Design by Meghana Tummala. Buy this photo.

Last week, a bevy of Master’s students from the fifth graduating class of the School of Art & Design Master of Design in Integrative Design program examined topics such as climate change, community and education through the lens of food. In doing so, they attempted to demystify how the world’s food systems deprive many while providing empowerment to only a few. 

As the presenters seemed to suggest, the coup de grâce to inequity throughout the world’s food access chain might be empowerment through communication.

The School of Art & Design series event, aptly titled “What’s On Your Plate: Designing for Equity and Access in Food Systems,” took place over Zoom and featured Art & Design graduate student designers Najwat Rehman, Keesa V. Johnson and Larrea Young. Every individual discussed how their project worked to make the complexities and gaps between actors in food systems tangible for their target audience. Each of the student designers gave PowerPoint presentations and explained their designs, rather than showing or unveiling works of art per se.

Frankly speaking, I yearned for an in-person event, a physical chair at a table next to the designers. Part of me envisioned a space filled with mouthwatering food: pie with hot, midnight-blue berries spilling out of puffed, butter-laminated crust and turmeric-glazed carrots freshly ripped from the earth. I realized how homesick I was for galleries, for the incidental meaning of art in such spaces. The idea of the event itself prompted this vision of a table with a feast taking place inside a febrile, white emptiness teeming with art and energy.

Instead, the space felt crowded with ideas — almost too crowded. While the visuals (such as ‘Giga maps,’ among others) somewhat illuminated the problems the students discussed with the audience, my efforts to see the practical reach of their designs felt like staring at a glossy white eye of water bubbling under the ice without ever truly seeing it.

However, the talk itself was thought-provoking, due to how the presenters proclaimed personal investments accompanying the precision of their methods. When the designers were asked why food became their area of interest, each designer seemed to describe, in their own way, that solace and healing are possible through food — that food is a medium for connection. 

For Rehman, who comes from a background ranging from branding and graphic design to fiction, his medium enabled him to target food scarcity and shortages in his native Pakistan. 

“To address the gaps between (stakeholders and the disenfranchised), I partnered with a food security expert,” Rehman explained.

He added that he worked with stakeholders in groups and one-on-one settings to identify “better languages and lineages between … stakeholders,” with the aim of improving lines of communication between them. 

Rehman said that global warming and other factors have caused Pakistan to experience significantly more severe weather events than in previous decades. He additionally indicated that the looming climate crises are further fueled by poor communication between the government, researchers and citizens.

Rehman created visual maps of these languages and lineages between members of different government branches. The maps were supposed to clarify the flow of webs of communication that fell within the scope of the larger problems that food access crises create, such as famine — stretching from unpredictable weather and who can plan around it all the way down to the atomized citizens in their homes. 

While developing his intricate design for facilitating possible connections between different actors, Rehman said that he knew he also needed to take into account the unpredictability of other factors, particularly global warming. Rehman used GIGA-mapping to translate this complexity into visual form. GIGA-mapping functions as a systems-thinking design tool that assists the viewer in their visualization of complex problems.

When asked what he learned from the research process, Rehman responded by declaring that comfort with complexity proved crucial. Someone else in the audience then asked him how he’d approached stakeholders who knew the Pakistani food crises intimately. “I laid out my intentions and framed my role, while acknowledging I don’t know the problem space as well,” he said.

In a very different and much denser iteration of surveying the gaps and inequities in food systems, Young, one of the featured Art & Design graduate students of the night, focused on the design of an unnamed, local high school. 

Young’s approach encapsulated dialogic design (a way of building dialogue into one’s design directly) with the specific aim of strengthening lines of communication between administrators and students. However, she used almost no visuals, and the audience members were not able to fully familiarize themselves with the problem. It was also unclear whether there was any specific solution that had been proposed, what the most pressing concern was for her subjects and if they’d been left in limbo.

Young consistently emphasized working closely with those lower in the school’s administrative hierarchy, in spite of how she briefly addressed the ways that administrators felt they had little control over their high school’s cafeteria. However, I kept waiting for her to explain what she was referring to and how this was so. Even still, Young continuously stressed a systems approach to communication over an individual approach. “Most importantly, I learned that the magic happens when the food providers, staff and students can align,” she said.

Johnson, who was the final presenter of the evening, agreed that alignment of visions and goals is paramount to success when working in communities to implement better food access systems. She opened her talk by framing it with her process for visioning the future. “So, let’s talk about the future, because the future sometimes comes quite quickly,” she said.

Johnson, who did intensive fieldwork and research in Detroit while facilitating a generative collaboration between D-Town Farm and Oakland Avenue Urban Farm, said she had the opportunity to watch the collaboration’s rapid evolution into Shop Detroit Farm. She added that she had concentrated the majority of her work early on into client intake, food ordering and food delivering.

Johnson’s PowerPoint presentation highlighted the importance of reimagining the lineage of food while incorporating healing through conversation. First, she read a poem, and from there her presentation deftly flowed alongside words from several well-known social theorists, including the inimitable bell hooks.

She informed the Zoom room that she and her partners had wanted to “grow” a sustainable food access system that wasn’t extractive. She said that she prioritized the need to facilitate collective growth by galvanizing what is already latent in the community, referring to the knowledge she collected from surveys therein as “unalienated data.”

She also explained that, as a Black woman, her empowering approach to decolonizing food aimed to center Black leadership, Black participation and Black joy. She said that her specific approach was heavily influenced by her family’s rich history, adding that her paternal grandparents were sharecroppers and her maternal grandparents were peanut farmers.

Ultimately, though all three presentations were hitched to the right ideas, Johnson harnessed the power of amplification to the right effect by relentlessly elevating the voices in the community where she worked. Moreover, I believe that the approaches she took while undertaking her project signal that the changes she has made are likely to last. “I’m not there to put myself in it,” Johnson clarified. “I’m there to amplify and galvanize that positive feedback loop.”

When you get up from the table to exit the room, it’s the food that remains there. Food transforms the medium through which future conversations can be directed. 

Despite their differences, the presenters seemed to agree that stronger communication and the amplification of individual and collective voices are what lead to community empowerment and more accessible food systems. While none of the presentations comprised “art” in the traditional sense, the work of art seemed more so housed in their creative imaginations, which bloomed in tandem with the food promulgated by their designs.

Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at