Food Hackathon
By Dorothy Santos
Published Mar 2014
Hacking and food may not seem to be a likely pair. But after speaking to Tim West, co-founder of Food Hackathon, it makes perfect sense. According to West, hacking simply means taking parts and pieces from different mechanisms and putting them back together to make something better. From revamping agricultural methodology such as looking at fruits and vegetables that can flourish side by side to investing in slow- versus fast-food movements, a food hackathon relies on the expertise of many to create a sustainable food ecosystem. With climate change and increased globalization of food products, feeding over six billion people on the planet requires our immediate attention. Hacking the infrastructure of food systems on local and global levels proves inevitable. As individual consumers, we must learn how to use resources wisely, such as cultivating and harvesting fruits and vegetables or supporting our local farmers market. During a conversation with West, he claimed that “food is our medicine, but it is also our poison.” Food nourishes and sustains us. Yet the latter part of the statement reflects how heavily processed foods create and perpetuate a cycle of poor eating habits. The creation of Food Hackathon helps small-business owners re-imagine food. It also promotes participants to work across disciplines and fields to foster productive technologies that can bring people together. Co-founder of Food Hackathon Wayne Sutton came from technology and became passionate about food ecosystems. He met with West to formulate the hackathon model to bring together people with this common goal of food justice and advocacy. Essentially, the hackathon encourages people to pitch an idea to others in the community, engage in research, and find solutions to address urban versus rural communities and the growing global population. The Food Hackathon entails reexamining the way food is produced and distributed. Throughout history, we see evidence of how food has evolved and changed due to socioeconomic and environmental issues such as war, climate change, or natural disaster. Things are made much more cheaply or substituted to create what the body craves in times of scarcity: carbohydrates and sugar. This explains many of the highly processed and preservative-based foods that are sold for extremely low prices. Food justice may conjure up vegan and vegetarian stereotypes. But it goes way beyond natural and organic. The revolution West wants to see entails care for the community based on the fundamental need to feed ourselves well and doing it through sustainable practices such as community gardens and youth education. Food Hackathon is similar to a technology-based hackathon, but it takes the basic human need for nourishment and looks at how we can create ecosystems for future generations through innovation. Building mentorships; partnerships; and sustainable, mutually beneficial practices is at the core of Food Hackathon’s mission. One of the winners of the past Food Hackathon, Food Forest, was based on the need for community members to connect and monitor the progress of a community garden. From planting to harvesting to maintenance, the technology was developed by a team of people with expertise in agriculture, farming, cooking, design, and business. Technology helps facilitate a real-life connection. In an age where people are more responsive to text messages and social media alerts, how do we start to use this technology to make us pay attention to fostering physical experiences and relationships? The making and sharing of food ensures this community building and organizing, because it is through eating that we can encourage cultural exchange in addition to learning. The Food Hackathon was created to help food entrepreneurs learn how to scale a business but retain the culture, which is extremely challenging to do in our contemporary economy as well. A cycle must be perpetuated between food, health, and happiness, because they are all interrelated. Symbiotic relationships and collaborations are another aspect of the event. Important groups such as the Institute for the Future and Youcan Group met at Food Hackathon. This meeting forged a collaborative partnership resulting in the Future Food Institute, which is a nonprofit organization that studies, researches, and analyzes food-organization systems around the world, providing insight to entrepreneurs to drive positive and beneficial changes in food production, consumption, and overall systems. When asked about what countries West believes are already engaging in creating successful food systems, he points to Italy and Japan. These two countries are revolutionizing the way we eat and think about food production and consumption, because each country uses the urban landscape as a way to integrate and relate agriculture to our modern, fast-paced lives. For instance, in 2015, Expo Milano will produce one of the largest noncommercial expositions based on the theme “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life.” The fair is expected to bring together some of the world’s great innovators in cooking and agriculture to share how the world can develop sustainable practices for food production within an urban environment. The global partnerships with educational institutions, food innovators, scientists, and students from 144 countries around the world bring the focus to learning, creating connections, and cultural exchange. The fair is a way for participants to learn how innovation can supplement our lives, rather than widening the physical divides digital technology can create between people and places. With the increasing reliance on mobile devices that seem to drive us further and further from physical presence, West researches, works with, and writes about the thing that can bring us together—food. From being a founding member of the Chefs Sustaining Agriculture Club at The Culinary Institute of Technology to helping create Café 6 at Facebook headquarters, West understood that his culinary skills and knowledge of feeding large groups of people could help him redesign food systems on a global scale. One of the ways West has gathered people together has been through “eat-ins” (derived from the protest idea of sit-ins) as a way to build community. Cool Beans is another sustainable food project. It is a pop-up restaurant developed around the idea of beans as a major source of protein. According to the pop-up’s description, “Beans aren’t only a great source of protein; they take nitrogen from the atmosphere and, with the help of mycorrhizal fungi, ‘fix’ it in the soil, making it available for other plants. The goal: to design a menu which, by the mere fact of eating, enables you to build soil.” For those who love meat, there is something in the Cool Beans menu for you. Considering my skepticism, I was pleasantly surprised to find the selection both extremely healthy and undeniably delicious. With projects such as the hackathon and Cool Beans, this shift in how we eat takes individual change. The most significant shift in our food systems was seen during the baby-boomer generation, when wartime and capitalist economic infrastructures started to play a role in pushing products out to consumers as quickly as possible. This needs to be undone. This type of food production yielded unhealthy habits that became cyclical and passed on from one generation to the next within American culture. The ramifications of such processes are growing apparent as health and dietary problems occur within our communities. In many ways, West’s ambitious projects are necessary and vital in that innovators, makers, and visionaries are feverishly trying to help us get back to something more vital than the mobile phone in our pocket or the fastest, most convenient way to nourish oneself. Simply put, West and those like him want us to hark back to something way more fundamental that bridges and fosters a communal way of living in such an individualistic world. It’s time to fix what has been slowly deteriorating and now broken—our food system. Learn more about Food Hackathon Visit