Careers In Food System Change: Where Should You Start?

By Austin Kiessig

I have had many career path conversations with people who are fired up about changing the food system. These conversations are often tricky. The food landscape is complex, and there are many different ways to plug into the ecosystem of affiliated industries we collectively call “food.” Navigating that ecosystem can be overwhelming.

In my opinion, the easiest way to make sense of the job landscape is to apply filters. Perhaps the most potent filter is passion. I believe people do their best work (particularly if it’s entrepreneurial) when they are in tune with their unique zealousness. Finding it takes some self-reflection. Career-seekers need to begin with the question: What about food fixates you? Then, they can dig into specific opportunities.

I want to introduce a framework for mapping passions for food system change against the “value chain” in food production. We’ll call it the “Food Change Career Matrix.”

Let me note before starting: the matrix outlines a way to think about driving change in the food system. It assumes you think something is wrong in the system and you want to work on changing it. So this is a way to structure a conversation about how people and organizations are (or are not) driving change today.

The Food Change Career Matrix


Dimension 1: Whom Do You Want To Impact?

Dimension 1 was inspired by my realization that food stretches across every level of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Food is simultaneously a basic physiological necessity, an element of safety and security, an expression of love and belonging, an instrument of esteem and respect, and a sophisticated symbol of self-actualization. And I think one can rightly discern a person’s priorities by understanding where they fall on Maslow’s Hierarchy. As go the priorities of the people, so go the priorities of the food system (and the broader economic system). I find that most people tend to have a visceral connection with driving change at one (or a few) levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve reduced Maslow’s Hierarchy from five levels to three.

The priorities for a local, regional, or national food system depend greatly on the economic status of the people served by that food system. Let me illustrate through a set of examples:

a)   People in the global “impoverished class” tend to worry about caloric security. Much of their daily energy is directed towards fulfilling basic needs: are they physically safe? Do they have clean water to drink? Do they have enough food to avoid starvation and malnutrition? In short, their next meal is not guaranteed, and the food system is oriented to provide as many calories as possible as cheaply as possible.

b)   People in the global “middle class” tend to be preoccupied by the integrity of their food. Finding enough calories to survive is not the most pressing issue; rather, people with disposable income now have choices over how to fulfill their caloric needs. The issues of wellness and status emerge: food is both a source of nourishment and a symbol of “doing well.” A bell curve emerges in weight: some people under-eat, and some people over-eat. The role of the food system shifts from producing enough calories to serving a mix of nutritional demands from consumers.

c)   People in the global “upper class” tend to treat food as symbolic, instrumental, and part of lifestyles and contexts. Caloric security is moot, and food consumption becomes a reflection of sophisticated individual preferences and social behavior patterns. Restaurants, retailers, brands, and novelty matter. In a vast sea of purchase options, consumers use their money to vote for particular food systems, forms of nutritional richness, or their unique social station. The role of the food system is to provide many options across a wide spectrum of preferences.

Different people are passionate about driving food system change at different levels of economic development, and none is “better” or more worthwhile than another. Someone may see value in helping feed the poor, for instance, but they may see more value in developing sophisticated food systems in “upper class” societies that can then be replicated across less-developed economies. Indeed, many disruptive technologies and systems originate as experiments in wealthy economies.

Dimension 2: Where In The Food Value Chain Do You Want To Work?

When we picture food production, there are different stages along the path from field to fork. Segmenting the stages and studying what occurs in each is another effective filter in understanding where change can occur.

a)    Agriculture inputs: soil, water, seeds, fertilizers. Resource development and management.

b)   Agriculture production: farming, tools and technologies used in growing, agricultural systems.

c)    Food processing: converting food from a raw state to a consumable state, and creating a brand identity.

d)   Storage & distribution: getting food to market. Includes commodities.

e)    Consumption–retail: points of sale where people buy groceries and bulk foodstuffs.

f)     Consumption–restaurants: points of sale where people buy prepared food in a social setting.

g)    Consumption–cooking/other: points of consumption where people eat at home or in other settings.

I think there are also career options outside the strictly defined food production “value chain”:

h)   Food education: nutrition, general health and wellness, food policy, food systems.

i)    Investing: providing capital to food-related entities.

Examples: The Matrix In Action

Food Careers image 09.24.2013

A career-seeker might start by considering the personal resonance of each dimension, and then do research on which companies fit into applicable parts of the matrix. Some illustrative examples are below:

  • Food safety + Agricultural production: Kickstart International manufactures hand-operated water pumps for farmers in developing economies. These pumps obviate the need to carry buckets of water to the field by hand. They also displace the use of pumps powered by diesel generators, which are both expensive and environmentally unfriendly.
  • Food integrity + Food processing: Stonyfield Organic introduced tasty, affordable, organic yogurt to the mainstream marketplace. Stonyfield was one of the first organic food products to be carried by WalMart, which had a resonant impact throughout the entire dairy industry.
  • Food culture + Storage & distribution: Farmigo is a software company that connects farmers to consumers. Shoppers can use Farmigo software to order a basket of customized of high-value goods from local area growers and artisanal food producers. Products are delivered to shoppers’ doors or to a centralized pickup location.

A Valuable Starting Point

The matrix can help people dig into what they feel most strongly about changing in food, and where they might apply their unique backgrounds, talents, and passions. It’s a way to structure thinking and conversations.

I welcome your feedback on this tool and any suggestions for improving it.

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4 Responses to Careers In Food System Change: Where Should You Start?

  1. Pingback: Careers In Food System Change: Where Should You Start? | Austin Kiessig

  2. Shannon Randolph says:

    Dear Austin,

    You’ve got some great ideas to simplify a global food system, but the simplifications seem to be at the cost of representing three different economic brackets too generally and from the position of one perspective. Diversity within economic brackets and even among individuals and even with one individual’s temporal state means that there are variable optimal food choices in one poor community and that these change over time for individuals given their current personal and environmental situation (e.g., good ag year = surplus food stores, health emergency in the family, natural disasters). Socially significant food consumption has been a hallmark of food consumption throughout human history, from hunter gatherers like the !Kung and Ache in the Amazon to the Baka and Hadza in Africa. Similar to our insurance policies and (now defunct) government services to provide food, shelter and health services for those who have come into hard times, people even in the poorest communities in the world, or perhaps especially in the poorest communities, have well-established social networks of support to buffer against financial and hunger hardship times (See WInterhalder and Smith, 2000: Sharing of food and ceremonial presentation of food to visitors, as with the sharing of pigs and sweet potatoes to quell inter-tribal conflicts in Papua New Guinea or the celebration at a wedding, helps to test the authenticity of social relations, generosity, and relative power. Sharing of food helps to establish reputation and could potentially help you in times of need, when others will be more likely to share with you.

    Other important aspect of food to consider are the social and spiritual meanings of food, medicinal value of wild plants and animal parts (to treat both spiritual and physical sicknesses) and the cultivation of wild foods. Growing in popularity in developed countries, wild foods and herbal medicine are still a mainstay in developing countries, even for wealthy in countries like Cameroon, where rapid and recent urbanization (e.g. annual urban growth rates of 2.5 – 3.5%) means that many new immigrants to urban areas bring preferences for rural forest and savannah based foods and wild medicines to urban areas.

    Your perspective is valid and very useful. Let’s expand and show how to address issues of poverty and food insecurity in areas where people still have complex social and economic relationships with food.

    Happy to talk further.

    Shannon Randolph
    PhD, Environmental Anthropology, Stanford

    • Shannon,

      Thanks for taking the time to write back with such an informed and robust perspective.

      I concede that I’ve attempted to address the “career focus” element of a very complex food system through a clean framework, which invites the risk of oversimplification. However, I think for the purpose of helping people interested in food to identify companies or organizations where they might work, you have to ask the question: “What and who does the organization focus on?” Food and ag companies/NGOs tend to focus on certain socioeconomic constituencies, or certain types of growers, so I think it’s fair to draw lines for the organizational purposes of this post.

      This framework is more about mapping for-profit and not-for-profit entities, rather than diagramming all the complex elements of food in society. That’s a job for people like you =).

      I’d be interested in hearing if you think there’s a type of food career that’s NOT represented, which is perhaps what you’re suggesting. For instance, I’m not saying that “food lifestyles” are the sole province of developed countries. But in terms of people who are job seeking: are there companies or NGOs that focus on food lifestyles in developing countries? I’m not educated on those options. I see more jobs focusing on Western food lifestyles than anywhere else, so it’s easier to include in the framework.

      I’d like to make this as complete as possible, so any suggestions for further inclusion would be welcome!


  3. Shannon Randolph says:


    You did a good job mapping things out as they are in the NGO space. We definitely have a gap in the institutional approach to addressing food needs in developing countries. Most focus on macro-level fixes, such as GMO crops, water pumps, irrigation addressing climate change and water issues which are extremely important. The micro-level issues are best addressed with finely-tuned models and “ground-truthing” (surveying and ethnography) to double-check the assumptions we make about the impact of development efforts. That’s a long way of saying I don’t know of any NGOs currently doing this work.

    The at Stanford and IDEO (design firm based in Palo Alto) have recently been approaching development issues from the ground up using something termed “human-centered design” to find human-centered solutions (usually products) to development problems, such as cheap water pumps, small solar lamps (d.light) and portable blanket ‘incubators’ for premature babies (Embrace). These solutions are derived from the design process: ethnography, quick prototyping of solutions, user feedback and revision of prototype. This process is iterated until the solution really ‘fits’ what users need. Oftentimes the problem and solution are different from what you initially assess. It’s a cool model that I’m interested in using at an institutional level to help development and conservation organizations. I believe that this iterative, fail early and often and user-led process (combining human centered design and ethnography) to identify the most appropriate solutions to pressing problems (which are usually slightly or drastically different than what we assume) could revolutionize the way we approach macro-level problems. If you’re interested (or know of others who I should talk to to pilot this idea), let’s have a chat. I’ll also be at the Food Summit if you want to brainstorm this solution space.

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