Visualizing The Food System With Kitchen Sync Strategies

In Edible-Alpha® podcast #53, Tera interviews Elliott Smith and Sarah Axe of Kitchen Sync Strategies, a firm in Austin, TX which convenes stakeholders from the public, private, and philanthropic sectors to visualize the complexities of the food system and identify strategies to improve it. Elliott and Sarah have backgrounds that span everything from public sector economic development to public health and started Kitchen Sync to address systemic barriers to getting more good food to people, including institutional purchasing policies as well as things like transportation and land use policy. Part of the work they do for clients is visualizing the food system actors of an area in an easy to understand way – similar to a social network analysis – to help current and potential actors know what exists and where they can fit in to solve problems.

Some of the biggest challenges that Elliott and Sarah see in the Central Texas region has to do with rapid development in the Austin area eating up farmland, and thus, farms that could provide local food. Development pressures are made worse by property tax caps that necessitate governments spur more development in lieu of the ability to raise taxes on existing assets. Convening stakeholders to address reforms in land use and development is particularly tricky in Texas, given cultural expectations around the limited role of government, the tensions between local/state control of those policies and around the value of local food in general. Additional challenges exist in trying to get good food into schools, which are the most price sensitive institutional customers and have limited capacity – given kitchen and policy restraints – to vary in what they offer to school children.

Much of the work of Kitchen Sync is to get lots of different people at the table – including the private sector – and using the right language to invite everyone in to a problem solving and solutions-based session that meets their values and needs, rather than trying to change minds about those fundamental concepts. In bringing those people to the table, they are also better able to visualize and communicate the multitude of actors it will take to improve the food system for the long term. And, economic development grounded in people’s desire to see their communities improve can unify politically distant people for the same goal.

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