Robyn Metcalfe, an author, University of Texas lecturer and former heritage pig farmer, has been involved in the food world long enough to know that all the issues around what and how we eat — from food deserts to genetically modified crops to the cost of land for farming — are interconnected.
Just envision something like a slice of bread and all the stakeholders involved in producing, consuming, marketing and disposing of it, she says.
Someone has to grow and harvest the wheat and then transport it to the flour processing and packaging plant. Then the bags of flour have to go to bread production facilities, where the flour then gets mixed with other ingredients with equally complicated production streams. The bread has to be wrapped to meet health and safety standards and then shipped in a timely manner to grocery stores in a truck wrapped in carefully calculated advertising. Consumers then make the purchase, eat it and then decide if they are going to compost and/or recycle the moldy heel and empty plastic bag.
And to be honest, she points out, this is just scratching the surface. Everyone from health-care providers and historians to urban developers and public policy makers are invested in what we eat, which means anyone who says the solution to reducing childhood obesity, for example, is as simple as teaching kids how to grow some carrots in their school garden isn’t seeing the big picture.
Rather than be daunted by the size and complexity of the food system, Metcalfe is doing what she can to face it head-on by combining the two, often disparate groups in which she has found herself working over the past few decades: academia and the commerce-driven life outside the ivory tower.
Metcalfe’s academic emphasis is on the history of food and urban life in modern Europe, but it is her own experience as a pig farmer in Maine that really introduced her to the reality of the current food landscape. The market for heritage pork wasn’t what it is today, and she found herself in Manhattan trying to persuade chefs to take a risk on her product while keeping in mind that she still had to figure out a way to turn a profit in a pasture-to-plate production system that could easily nickel and dime her into the red.
She long ago got out of the pig business to focus on teaching and writing, and her book, "Meat, Commerce and the City: The London Food Market, 1800-1855," came out last year just as she was moving from Boston to Austin.
Shortly after arriving in Austin, she saw a need for a common space for students of all disciplines, as well as invested members of the food community outside the university, to share ideas that involve food, so she created the Food Lab, an incubator program within the Center for Sustainable Development of the UT School of Architecture.
"We need to end our assumptions of what this ‘problem’ looks like and be willing to connect seemingly unrelated disciplines and points of views to get people to think in different ways," she says. "We don’t want it to be a platform for further complaining."
Every Tuesday during the semester, Metcalfe hosts a Food Lab brown bag lunch to foster discussion of what those solutions might look like.
Metcalfe says she developed the Food Lab, in part, to break down the barriers between the business world, which has a realistic view of the challenges at hand, and academia, where ideas and enthusiasm, though often idealistic, are plentiful.
This is an ongoing conversation in the Food Lab, but this Friday and Saturday at the Blanton Museum of Art, Metcalfe and her team are hosting a two-day conference called "Food, the City, and Innovation" that will bring together everyone from forward-thinking entrepreneurs such as Greenling founder Mason Arnold and app developer William Hurley to farmers, food historians, architects and biologists for two days of round-table discussions.
Metcalfe helped host a similar conference at Boston University last year, and that university remains an official partner as the event moves to Austin. (In future years, it might go back and forth between the two campuses, she says.)
Though many of the panelists and speakers are from Austin, plenty come from out of the area or out of state. "You can’t have this community conversation in just one community."
"We’ve identified that there is a need for some response for some of the issues we’ve been learning about, so let’s look at how we can create some actionable plans in the form of entrepreneurship," she says.
Tickets to the two-day conference cost $75, which includes lunch on both days. To find out more about the conference and the Food Lab, go to foodincubator.wordpress.com/conference.