Food & Identity
Food's interwoven relationship with culture, health, class, income, and education makes it a compelling representation of identity. By understanding and designing food systems that address issues facing those on society’s edges, we can build a small amount of stability for the most at risk.
Our goal: To identify and understand the emotional and cultural factors that influence food behaviors in low income communities
Our team spent five weeks engaging at-risk communities in the East Side of Austin. Traditionally a working class neighborhood, the East Side has undergone a seismic change over the last decade. An influx of affluence has gentrified the area, creating a cultural estuary both requiring and sparking new ideas and practical empathy.
Our research team visited homes, disrupted meals in restaurants, shadowed shopping trips, and fed people from a school bus. We deliberately conducted subjective, qualitative research in context with a spectrum of participants, ranging from students to restaurateurs to the poverty stricken.
Synthesis revealed an important duality with food interactions - food is both fleeting and persistent. The way we eat shapes not only our nutritional health but the decisions we make around food accumulate over time to shape our identities. A lack of autonomy over food choices creates a dehumanized self-definition that, over time, becomes toxic to our identity.
Without authority over food choices, people are reduced to what they are willing to accept or deny.
I heard a grown man say one day... "I'm sick of these sandwiches." He's homeless and look what somebody else said to him, "But you're homeless. You ain't got no choice."
- Participant L
Established food roles become a persistent part of our identity.
I don't cook every day no more... unless they say, "You gonna cook, Granny?" Then I might.
- Participant V
When options are restricted, food choice becomes a vehicle for humanization.
You do have a choice, whether you're homeless. If people get out there with the choices that they can have, life is a buffet.
- Participant L
Choice is an essential element for food interaction with populations in need.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization confirms that about 870 million people are hungry worldwide. When so much of the world's population lacks food autonomy, incorporating meaningful food choice has an enormous humanizing potential. Simply having dietary choice can provide a disproportionately large lever in helping the at-risk regain an identity of agency and autonomy.
This project was conducted while I was attending the Austin Center For Design in collaboration with Scott Gerlach and Bhavini Patel along with the support of my fellow students and the faculty at AC4D. If you're ever in the East Side of Austin go eat at Nubian Queen Lola's, you wont regret it.