In Summary

As a foodie, but also a vegetarian, I am always seeking alternative food systems that are healthy, farmer-friendly, community-focused, and easy to use —attributes that also make food systems sustainable. My biological anthropology professor used to tell the class that once we humans developed agriculture, it all went downhill.

According to archaeologists, the domestication of plants and animals occurred around 12,000 years B.C.E (Before Common Era). After this, human populations grew exponentially, but to the detriment of human health and of social relations based on equality. We got more diseases and nutrient deficiencies. We began to treat each other pretty badly.

Researchers still do not know why our human ancestors shifted from gathering and hunting to agricultural systems. But they have speculated on what might have been some of the underlying values that changed our relationships to our food systems:

  • Security of food, through the manipulation of the natural world;
  • Efficiency in the effort to gather and prepare foods, with the increase in leisure time, and
  • Wealth accumulation at the level of individuals, households, and family lines.

Remarkably over the last 10,000 years or so, these values have only intensified in regards to our food systems.

Food security has become a field of global strategic studies at universities such as University of Adelaide and Stanford University. Efficiency remains the primary driver of the industrialised food system. Although last year in The Conversation, Adrian Morley argued that industrialised food systems are extremely inefficient when it comes to wastage:

According to a 2011 study from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, approximately two thirds of food waste in Europe occurs in the supply chain between production and retail. In developing nations this proportion can be far greater … countries in South East Asia can lose as much as 80% of their rice crop to wastage.

Carting of Fruit and Vegetables at Victoria Market. Matt Chen/Flickr

The social inequalities of wealth accumulation inherent have been exacerbated in our current food systems. Nicholas Rose and Claire Parfitt of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance describe the extent in their 2012 article for The Conversation:

Food has become primarily a source of capital accumulation and profit, rather than a basic human need. Grains that might otherwise go to dinner tables are used to feed more lucrative biofuels and livestock markets. Food that won’t generate a profit is dumped by food retailers who lock their bins to keep out foragers.

Alternative models and shifting values

According to Body + Soul online, there are several alternative food systems: slow food, sustainable food, locavores, organic food, vegan/vegetarian, and freeganism. Each one aligns with a set of shifting values regarding food security, efficiency, and wealth inequality.

The original intent of industrialised production and the controlled global distribution of food were to increase food security in the post WWII period. As made evident in the following advertisement of Litton Industries of food preparation in the 1960s, industrialised production was the only “civilised” approach to food.

Litton Industries' history of food preparation.

The negative environmental impacts of the chemicals used to eliminate pests and the detrimental health impacts of contaminated food have led to resurgences in models of organic and sustainable food production. For the majority of human history, these were the only models of food systems. Australia first adopted its National Standard for Organic and Biodynamic Products in 1992. Last year, it released the third edition.

Vegetarian and veganism is as old as human history. Yet they represent an alternative set of values regarding relationship between humans and animals.

The slow food movement, including the locavores movement provide a direct counter to the emphasis on efficiency in how we gather and prepare food. According to the Slow Food website, the movement was established in 1989 by Carlo Petrini and a group of activists with the adoption of the slow food manifesto:

Against those – or, rather, the vast majority – who confuse efficiency with frenzy, we propose the vaccine of an adequate portion of sensual gourmandise pleasures, to be taken with slow and prolonged enjoyment.

Freeganism is an anti-consumerist movement, in which people seek to live off the food that supermarkets discard. In 2006, The Age did a report on the freeganism movement in Australia. The reporter followed three 20-year olds dumpster diving in Melbourne. When explaining the allure of dumpstering, one of the young men expressed his critique of the consumerism and inequalities built into the industrialised food system:

What’s better about dumpstering is that you’re not buying into that whole process of consumption. Even buying organic food involves being part of the consumer economy. Dumpstering really does break the consumer chain.

Kelly Cube, an intermediate model

Although I dumpster dived for donuts in my 20s, I am not radical enough for freeganism in my 40s. While I shop at the organic stores in Prahran Market, I cannot get off the frenzy track enough to do more than reheat meals, instead of cooking them from scratch. I rent my home, so I cannot set up a garden in my yard or even window ledges. Is there an alternative food system that might work more for me and people like me who are single or a couple without children, interested in sustainable food, but do not have the time to prepare a complete meal every day?

One of the more interesting new models that I have come across is Kelly Cube:

Melbourne’s gourmet Ready-To-Cook Meal Kit containing all the fresh, raw ingredients direct from local farmers and producers. You cook a restaurant quality meal with the simple and fun recipe.

Kelly Cube from paddock to plate concept. Cameron Joss/by permission

The founder, Cameron Joss hangs out at one of my neighbourhood cafes. So I recently had the opportunity to discuss with him the design of the Kelly Cube as a product and a service that acts as alternative model to industrialised food production.

Initiated in 2011 as a means to support local Australian farmers, Kelly Cube combines the values of the slow food, locavores, and sustainable food systems. Cameron explains:

The underlying factor is that all of the produce has to be Australian. As much as possible, it has to be local. Every once in a while, you might have to get limes from Queensland because that is where they grow them. Our boundary is Australia, but we try to have everything in our Kelly Cube as local to Melbourne as possible.

The ready-to-cook meal kit comes complete with all the fresh locally sourced vegetables, meats, spices, and oils in exact portion to either a one person or two person meal recipe. This is designed to reduce wastage and simplify the decision-making of meal planning, while allowing people to trace from where their food is coming.

Aligning with the principles of sustainability, the Kelly Cube box of the kit is reusable and recyclable. Cameron explains the design of the box:

It can be quite deceiving because you using a lot less space in your fridge. In actuality the box is transparent so that you can see all the food inside. The box is designed to make the produce last longer, even the herbs which last for only one week. You use everything in that box and there is no wastage.

What I find most intriguing about the design of the Kelly Cube is what Cameron describes as its “fun factor”.

The different recipes provide people a variety of tastes with high quality produce. Busy people can re-engage with the sensual experience of cooking, but taking no more than 15 minutes of their evening. This is what makes this design seem like an intermediate model to the aspirations of the slow food movement, which requires greater leisure time than I possess.

Designed “for the busy professionals who don’t have time to shop and don’t have access to a fresh food grocer after 6:00 PM when they get off from work,” the Kelly Cube makes it easy by doing all the hard work of pre-preparing the ingredients so that one may only need to chop the garlic and onions, combine the spices and the oils for the sauce, add it to the sauteed chicken, and voila dinner is served. Kelly Cube is conveniently an online business, so one can order a weekly meal plan at one’s leisure and have it delivered once a week.

The Kelly Cube is just one of the many new designs that creative people are offering to to try and make our food system more sustainable, efficient, and equitable. Our survival depends on more people following these alternative models.

This week, The Guardian reported on a recent NASA-partially funded study that modelled the collapse of civilisations due to “unsustainable resource exploitation and increasingly unequal wealth distribution”.

These two factors are the direct outcomes of our shift to agricultural production. It is not possible to go back to gathering and hunting, but we might be able to find more intermediate solutions that harken to the ecological and social equality of that food system as we continue to re-design our current agricultural one.

The ConversationWritten by Elizabeth Dori Tunstall, Associate Professor, Design Anthropology, Swinburne University of Technology. This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.