Squash & Vine: Connecting the Food Community
At a time when our economy is weak, farmers are disappearing, salmonella outbreaks are common, and climate change threatens, it is more necessary than ever to critically examine our food system. Today's farmers rarely enjoy a profit, are disconnected from the people eating their food, and have no easy means to support or learn from one another. Additionally, consumers are not sure where to turn for fresh and healthy food, and retailers committed to sourcing locally face an upward battle finding producers. Many of these problems stem from difficulties connecting and sharing information, and existing systems focus only on a small section of this exchange.
Squash & Vine is a suite of tools built to address these problems; it features a new online social network for consumers, producers, and retailers (such as restaurants and grocery stores) to communicate and share information.
The project's high-level goals include:
- Promote transparency and lower barriers to eating locally
- Support new and struggling farmers
- Encourage political awareness
- Foster delight
As part of the project, the students have immersed themselves in the local food community and interviewed over 45 farmers, chefs, and consumers. The team will have a prototype of the Squash & Vine system by May, in order to move forward with a full-fledged implementation after graduation.
What gave you the idea for this project?
Squash & Vine emerged from a combination of all of our interests:
Shawna became interested in the farming community last year, when her sister, Willow Hein, started Honey in the Heart Farm in the Sierra Nevada Foothills. During the process, Willow struggled to engage her local community and start her farm, which prompted Shawna to think about how information technology and social networking might be used to help raise awareness of small-scale farmers.
Aylin is a passionate foodie and an aspiring cook. After moving to Berkeley, the epicenter of the sustainable food movement, Aylin began to realize the importance of her own food choices and, after working on a project aimed at visualizing the complexities of the Farm Bill, she became more aware of the problems with our current industrialized food system. In response to all of this, Aylin wanted to do something to help other struggling consumers like herself.
Hazel likes to eat tasty food and appropriately support the hardworking folks who make it. Yet, she has long understood that simple goals such as these can be hard to accomplish without tools to aggregate information about a local foodshed and utilize the resulting efficiencies. She came to the I School specifically to work on projects that would provide an opportunity to extend discussion around issues critical to sustainable development, like food policy, and facilitate needed action. This project provided an opportunity to do just that.
How does "Squash & Vine" integrate what you've learned during your two years at the I School?
The I School encourages designing appropriate solutions to real-world problems. There are many problems in our food system that need to be addressed, but with our combined experience we were able to approach a manageable set of them in a strategic fashion. We are addressing these problems by integrating skills we've gained at the I School in qualitative research methods, interface design, visualization, data collection, intellectual property law, and business and service design, to create something of value for anyone who works with or simply cares about food.
Why is information important for local food? What can School of Information graduates do for the local food movement?
Information transparency is key to addressing issues in our food system, and the sharing of information between all of the participants (e.g. producers, consumers, and retailers) in this system is necessary but lacking. Producers need easier ways of exchanging ideas among each other and interfacing with retailers, and consumers need better ways of ensuring that the food they eat is healthy and comes from producers they trust.
As consumers, I School graduates can be more aware of their food choices and buy food that has been grown in a sustainable way, join CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture programs), and go to farmers markets. As School of Information graduates, they can work on projects like ours to facilitate transparency and information access in our food system. Even smaller-scale projects like volunteering to create a farmer's website or helping farmers and retailers streamline their information practices would be a huge help. Alternatively, our nation always needs new farmers — I School graduates could become farmers if they get sick of staring at their computers all day. Or maybe just start by apprenticing for a season, given the state of our economy!