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How Innovative Food ‘Kits’ Can Bring Climate Change Issues to the Table

David: I’m talking today with Stefani Bardin, an amazing entrepreneur. I’ve told that her “lane” in her work life is “not staying in a lane.” She does so many amazing, interesting things. When she told me she works in the areas of tech, art, and food, I said, “You have to explain to me what that means.” Then she told me about a specific project she worked on that included all of those elements, and I totally understood.

In that vein, I wanted to talk to Stefani about a project she recently worked on that was a collaboration between NEW INC, an incubator that’s part of the part of New Museum, and Science Sandbox (sponsored by the Simons Foundation). Science Sandbox, approaches food sustainability in a way that is beautiful, engaging and very interesting. I wanted to hear Stefani share more about what she worked on there and where that collaboration might go from here.

So, Stefani, thanks for joining me and helping illuminate this project and your involvement.

Stefani: Thanks so much, David. It’s so nice to be talking to you about this.

David: The name of the project upon which you worked is “The Future Is Not What It Used To Be Before.” Could you explain the premise of that event and your end result? 

Stefani: Sure. So just to give you a little bit of background, I teach food and technology at New YorkUniversity (NYU), and I teach a food design class at Parsons School of Design. My work is really about taking things that are invisible and making them visible — particularly around science,  and food and climate change narratives. So this project was a way to have some fun with notions of food and climate change.

The quote, “The future is not what it used to be before” is a Paul Valery quote. It’s not mine. But it’s an understandable phrase, right? For instance, if you think about New York City being built at the turn of the 20th century, there was no air -conditioning because nobody imagined we would ever need air -conditioning inside buildings. The summers weren’t that hot at the time. They are now. That is an example of climate change.

I think if any recent event shows the dramatic effect of climate change, it’s probably last winter in Texas. Very few people imagined we would ever see freezing pipes in Texas, but that happened this year. I spend a lot of time reading about climate change, so it actually was not a surprise to me, unfortunately.

David: I see what you mean.

Stefani: I view my job as an artist to help connect the dots between our behavior now and its impact on the future. But when we need to talk about issues that seem inaccessible, insurmountable and hard to wrap your head around, I think humor and flavor are the ways to connect with people. They’re our “way in.”

David: So you actually created a virtual event that connected food with climate change?

Stefani: Yes. I’m a member of NEW INC, which is an amazing organization for artists, designers and technologists. They reached out to me and said they were hosting a virtual event over Zoom with Science Sandbox. Science Sandbox funds a professional track for members at NEW INC. The Sandbox underwrites it, and NEW INC offers all sorts of projects to amplify artists who are working in the realm of “citizen science,” or public/community participation in science, which is what I do.

NEW INC and Science Sandbox asked me to design a food experience for their virtual event. I built this off a larger body of work I do, called “Spooky Action at a Distance.” Spooky Action at a Distance is what Einstein called quantum entanglement. It essentially describes how two different objects that are not physically close to each other can share characteristics and even change in sync with each other — as if they are somehow invisibly connected. For me, my food project became a metaphor for thinking about how our behavior now impacts the planet in the future. I’ve done similar projects before. But for the NEW INC/Science Sandbox event,  I brought in my friend Jen Monroe, who’s a food designer. Together, we continued my ongoing thread of creating food items based on climate-change “winner” and “loser” foods.

By that I mean that there are certain foods that will survive much more robustly as weather scenarios become more extreme. They are climate-change winners.  And then there are certain foods we’re just going to lose altogether, that will lose their flavor or to which we’ll lose access. Alternatively, these foods could, just become super, super expensive. Those are the climate change losers. Some of the climate change winner foods are millet, mushrooms, quinoa and, crickets. All of these foods have really low environmental impact, and are high in protein, fiber and,, nutrients. They’re just not “sexy” foods, which is why they’re kind of pushed aside, right?

David: I don’t know. I think crickets are kind of sexy as a food.

Stefani: Only you would say that, of course!. You are adventurous, for sure.
David: I’ve never actually eaten them, though, truth be told. But I’m intrigued.

Stefani: So consider cricket flour., I know a lot of people who work with cricket flour. The amount of food energy it can provide is just unbelievable. Crickets just are not what we think of when we think of protein.

David: But if a cricket-based dish is well-prepared, I’m sure it can be delicious, like a lot of things.

Stefani: I agree one hundred percent. Now, climate- change loser foods are mostly foods that come from plants that need to be pollinated by bees, for example. Because we have bee colony collapse disorder occurring, items like chocolate, coffee and , peanut butter are going to be climate- change losers.

So my food designer friend Jen and I devised a menu of four bites, or appetizers for the virtual event. There were about 50 people in New York City who could participate and try the food in person. Everybody else was from other states or countries and could only participate virtually. 

For the 50 people would definitely try our food, we sent them a fun questionnaire in advance. We gave them four multiple-choice questions. Then we took their answers and , ran them through a very quick and dirty algorithm. That’s how we decided who got which food bite. 

The first questions was:
Does  laboratory-grown grown meat makes you feel:

 a) Optimistic, excited, “cowabunga dude”!

b) Hesitant but open-minded;, try me back in a decade,

c) Freaked out! Meat comes from nature, full stop, or 

d) Depressed: we’ll soon be living in a food dystopia and there’s nothing we can do about it.

David: Whoever answered “(d”) must have been watching the movie “Soylent Green.” (Spoiler Alert: In this film, Charleton Heston yells his iconic line about his futuristic, nutrition-scarce city’s main food supply. “It’s people! Soylent Green is made out of people!”)

Stefani: My God, you’re so right!

Question 2 was:

Do you believe that eating organically is the best tool for fighting the effects of agriculture on climate change? 

a) No. Reducing our carbon footprint and embracing science to feed more people is more important. 

b) It could have some role, but we just have to be thinking more creatively about what we eat going forward, not just how it was farmed. 

c) Yeah. If everybody ate 100% organically and grew their own food, we would be in great shape.

d) No. Our current methods of industrial agriculture areis the best way to cheaply feed the most people, which is the most important thing for a growing population.

Question 3 was: Are you concerned that the impact of climate change will permanently and negatively affect the flavor of our foods, yes or no? It was just two options.

And the last question was: Do you believe in magic, yes or no?

David: I’m curious. Among the 50 people that participated, may there already have been a little self-selection going on here? How were participants’ answers distributed across the 50 people, on the lab-grown meat question, for instance?

Stefani: On that first question, most people were hesitant but open-minded. They liked the idea of “Try me back in a decade.” based upon the way people answered those questions?

Stefani: Yes.

David: I have to say, those kits contained such beautiful, interesting food items! And such fun!

Stefani: Thanks! Yeah, fun was the whole thing. It was a way to get participants’ full attention. And the yummy smell was also a big part of it. There was definitely a big “regret over missing out” situation for the people on Zoom who were not located in New York City. They could see all the food stuff happening because we made everybody eat while they were on camera. If you’d like, I can walk you through what each of the kits contained and what happened.

David: Yes, please do!

Stefani: So the first kit was Climate Change Winner Number One, which is the Agar Agar Wagashi Fun Dip. Basically, wagashi is the term for a traditional Japanese confection. We made ours out of  an elongated agar, which is a plant-based gelatin made from sea algae. Agar takes something that is a liquid and turns it into a solid.

David: I remember agar from science class.

Stefani: Yes! And Fun Dip is a retro sweet from the 1980s. It was a pure sugar stick that you dipped into a flavored powdered sugar. Fun Dip was the most desired candy in my house growing up, because we were not allowed anything that was like candy or soda! 

The dipping sugar for our recipe was powdered prickly pear fruit. Prickly pear is a climate change winner. It’s also a gorgeous magenta color that we combined with coconut sugar and citric acid. Agar is also a climate change winner because it comes from sea algae, another winner food that just is not getting enough attention right now. And coconut sugar is also a winner because it’s much less resource-intensive than cane sugar.

This kit was intended to be nostalgic. It employed unfamiliar ingredients and textures, but it had a familiar feel. If you grew up in the ’70s, ’80s or even ’90s, Fun Dip was a candy you ate. 

The bottom line for this food is to see the future is just as fun as the past. Learning to love unfamiliar ingredients is good, and change doesn’t have to be scary!

David: I was going to say that the color of your fun dip was not something found in nature. But apparently, it is really spectacular.

Stefani: That’s an important point. Many food-related colors need to be shelf-stable, which is why they’re artificial. When we start thinking about the future, though, it’s good to know that there are more natural ways to create colors for food. There’s actually a company in Westchester we work with called GMT that grows its own produce to extract color for its own line of naturally occurring food dyes. Spirulina is a type of algae that creates a lovely blue color and I used it in this kit. I work with spirulina in one of my food classes, and it’s just brilliant. The problem is that it’s not shelf-stable. It also costs a little bit more than traditional food coloring. But I think now, because there’s a little bit of a reckoning in our food system and our environment, maybe we have to start thinking about how we make our ingredient choices, don’t you think?

David: Yes. Absolutely.

Stefani: Food Kit Number included barbecued mushroom chips with sunchoke puree dip and salt crystals. People went nuts for these nontraditional chips and dip!They were so good. This kit used dehydrated mushrooms, which are a genius food.To understand the value of mushrooms in terms of nutrition and healing possibilities, I encourage people to watch the movie “Fantastic Fungi.” They can also buy specialty mushrooms themselves locally or at Smallhold.com. The Smallhold people are really on it with these grow kits, and they’re so good for you. So the winner ingredients were mushrooms and sunchoke.

We then added another winner: oysters. We served the chips and dips with a salt-crystallized oyster shell for crushing and seasoning.I could spend hours just talking about the benefits of oysters. Each oyster can filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, becoming a buffer for any kind of unhealthy water surge that results from extreme weather situations.

But the bottom line for the barbecue-flavored chips is that we can seek out familiar comfort foods while still making environmentally smart food choices.

David: I’m personally glad oysters are on the good list. It makes sense that they would be sustainable.

Stefani: Oysters are a genius food. We just overfish them here. Then we went on to climate change losers. The first loser kit was an onion grass and herb butter “candle” with sourdough bread. We basically created an infused, pasteurized butter candle that diners lit about a half hour  before eating, so it got melty enough to dunk the organic sourdough into, but it also smelled really amazing.

Dairy (butter) is a loser for a million reasons. Concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) quickly pump out cows for meat by giving them growth hormones and by feeding them corn. Onion grass is what cows normally eat, not corn. They’re grazing animals. Dan Barber, chef and author of “The Third Plate,” talks a lot about the importance of managing an ecosystem involving cows. What I love about what Barber does is that he shows people that healthy and sustainable eating does not have to be a binary “either this or that.” I share a similar message as a professor by teaching my students that you don’t have to be all organic, all the time. It’s not an either/or choice. You can employ modifications.

David: Can you talk a bit about modifying food behaviors? 

Stefani: Sure.So dairy is a carbon-footprint nightmare. And wheat will not grow well in the future on a hot, dry planet. For anybody who drinks beer, that is a big problem. You really want to think about how you personally use food. For instance, you might not care about meat or dairy, but maybe you really like your beer. Or you might not care as much about animals, but you are really concerned about what happens with ocean acidification and want to preserve the beautiful Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia. Part of my work is to teach people that there are different possible entry points for people when it comes to addressing climate change and sustainability. I also like to debunk the concept of “food miles.” Many people worry about buying foods shipped from elsewhere in the world. However, the companies that who raise and ship New Zealand lamb are actually doing it in a way that is much more sustainable than growing and buying lamb here in the United States, believe it or not. That’s true even though we have to deal with shipping costs and fuel. Why? New Zealand has mechanized and created a lamb processing system that is much more efficient than ours because their scale is so large. The takeaway is that you don’t necessarily have to stop eating meat. You might just want to get it from a healthier and more sustainable source. 

David: Right. I totally understand.

Stefani: The second and last climate change loser food kit one was a corn blancmange “ear.” My food partner Jen made it from a corn and ginger pudding and molded it into the shape of a human ear! It was served in a petri dish with a really delicious almond brittle. 

Almonds actually are one of the worst climate change losers ever. One almond is takes something like a gallon of water to grow. It’s Almonds are mostly grown in California, where they constantly have droughts, which is a huge problem.? Then corn, for the pudding, is a highly processed, synthesized food. It is really no longer recognizable as food.

The bottom line for this scary dish is that we failed to correct course or adapt, and as a result, we’re becoming forced to grow crops in a laboratory because they can’t grow well outside. However, all the food kits were delicious. Even if you got a climate change loser kit, it was delicious. We’ve gotten a bunch of requests to do this type of food event again.

David: That’s awesome. Did you feel that people walked away feeling somewhat educated and enlightened?

Stefani: Yes. Along with giving people a little bit of information with the kits, we also asked them to respond to their kit. The conversation was great. Participants asked questions and shared “aha” moments like: “I didn’t realize this about almonds. I didn’t realize that about prickly pears.I didn’t know you could dehydrate a mushroom and create something that tastes like a potato chip. I didn’t realize that mushrooms have this underground network that helps plants get more water.”

When you  feed people great food and information at the same time, it doesn’t feel so didactic.

David: It’s really interesting because you could go into a lecture hall and somebody could easily get up and talk to you about climate change, sustainability and choices we have to make for our future. But I think it’s much more accessible doing it this way. Food is such an all-encompassing sensual experience—the taste, the smell, the feel. And in this case, the visual aspects were also amazing. I imagine that the learning that took place in this event was much greater than it would have been in a more academic setting.

Stefani: Here’s a good example: I got a text from my friend Jessica, who lives in here in New York City. Somebody here got one of our food kits, took a photo of it and , sent it to her friend in Dubai. This person in Dubai knew my friend Jess and sent a photo to her and said, “Oh, isn’t this cool?” And my friend Jess said, “Wait a second. That was created by my friend Stefani! If I write a paper about climate change, nobody is going to read it. But if I create some cool, funny, fun kit, it’s going to reach Dubai and maybe come back here to the United States. And that’s how that information spreads.

David: That’s amazing. So is there follow-up on the horizon, such as the next iteration of this project?

Stefani: Well, I’m working on an article for an organization called the Biodesign Challenge. They create innovative approaches to biotech. So this article is giving me a chance to think about what the next iteration will be.I might think about a way to work with teams inside companies, how to teach these concepts remotely, and new models of participation for consumers.

David: Well, certainly the pandemic has been a grand experiment in working from home and all the other things that we’ve had to learn to do. It will be really interesting to see, after this phase of our lives isis over, what advances took place that are going to stick. My son saw an article early in the pandemic that indicated Sir Isaac Newton actually discovered gravity and invented calculus during the bubonic plague.  He was quarantining and had lots of time to think.

Stefani: I did not know that! That’s cool, actually.

David: I’ve got a lot of catch-up to do, because hopefully we’re closer to the end of this pandemic than the beginning. And I haven’t done anything close to investing calculus!

Stefani: No, but you have done more than two dozen Hospitality Ssquares,” or Zoom calls with professionals in the hospitality industry. That’s a huge body of work, David.

David: I have. It definitely kept people connected, and a lot of new collaborations came out of that, which was really gratifying.

Anyway, Stefani, thank you so much for sharing your vision,  and your wisdom and your creativity, which is really amazing. Everyone can learn more about Stefani at stefanibardin.net.

Stefani: Thank you, David, for inviting me to share my work with your readers.

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