Re-envisioning the food supply

By: Jason Moriber
Re-envisioning the food supply

The vision for this series is to surface and share the experiences, trends and insights of thought-leaders, trail blazers, and subject experts who either live at the cutting edge of technology and/or seek to make the world a better place. We can each learn from these experiences and potentially take the first steps towards making the innovations that matter to us.

Tim West is the catalyst working to ensure everyone can eat fresh and nutritious foods

Tim West is working diligently and passionately to change the way people relate to the food we put into our bodies. His main approach is through producing food-hackathon events where nutritious food and innovative tech come together.

Tim is understated; he rarely raises his voice above a level meant for two people sitting closely. As we talk, his eyes light up with the internal fire he has for the topic of food. He has the sensible manner of a cool, calm and collected fellow with a earnest confidence in his trajectory to make an impact. His approach is not on the “what if” a change in food behavior will happen, it’s a “how and when” the change will happen.

It was a cool and bright San Francisco summer morning. People on the street were wearing down jackets, some with wool caps, and some with scarves. The air was a brisk 65 degrees, but clear and refreshing. Tim and I met over breakfast, composed of organic and locally sourced ingredients. We shared a turmeric cleaning tea, which was both vibrantly delicious as well as holistically healthy. We sat inside, at a quiet corner in a boutique hotel’s dining area. “This is where all the VC deals go down,” Tim mentioned as we turned a corner towards our table. After we finished our breakfast, Tim set the context of the global problem he’s solving for…

It’s all about water and protein

“There are two major pain points I see right now which is: water and protein – and they are linked. Clean water is always an issue. Not just to drink, but to grow plants. If we are eating those plants; it is an efficient form of calories, especially if we grow nutrient dense plants. If we are feeding those to animals, then it is going to take a whole lot more energy and water to produce food from those animals. If we start to see the predicted changing taste preferences of larger countries like China, we are seeing a growing demand for meat. The way my mind works is that it takes 30 gallons of water to grow a pound of beef rather than legumes, soybeans. If a billion people demand more beef than soybeans, we are going to have an exponential demand for water. If I am a farmer in California, I can grow tomatoes or beef. Beef will make me more money so I will have less incentive to grow tomatoes. I have less incentive to grow forests than meat. We are going to see more deforestation because farmers would rather grow meat than forests. That would take more water and would mean less vegetable.”

With the context of the global situation set, Tim then offers an initial solution…

“If we can understand that this trend is coming; then how can we, as chefs, make it cool and sexy to eat really delicious and healthy colorful fruits and veggies that are a lot more environmentally friendly? Chefs are making their menus more vegetable centric to reduce portion sizes of meat. Don’t get me wrong, I think meat is delicious, but from a theoretical perspective how do we feed as many people as sustainably as possible and enjoy the amazing brilliant life we’ve been giving. I think that this is definitely a place where we can apply technology and entrepreneurial-ship.”

Jason: Is there a name for this movement that you are creating?

Fresh and real food

Tim: It’s funny, that’s a good question. The “slow-food” movement has done a really good job by defining itself as what it is not. It is not fast food. One of my dark secrets is that my grandfather invented Doritos. It’s a processed food, delicious and has its place in the world, but the processed food world is something we are moving away from towards a fresh food world. Call it the “fresh food” movement; call it the “real food” movement. The beauty of the slow food movement is that it is not exclusively about the food itself. It’s about the culture, the friendships and the family. It’s about taking the time to slow down. It’s not just food exclusively as nourishment but a holistic way of nourishing and bringing us together to enjoy a picnic in the sunshine.

Jason: In this fresh food movement, are there any key steps? Is there an obvious way to teach someone? The ABCs?

Tim West Tim: Look at my own personal problem. How did I make it to 18 without learning how to cook or learn where my food came from? We removed home economic classes from schools. We removed these basic life skills in school. How is it possible to let these kids go through school without even learning how to make an omelet or salad? Fundamentally, if we want to get to the root of the problem, we have to get down to the kid level. To the parent level. We have to both educate them about healthy food choices and how to make them and also to empower them with the ability to purchase them. We can either give people more buying power or we can lower the cost of food. One of the things to build on is the processed food we have in great supply today. Why is processed food bad? After World War II, we began the green revolution. Calories were what everyone tried to produce. We – and I mean the United States – put a lot of time, energy and money into large factory commercial farming. Mainly on soy, wheat and corn staple food crops. So we look at 99% of government subsidies go into these commodity crops, which creates an abundance of them on the cheap. This is why a lot of our food products are developed from these four staple crops. Now what if, hypothetically, the 99 percent commodities went to fruits and vegetables? What would happen then? Farmers would be making a whole lot more money. They’d be incentivized to grow more fresh food. A lot more distributed. More community farms and gardens. A lot more growing plants that we could eat. Food is the new tech. Biology is the new digital. I think we are going to see a revolution – again speaking from the US perspective – of people coming around community gardens and more regional local infrastructure for sustainable food systems. I think that’s where America is going to be reborn again. Around our gardens, our food and our communities.

Jason: One item we talked about during breakfast is how food is one thing you can truly control in your life…

Tim: Yeah, I don’t think that our bodies are physiological designed for the epic amounts of stimulus we experience every single day. All the ads and screens and the people we now see. Research shows that specifically among millennials, we’re anxious. When we are anxious we try to control things and we can’t control what comes into our eyes and ears. But the one thing we can control is what goes in our mouth, our food. That’s why we take so many photos of it and we are so proud of it. It’s such a personal and intimate thing and it becomes a part of our body and being. I think it’s a reason why we’ve seen so much growth in the love of food media, all over the world. I think it’s going to continue to be a trend that is going to bring us together and bridge the digital and real world experience for people

Jason: How does your project, the hackathons, contribute…

The Need to Build a Healthier Food System

Tim: My professional life really was born out of a problem. And the problem was that by the time I reached freshman year in college I realized I had no idea how to cook or where my food came from. And I unfortunately I got food poisoning. And that experience led me to a now lifetime-long pursuit of learning where my food comes from and how to feed as many people as sustainably as possible. It led to me changing paths and going to the Culinary Institute of America and becoming a chef. And ultimately coming out here to Silicon Valley to work for one of the major tech companies feeding their employees and it was through that avenue that began to really question how do we feed people as sustainably as possible how do we feed people that nourishes their brain to make their work more productive.  And as I dove down this rabbit hole I realized that food is interconnected to everything else in our lives. It is connected to water and energy and transportation and politics and our health care. I use food now as a conversation starter, as a gateway into building community and trust and as a way to solve the larger problems in the world. The main project that I have been working in the last few years is this Food Hackathon as a way to blend food and tech. It’s, in my mind, a way to take the brilliance and brainpower of Silicon Valley and focus it on what I consider the most important issue in the world; to build a bigger healthier food system. It’s also about building out this entrepreneurial ecosystem for food entrepreneurs and investors and to create bridges and pathways so that we can learn from each other and along the way I really love finding emerging leaders and supporting them and growing them and idolizing them so that we can encourage younger people to be entrepreneurs, to challenge the status quo, to take risks, to fail, to learn, to grow, and to work together to build a better food system.

Jason: Entrepreneurship in food? Do you want these kids to be leaders in food, or is it that they become entrepreneurial?

Tim: I want to be a catalyst that encourages people to be entrepreneurs in general. The concept and lens that I see the world in through food. In the tech industry it can be applied to food. It can be about “what we are doing here, enjoying good food with good people, and enjoying the gift of life and being the change.”

Jason: You also talked about knowing where our food comes from…

Tim: The thing about food is that it’s so fragile that it really takes experience and the human eye to identify what’s perfect. I just saw the IBM supercomputer Watson try to cook and another machine make an omelet or whatever it was and I posted this news to Facebook. My chef friends replied that robots don’t know the exact bitterness of the eggplant. They don’t know the difference between a summer and winter eggplant. They don’t know that the winter eggplant needs salt to remove the bitterness. There are so many subtle nuances that make food one of the most challenging areas to do that. With fashion, like a sneaker, it would be much easier to apply more technology. Food is far more fascinating.

Jason: Would you say chefs are more artists or technicians?

Tim: Chefs are craftsmen. It’s a skillset that you need to learn. It is a foundation. Once it is learned then you can build on it. You need to learn the fundamentals of how to transform and how to apply heat and fire and to use sharp knifes to food. I think in some ways we have seen food become art. We are putting filters to it and doing different angles. Food can be art, but is a chef an artist? Or artistic? It’s hard to say.

Jason: So if chefs are craftspeople how do they identify their objectives?

Tim: I live in a very unique slice of the world. I come from a chef perspective and background and looking at our food system in a systemic way. Diplomacy is the art of letting people have things their way. If there is some level that I can pull that, I can help direct people to a more responsible direction. That’s where I like to play. To let companies be more responsible in making food that is more holistically nutritious, fair, clean and good for the people in the supply chain. To help startups understand that there are many implications to the decisions that they make to encourage people to consume. How can we from the top and bottom bring as good a quality and fair food to everybody? I worked in high end restaurants, the Saint Regis in New York, Silicon Valley tech companies, the University of Massachusetts; we did 40,000 meals a day. I see a bunch of different needs. I just went to India for the first time and I’m going to China in a couple weeks. My perspective is still on the US centric. There are so many challenges out there when it comes to food. It’s our unifying global connection. Our lowest common denominator. We are going to see more challenges and opportunities feed the world.

Jason: Is the short-term consumer action to shop at local markets and not go to the big supermarkets?

Grow your own food, locally

Tim: Look at what’s happening in Detroit. Out of those abandoned lots, they are planting gardens. They can’t afford to go to these markets. So they are growing it themselves. I hope this is a trend that continues. This is a trend that I hope and I know that startup industries can get behind and hopefully even the larger food companies can understand the real value that is being created in the communities. Hopefully, they become platforms to help support this more hyper-local food system. Where we can get foods and vegetables that don’t come thousands of miles and lose their nutritional value as they ship. Where we can get better quality flavor and pleasure out of our food because we grew it in the backyard or around the block. Where we can get the human interaction where we are missing in this digital age. Don’t get me wrong, I love my iPhone, it is such a useful tool to me. We really need balance. That’s why I love this intersection of food and tech because it’s that perfect opportunity to bring up that conversation about what makes us happy and healthy. What do we enjoy?

Jason: For communities like in Detroit, is it going to have to be them growing their own food? If yes, what’s the first thing these communities need to do?

Tim: I think it’s empowerment right? What people can accomplish when they know you believe in them. I used to teach cooking and farming classes to kids after school. And it was that crazy hour after they were sugared up let out after school. 9-11 year olds. And I would give them knives and fire and ask them to cook things. I could all of a sudden get kids to eat soy beans or broccoli if they were involved in the process of making it. And they would go home and tell their parents, “I don’t want to eat at McDonald’s anymore.” Their parents would come in and yell at me for influencing their kid’s behavior and they were stubborn. I said try going to the farmer’s market with their kid. And they came back the next week and they’re like “we went to the farmer’s market. It was really fun and we cooked a meal and thank you.” So the first thing I would do is invite them to cook a meal together to enjoy the process. And maybe plant a garden at the same time so we can watch our food grow.

Jason: Is there an example of this process we can look to for guidance?

Tim: There is a really great leader, Will Alan, out of Milwaukee. I met him in 2008 when he won the MacArthur Genius Award and he won it for figuring out how to get good quality food to low income communities that were underserved, food deserts. He did a couple of things. One, he began to collect the organic waste around the city and began composting it using permaculture, worms, to create a fertile growing medium. He would spread it on abandoned basketball courts, because they were torn up. Ironic because he used to be a basketball player, and would throw seeds and grow food. He would create a CSA, community supported agriculture. Typically you pay $300-$500 a season to get food delivered once a week, a box of fresh fruits and vegetables. But he realized it was too much money for these communities. So he broke it up into weekly segments. People could pay $30 bucks a week and they would get full boxes of fruits and vegetables. And then the other brilliant thing he did, he would make the drop points for those fruits and vegetables at schools. Where parents were already picking up their kids and he made it easy on the parents. And he’s become quite a leader for figuring out how to get clean fresh healthy food into underserved food deserts. Everything’s possible if you innovate.

Jason: And your project fits into this model…

Food hackathons

Tim: So I started this Food Hackathon as a way to start an entrepreneurial ecosystem to bring together people that wanted to innovate and build business to help each other. And that became the key and secret, bringing people together for a cause. My cause was to build a better food system. And people came together with all kinds of different skill sets, and experiences, and resources. And they learn from each other. And all I did was provide a platform and a call to action.

And I’ve seen throughout these hackathons unbelievable new ideas come up, and new teams form, new relationships, and companies. It’s that perfect combination of a diversity of mindset coming together under a short period of time under pressure. Necessity is the mother of invention. With a larger cause beyond ourselves beyond making money. It’s when people are doing something for more than just themselves. That they go above and beyond and push themselves and it’s that stretch zone, that cross pollination zone, where I feel like the innovation happens. So the question becomes how do we create environments like that? How do you create environments like that in companies? I feel like we kind of have to create leaders. We have to give people freedom to explore and to fail. And we have to believe. But it’s also about really bringing together people with experience and knowledge and knowing what happened before and why it didn’t happen before and maybe it can happen now. Timing is so much. The right team is so much. And also the right partnerships. I feel like now is really the time to bridge this gap between people who have resources, experience and knowledge with people who have energy, passion and ideas. And that’s why I’m planning the next Food Hackathon this upcoming October here in San Francisco. Halloween weekend. Focused on kids’ health. We’re talking about kids, we’re talking about Halloween, and we’re talking about candy. We’re talking about sugar; we’re talking about viable alternatives. It’s also right before the elections. I want to raise an incredibly high positive flag of what we can do beyond religion, beyond politics, beyond international borders. Of how we can all come together for our kids and for our kid’s health.


Tim walked me outside. The sun hit our faces and we both squinted, reaching for our sunglasses. Photography wasn’t allowed inside the hotel so I took a few candids of Tim with my phone. Tim reiterated the amount of energy and activity taking place in San Francisco around the technology of food, how food is definitely the next wave of focus with innovators and investors. I promised to return, to find more catalysts such as himself, to learn what they’re working on. At the least, my plan is to attend Tim’s food hackathon in October. I’ll report back on the event.

Read more conversations from this series:

Jason Moriber is a creative communicator with a background in social and digital for CSR, tech and start-ups. He’s working within the Communications team at Verizon, charged with developing a new model for corporate and brand communications. Connect with him on Twitter @jasonmoriber or on Instagram @makeserendipity