Surviving and Thriving in the Food Transformation

James Beard famously said, “Food is our common ground, a universal experience.”

Families, friends, and communities share themselves and their traditions in the food they grow, the dishes they prepare, and the stories they tell over meals. Shared food experiences are a fundamental way through which we bond and show love and care for each other. Food’s deeply human experience unites us all.

Today’s food industry is undergoing massive transformation. People increasingly care about food. They want to know where it comes from and how it is produced. They want to know that it’s safe and they want more fresh, less processed options. Some are looking beyond personal considerations to ask how what they eat impacts others and the environment. The way we eat has begun to signal something about who we are and what we believe.

The James Beard Foundation (JBF) honors those working to address sustainability, food justice, and public health with its Leadership Awards.

“For more than 30 years, the James Beard Foundation has been known for celebrating leaders in the culinary industry through the James Beard Awards and dinners at the James Beard House. The James Beard Leadership Awards, now in their 9th year, raise awareness of critical food system issues by celebrating the visionaries working in the complex realms of sustainability, food justice, and public health." – Clare Reichenbach, CEO, The James Beard Foundation.

Many food companies, recognizing that these issues are becoming more important to customers, are working to address them. The approach tends to be strongly focused on technology, often beginning and ending solely with digital initiatives. Robotics, AI, and blockchain can be part of the solution, and are far from simple to implement. But the ultimate goal should be an approach that emerges from a deep understanding of the humans that companies serve, which is much more difficult.

In our work with clients, we engage consumers through human-centered design techniques that allow us to better understand people and their behaviors and motivations. In grounding our research and insight in the holistic context of people’s lives, we think of it as moving beyond just meeting consumer needs to elevating the human experience.

As the food industry evolves, we urge businesses to consider how to elevate food experiences through a focus on three areas:

  • Connection & Community – How might we give people experiences that connect them to friends, family, and the community?
  • Health & Wellness – How might we give people nutritious, fresh options that make them feel good both physically and emotionally?
  • Sustainability & Equity – How might we give people great experiences and great food that align with their values?

Connection & Community

Food has always been an avenue of connection. The experiences, relationships, and stories we seek often take place at kitchen tables, grocery stores, restaurants, farmer’s markets, and home gardens.

Major food players have begun designing to meet the inherent human needs of community, belonging, and socialization among the people they serve. There is a palpable focus on curating fun, memorable, and unique experiences and using restaurants and cafes as social gathering places for people to come together.

“Food connects us as humans because it is probably the most universal "language" there is. Whether it is making it or eating it together, much can be communicated without a single word: ancestral traditions, technical knowledge, the discovery of new flavors, an understanding of geography and history through similar ingredients used in different ways by various communities, at both a local and a global scale.” - Anne McBride, PhD - Chair of JBF Leadership Awards 2019

Many restaurants, including national chains, are partnering with suppliers and farms at the unit level to offer local ingredients and products that convey a sense of place. In foodservice and CPG alike, there is an influx of global influences that help people expand their horizons to explore new foods, flavors, and cuisines. In doing so, people also learn about new places and cultures.

And more companies are shifting the narrative to tell the human story behind their brand. Sharing stories about the people who founded it, the purpose that led to its creation, and the food and drink it offers – whether those recipes were passed down through generations or based on emerging trends.

How can we further leverage the powerful themes of togetherness, community, and storytelling in an authentic and immersive way? Can we create food stories that help brands build loyalty and foster deep, meaningful customer engagement? Can we curate food experiences that connect us to each other, to our personal history, to the land, and to our community?


Consumers want to feel good about the foods and beverages they are putting into their bodies and want to understand what they are eating to ensure it meets their personal approach to health. People want the transparency and trust needed to believe product and menu claims and labels.

In response, the industry is promoting healthier options and systems and working to accommodate a wide range of dietary preferences. Efforts to reformulate products and menu items to reduce calories, fat, salt, and sugar are widespread. Organic, natural, clean and non-GMO offerings have become commonplace even for major brands, as have gluten-free, vegetarian, and vegan fare. And companies are doing a better job providing access to information about how food is grown and made.

Many food companies are going further, working to improve public health and combat obesity beyond their customer base. Large food brands and their foundations are rolling out new policies and financial commitments to promote healthy lifestyles. Many are partnering with governmental or other non-profit organizations and startups both domestically and internationally.

But a persistent problem exists in our food culture: people want to eat healthier, but need help to do so. How might we use behavioral design to help people translate their aspirations and intentions to reality? Can we make fresh, nutritious food more craveable, accessible, and affordable?

Sustainability & Equity

People aren’t just concerned about their personal health. Increasingly, they also want to know where their food comes from and how the animals, people, communities, and land were treated along the way. An emergent subset of consumers want to support companies that align with their personal values and vote with their dollars for organizations to be more socially responsible.

Both small and large organizations are ramping up corporate social responsibility practices. There’s growing emphasis on everything from worker benefits, to animal welfare, to giving back to the community, to sustainability. Brands are proactively increasing wages, supporting small farms, and focusing on the environment. Plant-based alternatives are on the rise even among major protein suppliers. And a major food player recently became the largest certified B Corp in the world, joining a host of smaller food players by meeting high social, environmental, and public transparency standards.

Companies are also addressing the juxtaposition of dramatic food waste alongside widespread hunger. A host of California-based startups are making waves here; creating an edible coating that doubles the life of fresh produce, using deep learning to decrease food waste, and providing platforms for businesses so they can donate extra food that is safe to eat.

“To meaningfully address the 1.3 billion tons of food that are either lost or wasted worldwide every year – it’s going to take a mass effort from all of us to think about how we really value food.” — Danielle Nierenberg, Food Tank President, Leadership awards committee 2019

Start-ups are also working to address the question of how to feed a growing population. They are experimenting with vertical, urban, hydroponic, and aeroponic systems that can address food deserts, reduce the environmental impact of growing food, and produce greater yields with fewer resources.

Changing established processes will be challenging. How might we break orthodoxies and harness technology and fresh thinking to find new solutions? Can we follow the advice many in the innovation space suggest, including our colleague Geoff Tuff, to move beyond existing playbooks and push change?

The ability to address system-wide challenges will be integral to the success of food companies large and small. And the way organizations address these issues will lay the foundation for the next food revolution, shaping both the food industry and food culture of the future.

To thrive in this new environment, companies can identify where they are best poised to contribute by asking three key questions, which form the basis of our Balanced Breakthrough model:

  • 1) Do humans want a solution to this problem?
  • 2) Are we uniquely suited to create a solution for this problem?
  • 3) Can we capture value as a result of solving for this problem?

We are excited about the future of food. Excited to work with the James Beard Foundation to honor leaders pushing for change. And even more excited to continue to help leaders across the industry with the difficult, but important work that still needs to be done.

At their core, food stories are human stories. To truly connect with the humans they serve, food companies can elevate the human experience in helping people discover, purchase, prepare, and enjoy food. To bring the act of eating back to what people know it can and should be – that universal human experience.

Read the WSJ CMO Today article, "Beyond Sustenance: The Emotional Value of Food"

Read the Food Dive article, "Success for food companies increasingly hinges on their ability to elevate human experiences"