Tracing our food


Notes and reflections from our monthly meet-up #7 held on 29th May 2020.

The monthly meet-ups at Edible Issues, started as a way to take the conversations offline and meet and engage with people, who, like us are curious about the Indian food system.
We have a wide audience from versatile backgrounds who attend our conversations – from entrepreneurs, producers, chefs, scientists, and the everyday eater, like you and I. 

Since COVID-19 our meet-ups have taken an online format but nevertheless we hope to engage as many people wanting to be a part of a better food future for India. 

COVID-19 has created a very visible shock to supply chains globally. The Urban Design Collective, a collaborative platform for participatory planning to create livable cities, took the opportunity of the lockdown across India to understand who feeds the city of Chennai and Tirunelveli currently, and how the solutions created by the disruption of these supply chains may continue post-COVID.

More importantly, their work focused on what we can learn from such scenarios and how building food smart cities, where public and private actors can focus on creating a sustainable urban food system that enables social inclusion and access to safe and nutritious food, engenders more resilient urban spaces.

Why is it important to understand where our food comes from?

Food is a constant in our lives we consume a meal at least three times a day. Food is our first culture, but seldom do we ask, who are the hands that are cooking our food? Who is involved in distribution and transport of the food to reach us in the cities? Who is growing that produce that we consume sometimes without much thought. Who are the people getting rid of the waste post consumption?

The people behind a single plate of food are numerous and more than often we know nothing about who they are or where our food actually comes from.

So why is the study of our local food webs important? Not only does this knowledge put face and value to the tremendous work that goes into growing and cooking food, but this understanding and empathy can reflect in strengthening and empowering the local economy.

From reducing food miles and ensuring lesser carbon emissions are released into the environment to paying the real cost of food and ensuring a suitable living for farmers and producers to also ensuring money is retained within the local economy and helping create jobs increase business. And also not to forget ensuring everyone in the community has access to nutritious, affordable food, irrespective of their income.

Take a listen to the team at UDC, Vidhya, Sriwardhan, and Navin talk about what they discovered when they mapped the food web in Chennai and Tirunelveli and what they hope for the future.

Some questions asked and answered. (timestamps for reference in the video above)

28:28 min – What would localising farming would do to the cost of food? From a policy point of view, that could be a good incentive for local governments and RWAs.

32:36 min – What would you say about practicality of mottamadi farms w.r.t temperature and water scarcity in a city like Chennai?

34:00 min – What about street vendors?

35:12 min – What the food system will look like during a future pandemic – say in 2030. Food distribution systems would be an early adopter of  autonomous vehicles and drone delivery systems.

I won’t endorse this (autonomous distribution) for now, we are not there yet. There is a lot of livelihood that depends on this (distribution systems), and we wanted to design a system that supports people and encourages them to participate. This is a niche thing and we are not ready for it, is my opinion.

– Vidhya mohankumar

Some points of conversation:

  • Rohan shared with us a project that he did back in 2014 on mapping a bowl of rajma chawal
  • Organic farms take over abandoned underground parking lots in Paris. The Weather Network
  • Good Earth Orchard, Bangalore: This enclave of 29 homes, built according to the principles of low-cost architecture made popular by British-born Indian architect Laurie Baker, has at least 250 species of medicinal and flowering plants. LiveMint
  • The Village Story is a Bangalore based experiential square foot gardening community working towards creating a self-sustainable environment.

ACTIVITY: Let’s make some virtual Sambar

We had a fun collaborative & speculative mapping exercise where we crowd sourced ingredients for a sambar (lentil stew). Assuming the dish was prepared in Chennai we looked at possible growing regions these ingredients could have come from.

We havd excessively added vegetables to the sambar, but if we had to actually prepare it, we would be be sourcing all the ingredients from around 3772 kms. The smallest quantity ingredient coming from the most furthest was asafoetida.

What does this mean?

For starters, through the exercise we realised that most of us had absolutely no clue about the main agricultural growing regions for most of the produce. How do we keep ourselves updated with where food is grown around the country?

The shocking figure of 3772 kms may not be fully accurate, but it’s a shocking enough figure to get us thinking about if this was possibly true and what we could do to reduce food miles by atleast 1/10th. What does this mean for our food system to focus on the local food economy? And by focusing on communites of scope rather than economies of scale what impact could this create on global trade?

As Vidhya said, it’s probaby time we start thinking about “why that washington apple?”. Giving ourselves some perspective into why we buy certain produce, or from who and how we buy will help us reflect on making a better food choice.

Further Reading:

MOLD : Mapping the effect of COVID-19 on Chennai’s Food System

Food Shapers Vol 1 : Agro-Innovation in Smart Cities
The book of Agro-Innovation in Smart Cities uses current projections to build an argument around the urgent need for a new urban agenda. One that promotes human settlements that are environmentally sustainable, resilient, socially inclusive, safe and violence-free and economically productive. It aims to present case studies that outline what should be taken into account when considering the socio-technical integration within the cities of tomorrow.

City Region Food System Tools – FAO

Good Practices in Participatory Mapping: IFAD

Personal Food System Mapping: Journal of Extension

Nourished – Food System Tools

Interaction Institute for Social Change: Systems Mapping and Strategy Development for a Better Food Future

Discovering Food System – Cornell University

If you would like to get in touch with Urban Design Collective, you can write to them at

Enjoyed this conversation?

Join us one with Akash Muralidharan, this Friday, 05th June at 6.00PM IST.