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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

5 Cool Things We Learned About Food and Technology from Small Bytes

Posted By on Wed, Apr 30, 2014 at 4:30 PM

Left to right, moderator Williams and panelists Zajonc, Salant, Hawley, and Zigas discuss issues of food and technology. - COURTESY OF THE BOLD ITALIC
  • Courtesy of the Bold Italic
  • Left to right, moderator Williams and panelists Zajonc, Salant, Hawley, and Zigas discuss issues of food and technology.

Seeing as San Francisco is mecca for both foodies and techies, it only makes sense that the crossover community be just as vibrant. Monday night's "Small Bytes" panel was co-sponsored by The Bold Italic and General Assembly, who brought together some of San Francisco's leading entrepreneurs working with food and technology.

The event was moderated by Lawrence Williams, chairman and CEO of the United States Healthful Food Council, and featured four panelists currently working with integrated food and tech throughout the Bay Area: Krysia Zajonc, CEO and cofounder of Local Food Lab; Alon Salant, CTO and cofounder of Good Eggs; Kristen Hawley, a writer for Chefs & Tech; and Caleb Zigas, executive director of La Cocina.

The panel discussed how we can begin to answer questions of food shortages, the impact of technology on food production and distribution, and what iPhone-operated drones carrying lettuce have to do with anything. Here are five lessons we took away from Small Bytes:

Being a small-scale entrepreneur in San Francisco is really, really hard.

Zigas, who works with such entrepreneurs, weighed in on the issue of profit margins for these small, fledgling businesses. Pick up a jar of handmade jam in a store and you'll be a bit taken aback when you read the $8 price tag. But the amount of profit that actually makes it back to the person who made it is only about $.75. So if you want to make $100,000 a year and live above the median income in San Francisco, said Zigas, "then you need to sell a ton of jam. Which means you need to get a ton of people eating jam. And I think there may not be that many people who want to eat jam."

A better food system is one that is healthier, more just, and more resilient than what we have now.

This might seem obvious to San Franciscans with immediate, convenient access to as much healthy, local, and organic food as we could ever want, but the majority of Americans don't seem to hold food to quite the same standard -- check the Center for Disease Control's predictions for rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes if you need to be convinced, said Williams. For Zajoc, therefore, working toward a better food system does not mean supporting the person looking to make the next Dorito. Instead, resources and support must be provided to those with a better food system in mind.

Technology can make you more human.

There's technology that takes away from being a human -- put your smartphone down at dinner. Just put it down. And then there is technology that makes you more human, removing the everyday drudgery and allowing you to spend your time in more meaningful ways. Using Good Eggs, for example, means less time waiting in the checkout line at the grocery store and more time sitting around the table with family.

The future of farming and better food access lies in technology.

And that doesn't mean sending iPhone-operated drones carrying lettuce into low-income communities to solve the problem of food deserts, says Zajoc.

Early on in the process of developing Good Eggs, Salant had the idea in his head that the ideal food model would be going back to the farms of the early 1900s; instead, recent developments in technology are changing farming for the better. At Early Bird Ranch in Pescadero, for example, the husband and wife owners are using a system for rotational grazing using battery-powered, portable electric fences, making moving their livestock from pasture to pasture a task that one person can complete in 15 minutes instead of an entire team finishing only after weeks of labor.

These things aren't just happening in the Bay Area.

Yes, we're pretty privileged in California with our four growing seasons. But how are things going in the middle and eastern sections of the country? Fairly well, as it turns out. Developing aeroponic, aquaponic, and hydroponic growing systems can continue to operate in sub-zero temperatures. Take that, polar vortex.

In addition, consumers nationwide do seem to be coming around to the idea of eating seasonally -- not just in terms of root vegetables in the winter and fresh fruit in the summer, but in unusual situations like the recent lime shortage, said Hawley. Eating local isn't popular only in San Francisco; Americans in general are taking the trend and turning it back into a lifestyle.

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