from the first phase and put it into an achievable framework.
  3. Design & Prototype: The students were encouraged to construct rough and rapid prototypes in order to iterate and advance the ideas quickly.
  4. Communication & Storytelling: They learned how to craft presentations with audience needs in mind.

After explaining the process, Biltekoff and Shimek were joined on stage by three UC Davis students who participated in the pilot course to offer their own insights on the process. Topher McNeil, a PhD student and molecular biologist, and the members of his team approached the challenge by asking, “How might we help students be more engaged with their food choices in the moment?” As he explained, students usually add credits to their student ID, which is swiped upon entering the dining hall. This “all you care to eat system” was, in McNeil’s opinion, “designed to generate waste.” His team prototyped an app-based system, using images on paper in the size and shape of a phone, that would make students pay points for every item they decided to select from the menu. The app would not only allow students to track what they are eating, but how they are eating, and in the process, how to budget.

BrainstormingMeanwhile, another team decided to focus on the question, “How might we streamline customization and reduce social pressures to cut down food waste?” One of the teammates, Emily Ma, a food science undergraduate student, explained that the setup of the university’s dining system doesn’t make customization easy, due to the long lines, time constraints, and busy foodservice workers. Instead of getting exactly what they want, students end up with items they don’t eat or extra food they don’t want. To address this problem, Ma’s team developed a prototype for an iPad station that would enable students to customize their plate and submit the order to the servers, eliminating the lines and enabling students to get exactly what they want, thereby reducing how much they throw away.

Finally, Lianna Tilton, a second-year Master’s student in food science, worked in a team that chose to focus on the question, “How might we make wasting food less easy at the beginning of the school year?” When students first step into a university dining hall, the temptation to try some of everything tends to led to overindulgence and lots of food waste. Tilton’s team developed the idea for a sectioned tray that gives the students a way to try a variety of food but in a portion-controlled format.

After sharing the rules of brainstorming, Biltekoff, Shimek, and the students divided the attendees into groups for a hands-on brainstorming and rapid prototyping exercise. To conclude the session, everyone came back together to share their ideas, and attendees left armed with some design-thinking skills and with their creative juices flowing.