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The story behind every bite: shaping food culture through narrative

April 24

By the Food Culture Alliance

How we think, feel and act is constantly being influenced by external cultural forces around us, from the stories we read to the music we listen to, to the films we watch. These media are feeding us narratives that shape our norms and values everyday.

Evidence that shaping narratives can drive significant cultural change exists in various contexts. Take MTV Shuga, for example, an award-winning African TV drama series that integrates sexual and reproductive health messaging into relatable fictional stories for young audiences across various media platforms. By blending entertainment with education, the TV series was able to reshape cultural norms concerning sexual and reproductive health.

Now it’s time to do the same for food!

A narrative emerges when a story carries a deeper message. For example, in food advertisements, a common narrative is that people lead fast paced lives and don’t have time to cook. Fast food becomes the solution to these convenience challenges. Voila! A narrative has emerged, which shapes our perceptions.

Understanding these narratives and reshaping them is essential for shifting consumption patterns and fostering positive food system transformations.

Bringing together creatives to cook up new narratives

In March, we hosted our very first Creative Circle event which brought together writers, artists, producers and other creative minds to learn from and collaborate with industry experts. The session involved brainstorming and crafting new and innovative narratives to solve some of the key challenges to healthy and sustainable diets – many of which are in and of themselves negative narratives.

Two inspiring industry leaders, who have successfully reshaped narratives around food-related issues, presented how to use their art for crafting narratives.

Nya Muchemi (Shujaaz Inc) shared insights from a project aimed at altering negative perceptions surrounding traditional African vegetables (TAVs) among young Kenyans. The idea was to transform these negative beliefs into a positive narrative ‘connecting with our traditions’. Muchemi’s team utilised storytelling through comics and featured a teenage girl, Malkia, paying a visit to her grandmother, who is a deep (and funny) source of this traditional food knowledge.

Lorya Roblin (Ogilvy Paris) presented a project with the World Food Programme focused on reducing sugar consumption, snacking, and promoting local fruit and vegetable intake in Tunisia. To deliver their new narrative that love is best expressed through conviviality at the dinner table, rather than through the quantity of food, they created a television sitcom centred on the symbol of a healthy family dinner table much like how the TV show ‘Friends’ revolves around the Central Perk cafe sofa.

When we wrap up symbols, beliefs, values within engaging storylines, we can change perceptions and feelings we have about our consumption habits. Sparking a conversation around food-related problems can create new possibilities in our minds and open new strategies for actions.

Sparking conversations to shape narratives

We put this theory into practice and ideated some new narratives to tackle some big problems in the world of food. Groups had 40 minutes to come up with new ideas – a challenge on its own!

Cost of nutrition

How to reframe the belief that nutrition is expensive

Adopting a healthy diet on a budget can feel daunting and unattainable, it might make you question why you should even try. But perfection is the enemy of the good.

Our two creative circles came up with two different ways to address this challenge. One group created the new narrative that ‘imperfect is good enough’, accepting that  focusing on what we have is the first step to doing the best we can with it’.  

Imagine, one night you flick on the television to find a new cooking show has aired. But, this show is different, there are no geniuses and Michelin star chefs, just everyday, ordinary people creating affordable, nutritious meals within their means. There’s no Gordon Ramsey judging the meals at the end, instead, the show spotlights the creativity and effort invested, celebrating small steps of progress and embracing the reality of imperfection.  

The show’s host encourages viewers to share their meal ideas on social media, so you take a look and see an incredible community, sharing ideas and cheering each other on.  

You think, “Maybe I can do this.”

Food waste

How to clarify confusion about food waste

57 million tonnes of food waste is generated annually in Europe.  But what if this waste could be transformed into something remarkable?

Picture a bedtime story told by parents across the world to their children—a tale filled with cartoons and catchy songs about a beautiful flower blooming from a heap of food waste. The story captures hearts globally, conveying the powerful and universally understood message that “the end of something ugly can mark the beginning of something beautiful.” It teaches children of all ages that food waste is precious and should be re-utilised.

With the success of the children’s book, schools embrace this narrative, cultivating organic school gardens from lunch waste to illustrate the concept from an early age.

As the story gains traction, individuals begin to create their own versions of the story, sharing videos on TikTok and drawings on Instagram, further spreading awareness and fostering creativity.

How to spread awareness of food waste solutions

So often we are fed bad news with doomsday messaging. Imagine if the narratives around us start to become positive ones, nourishing us with exciting solutions!

One evening, a documentary on television catches your eye. You are whisked away to the Cayman Islands, a picturesque Caribbean destination. But you are shocked to find out that this small island actually produces seven times the amount of food waste per capita than the world average.

An animated scene unfolds, showcasing a vibrant street flooded with mangoes from a plentiful harvest. Among them is Julie, a small mango about to be stepped on. Thankfully, a homeless man rescues her and takes her to Tom Foodery, a renowned restaurant in the Caymans known for giving people meals in return for food waste.

You feel inspired and enlightened by the solutions available to a once seemingly daunting food problem.

What’s next?

These innovative and thought-provoking solutions crafted by our event participants not only tackled some of the most challenging food-related issues, but also aligned with the overarching goal of reshaping narratives surrounding food.

We can see from these examples that storytelling and shaping narratives has the power to shift perceptions and feelings about food. They enable us to envision a future where our consumption patterns can be more nutritious, more sustainable.

We want to thank everyone who took part in the event. Based on the survey feedback we received, we are thrilled to share that 100% of our participants reported feeling inspired to create narratives and stories in their area of work. We can’t wait to see what you produce in the future!

Together, creatives hold the solutions to drive change, not only in consumption patterns but also in fostering a healthier planet and population.

To find out how to join our next Creative Circle Event, make sure to sign up to our newsletter below.

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