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Nicola Twilley: The Politics of Our Changing Foodscape

August 30, 2011

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The writer on her blog’s inspiration, the Foodprint Project, and why food is a political issue.

Nicola Twilley headshot 202011.JPGNicola Twilley is an omnivore, both literally and intellectually. In her many roles, Twilley explores and engages cities, politics, architecture, technology, infrastructure, art, all through the lens of food. She is the author of the insightful and multidisciplinary blog Edible Geography, founder of the Foodprint Project, and was recently appointed co-director of Studio X-NYC, Columbia University GSAPP’s SoHo-based think tank/event space/gallery dedicated to fostering thought and collaboration around the future of cities. Here, Twilley gives us some insight into her multifaceted practice within the global foodscape, and tells us how food and politics are deeply enmeshed.

—Kaye Cain-Nielsen for Guernica

Guernica: What’s your background, and what’s driven you to focus your energy on food?

Nicola Twilley: My background reflects my interests, which are ridiculously, almost uselessly, omnivorous: I did my BA in English Literature (at Leeds University, in England), and then a MA in Art History in Chicago, where I wrote about art and medicine. Over the next few years, I did everything from working at the Tate, to oral histories of notable chemists, to organizing beer and autobiography contests (separate events!) as part of the international celebrations of the 300th anniversary of Ben Franklin’s birth.

A few years ago, I realized that I could unify my disparate interests by choosing a single topic as a lens through which to write and think about different issues. My major inspiration was BLDGBLOG, where Geoff Manaugh (who also happens to be my husband) manages to write about everything from black holes to hot air balloon orchestras under the broad tagline “architectural conjecture, urban speculation, landscape futures.” At about the same time, I went to an event in London where I heard architect Carolyn Steel talk about her book, Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives. Although I was initially reluctant to add yet another food blog to the internet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that edible geography was a broad-enough topic for me to be able to continue writing about almost anything I was interested in, from prisons to perfume, while still being focused enough to build a coherent niche. Basically, I’ve used food as a productive constraint. You could do the same thing with almost any topic, but food has the added benefit of being accessible and compelling to a broader audience. And now I have an even better excuse to spend time eating and drinking, which have always been two of my favorite activities…

Given that food is a health, environmental, infrastructural, economic, and technological issue, government investment, policy, and regulation ends up being one of the largest forces shaping the contemporary foodscape.

Guernica: A current project of yours for Foodprint invites citizens of Los Angeles to chart their food purchases and consumption using their cellphones. What will you do with this data, and what’s the goal for the project?

Nicola Twilley: This is a brand-new collaboration between the Foodprint Project, the Los Angeles Food Policy Council, and Kullect, which is a new app that allows anyone to crowd-source data. We’re trying to create the first crowd-sourced map of the Angeleno foodscape: what foods Angelenos are buying, where. Every two weeks, we ask participants to contribute data on a different food type—so far, we’ve gathered information on the city’s bananascape, its milk habits, and its chicken-phobia (almost nobody in our test group buys chicken, it turns out!)

We’re doing a bigger launch for it this fall, now that we’ve had a chance to iron out some of the kinks. With broader participation, we’re hoping we can generate information on consumption patterns that will be useful to the L.A. Food Policy Council as they work on implementing Mayor Villaraigosa’s Good Food for All agenda (which includes working on a regional food hub, local food purchasing policies, etc.), as well as lots of great material with which to start interesting conversations about what we buy where, and why. We’ll be publishing maps, infographics, and analyses to get people thinking and talking. And we’e sharing the data with whoever else wants to use it, too. Meanwhile, just by contributing data, participants are already thinking more consciously about their consumption patterns and what effects those have.

So, if you’re in L.A., or have friends and relatives there, please do sign up at www.kullect.com/foodprint!

Guernica: One of your stated goals with Foodprint is to understand how food and cities shape each other. When you visit a city, where do you go, and who do you speak to in order to get a sense of a place’s food infrastructure?

Nicola Twilley: Central or wholesale markets are always a good place to go to get a sense of the way food flows into a city: Hunts Point, in New York; Tsukiji in Tokyo; Rungis outside Paris. I love sampling street food, as you know from the tour that you and I went on in Mexico City! And then each city has its own interesting experiments: when I was last in London, for example, I visited the FARM:shop in Dalston and Arthur Potts Dawson’s People’s Supermarket. I like to use the excuse of writing my blog or organizing an event to call up people doing interesting things wherever I’m going—for example, I was just in Tuscon, and visited the Controlled Atmosphere Agriculture Center there.

Guernica: Why is food a political issue?

Nicola Twilley: Food is a political issue because politicians, and, indeed, our whole system of government, play such a large role in shaping what we do or don’t eat. For example, the government literally feeds a vast number of Americans (there were a record 45.75 million food stamp recipients last month) through its food assistance programs, and it feeds them with commodities it has purchased in bulk—purchases that are in themselves designed to support and stabilize prices for particular crops and industrial processes. Marion Nestle is a great person to read on how public health programs such as nutrition labeling or dietary guidance are shaped by our political system, including the undue influence of corporate lobbyists. It’s interesting to look at how dietary guidance, for example, shifts by country, for political as well as cultural reasons. The government plays a huge role in agricultural research (look at the influence of the extension programs at universities across America), environmental regulation, food safety (including guidelines around genetic modification and nanotechnology), and the economic landscape within which food production occurs. It is government policy on monopolies that allows four companies to dominate America’s meat supply, for example. Given that food is a health, environmental, infrastructural, economic, and technological issue, government investment, policy, and regulation ends up being one of the largest forces shaping the contemporary foodscape.

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Kaye Cain-Nielsen is an editorial assistant at Guernica.

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