Advancing the Value of Ethnography

Corporate Care Reimagined: Farms to Firms to Families


Download PDF

Cite this article:

2014 Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference Proceedings, ISSN 1559-8918.

In 2012, the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences convened a multi-year conversation between corporate food stakeholders, farmers, chefs, food experts, social scientists and business consultants to reimagine the impact of companies on their employees and the food system. Corporate care increasingly includes food. Food origins and preparations create impacts well beyond the corporate cafe, reaching into fields and families. In the project, Farms to Firms to Families, university-based anthropologists joined with the Institute for the Future to develop a Northern Californian case study on the implications of corporate care across the food system. Ethnographic observations and interviews of people in that system yielded a portrait of cultural values, schema for social change, and diverse practices. We then transformed ethnographic observations into alternative future scenarios, which could help participants in the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences, as well as a wider community of food thinkers, identify the impacts of their decisions and actions on the future.

Truth is so hard to tell, it sometimes needs fiction to make it plausible.
––Francis Bacon (Leavy 2013: 259)

Corporate care, a phrase we are introducing in this paper, consists of workplace and worker-generated practices that attend to the needs of the whole worker—fostering a healthy body, an agile mind, and a supportive community. In the 19th and 20th centuries, such practices focused on benefits, a shorter work week, a safer workplace and access to insurance. In Silicon Valley, such practices broadened to include campus-based fitness and wellness centers. In such 21st century care workplaces increasingly provide food, sometimes at no cost to the employee. Corporate food management can consider consequences that go beyond worker benefits. The choice of food origin, handling and preparation creates an impact on the food chain well beyond the cafe, reaching into fields at one end, and families at the other. The process of choosing, preparing and consuming food extends what it means to be beneficial to a broader set of stakeholders.

Building on seven years of forecasting in the Global Food Outlook, the Institute for the Future participated in the newly created Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences, based in Mountain View, California. A group of experts, academics and activists were invited to participate, stimulating conversations between corporate food stakeholders, farmers, chefs, food experts, social scientists and business consultants to reimagine the impact of companies on the system that produces, distributes and consumes food. Over time, the groups coalesced into umbrella initiatives, each containing individual projects. In one such group, the task was to rethink the impact of corporate food consumption on the entire food system. Participants are bound by a common mission, and participants “share a commitment to creating a more sustainable and responsible food system for all.” (Avery et al. 2014: 2).

Our project, Farms to Firms to Families, joining San Jose State University graduate and alumni applied anthropologists with researchers at the Institute for the Future, to develop a Northern Californian case study on the food system, and then think through implications for the future. This case study would not only work in concert with other local initiatives, but provide a common narrative that could help participants implement their audacious mission to provide “a global collaborative network for leading thinkers and doers in the food space that apply their knowledge and passion towards imagining and shaping the future of food. Participants bring different experiences, philosophies and approaches to the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences. This article discusses the process of analyzing ethnographic data to shape a range of imagined futures that hold fast to local experiences and yet inform larger discussions across global teams.

Using a research design based on “bottom-up forecasting” we collected ethnographic observations and interviews with people from farms, firms, families, schools and local food services, to identify cultural values, schema of social change, and food-related practices (Institute for the Future 2006). While the participants range across the planet, this particular case study is based in greater Silicon Valley, a region itself subject to cultural scrutiny and noted for its particular synthesis of technological innovation and countercultural experimentation (English-Lueck 2002; 2010). The region blends a larger Bay Area countercultural narrative with the experiences of global immigrants—over 36% of Silicon Valley is foreign born (Massaro and Jennings 2014: 11). Californian cuisine has been integral to the countercultural flavor of the region, blending ethnic and exotic preparations with a ruthlessly pragmatic concern with the functions of food (Belasco 2006; 2007). Using science, fad and folk wisdom, people eat particular foods to become “better.” Augmentation was a notion common to both the counterculture and the new personal technology ventures (Turner 2006: 109). With such a philosophy, food becomes inexorably intertwined with productivity and thus becomes the province of the workplace.

Farms to Firms to Families dives deeply into local Northern Californian experience, and the scenarios we paint may inform other Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences teams by thoughtful comparison. The key purpose of the project is to construct a methodology, a way of thinking about the future to better frame the values that underpin each project under the larger umbrella of the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences. How can they think concretely about food futures and which future they want to make? Whether they are in Seattle, London or Tokyo, they should be able to work with the questions about alternative futures that we identify. In many ways, our task is less to find answers, than it is to create robust and useful questions that foster meaningful and actionable conversation. To this end, our team collected and sifted data on the aspirations and constraints of people who produce the corporate food system. Our ethnographic team visited stakeholders ranging from cattle ranchers to elite chefs and talked to them about their work, their dreams for the future, and their experienced obstacles to those dreams. Our instrumental objective was to transform the ethnographic observations into coherent alternative future scenarios, which could help members of the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences, as well as a wider community of food thinkers, consider the impacts of their decisions and actions on the future. Although the project team was firmly rooted in anthropological ethnography, we used a deliberately transdisciplinary approach. We drew on ideas and frameworks from futures studies, business management, visual arts, philosophy and critical food studies.

The Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences wants to produce good food system futures. Our job as ethnographers was to explore what that means, to identify a range of aspirations, not to segment the participants, but to build empathy and reflect the views of multiple stakeholder throughout the food web (Avery et al. 2014: 4-7).1 Ethnography portrays complexity, empathy and verisimilitude, all important features of storytelling (Leavy 2013: 39-40). These based-on-lived-experience fictions form the core features of bottom-up forecasting. The scenarios must emerge from the voices and visions of the interviewed and observed, lightly edited by the forecaster’s expert composition. Applied anthropologists do, however, use analytical tools to think through the material in the creation of those stories. To understand how people seek a “better future” it was critical to unpack the notion of “better.” Better for what, and for whom, and under what circumstances? Philosopher von Wright’s consideration of the “varieties of goodness” helped us parse the aspirational visions of the stakeholders, some closely embedded in today’s practices, and others transformational. Carol Sanford’s work on responsible business practices builds the case that fundamental relationships among customers, co-creators, investors, community stakeholders and the earth itself must be meaningful and robust for enduring sustainability to be achieved (2011).

From the point of view of corporate food services, wellbeing and sustainability must be rethought and pragmatically reconnected. At the heart of this endeavor is the reinvention of corporate care, a notion that emerges from the work of Annemarie Mol, an anthropologist who theorizes the elastic social meanings of care (2008; 2010). Each of these frameworks gives us a device for translating the practices of food production and distribution, many of which are augmented by existing and potential technologies, into a series of narrative imaginaries, futures in which particular goods could be enacted.


The 20th century labor movements struggled to get employers to view workers as embodied and social beings. Shorter work weeks, sick leave and health care benefits, vacation and family-friendly “work-balance” initiatives acknowledged that workers had bodies, minds and lives (English-Lueck 2010). Providing care onsite, such as providing gyms and trainers, massage and meditation guides and of course, food, changes the relationship of workers and those who provide their care. As with 20th century provisions, such care is not ubiquitous, or consistent. Many companies offer little to their employees, nothing to their contractors. Others offer a range of care practices, but charge fee-for-service; charges vary with the status of the worker. However, the notion of embedded, on-site care, hints at an experiment for broader worker-employer engagement, a moral contract.

Dutch anthropologist Annemarie Mol has delved into the logic of care in multiple settings, especially medical settings. Mol reframes care from an affective state, to a set of practices. Care, socially defined, is more than an intention or an emotion, but a way of interacting. She attends to the way nurses care for patients and nursing homes feed their clients. Inspired by her logic of care, others scholars have examined animal husbandry and medical equipment research. She notes, “The logic of care wants professionals not to treat facts as neutral information, but to attend to their values. (2008: 43)” Care is a set of practices, a social act that reflects implicit social obligations. Farms to Firms to Families data hinted at an emerging concept of corporate care, going beyond minimally legislated offerings, and considering the embodied worker. It is a notion that invokes care in its most basic social form—feeding. Although care is often conflated with empathy and compassion, it does not exclude technology. Mol notes that in the logic of care attentiveness and specificity are assets that augment the impact of care (2008: 74). Care is not a commodity to be passively delivered or purchased but one that actively engages patients in helping themselves and each other; care is a mutual social effort (Mol et al. 2010: 9-13). In her study of food in a nursing home, she coins the negotiation around food as “nourishing care” that combines nutrition with gezellig, or a cozy food ambiance (2010: 216-218). Over the last century embodied care has shifted ambiguously between the public and the private, the institution and the home. Corporate care is the 21st century reinvention of many strands of worker rights including wellness, food and work-family buffering. Food provision is a particularly complex moral and social form of care.

As companies reinvent responsible corporate care through food, they must reconsider how each purchase and presentation influences producers, purchasers, policy makers, food preparation teams, as well as consumers and their communities. Food is enmeshed in a social world of farmers, suppliers, cooks, waiters, friends, and family, which exert an act of trust with each bite (Ferguson 2014: 44). Food is consumed in every conceivable setting, with ever increasing channels for obtaining, preparing, consuming and talking about food (Johnston and Baumann 2010: xviii).

The flow of food and food information is so complex and overwhelming that new narratives of sense making must be constantly created and revised. Competing demands pervading these foodscapes that food be natural, discriminating, even elite, yet efficient, cost-effective, and socially just. Not only are apples tracked from the farm, educated foodies should understand which varietals are heirloom, organic, or excessively sugary. Is a niche-market hybrid Honeycrisp better than a mass-market Delicious or Jonathan apple? Which apples use too much water, produce too few per acre, or exacerbate worker exploitation? Did the apple require a thousand mile trip? Then there are the intimate decisions of which fruits we like. Conveniently, we want a fruit we stick in our pocket to crunch on later at our laptops, but also one we know is “good” across a number of nutritional, ecological and social dimensions. However, the choice of whether to stock that particular apple is well beyond the agency of the end consumer. Those choices are made by farmers, politicians, purchasers and chefs, each balancing a different set of criteria. It is a system based on capital, so cost and value are key factors, but food production and consumption also connects producers and consumers, so relationships must also be reckoned. While direct links are weak in industrial agriculture, contemporary food movements seek to reconnect farms to chefs and cooks to eaters (Cunningham 2011). Artisanal food production, such as that of cheese or tofu, walks a delicate line between leveraging science to produce consistent results and infusing the relationship-rich dedication of art (Paxson 2011; 2013: 128). As Minzhe, a Bay Area artisanal tofu maker we interviewed notes, part of the job is to educate the consumer into a new set of tastes, “developing a palate,” creating that intimate connection between maker and eater. Commensality, the act of eating together is another facet of 21st century food activism, and sharing such common tastes underpins those eating experiences (Crowther 2013: 69-71, 158; Kneafsey et al. 2008).

Corporate commensality reflects changes in larger American eating habits and the rhythms of evolving high-tech and knowledge work practices. These shifts in belief and practice are manifest at dining tables and in cubicles as food choices and work schedules become more individuated. Both food and work are markers of class identity and morality, so it is no surprise that corporate food would concern such distinctions. Culinary individualism, flexible work and eating schedules, cosmopolitan cuisine and a progressive morality of foodscapes combine to create a new regime of distinction. Counter to industrial food design based on modularity and mass commodification, new food niches reflect more customized tastes, needs and desires.

Allergies, dislikes and dieting constraints drive the expansion of the choices available to consumers as food activists make their needs known. Requests have become requirements for producer and preparer (Ferguson 2014: 186-187). We see examples of this exchange from the people we interviewed. Sarah, who has celiac disease, tells us about “educating people in restaurants” to learn that her needs go beyond mere preferences. Daniel, a chef in a corporate café, comments on what he has learned by talking to his guests about their individual food experiences. He notes, “There’s a woman on campus who was celiac so she had to be completely gluten-free…She kind of educated me on what someone like her would be looking for in packaging and labeling.” The proliferation of food-related conditions and diets to address them has made such customization commonplace. Work schedules too have become individuated. Flexible work, especially project-based work, drives tasks into many times and places (see English-Lueck 2002 and Darrah et al. 2007). Work is done on mobile devices, and can colonize the clock.

As work has fragmented and changed the rhythms of work and life, so have the meals that are consumed (Ferguson 2014: 152-153). Parvani works at a company that provides free meals. That company even offers her the chance to learn to cook from master chefs! Depending on the shape of her workload, she will graze small meals, bringing some food home or using restaurant leftovers to augment meal elements she might prepare. On a long day she might seek out actual meals. Alternatively, she might decide the workday is short enough to warrant a fully cooked meal at home, which would mean a different pattern of light snacking earlier. No two days are alike. On the weekend she might eat a meal cooked by her mother from India, or eat with friends who enjoy cooking and eating together when work permits. She consistently seeks new food experiences and applauds her workplace for broadening her cuisine when she wants, and comforting her with familiar food when she needs that as well.

Cosmopolitan cuisine broadens the array of choices facing the consumer. Foods, meals and cuisines combine ingredients, elements and flavors to innovate. Drawn from immigrant peasant cuisines and haute reformulations, the Bay Area assumes the ubiquity of global choices, both “authentic” and reimagined (see Belasco 2007). As caterer Joaquin Santos muses on using ethnic and exotic tastes, he cites Moroccan, Turkish, Peruvian or Puerto Rican cuisines. Mexican and Chinese barely qualify as ethnic because they are so ubiquitous and integrated with “American comfort food.” Only regional dishes, such as Sichuanese, would merit the moniker “ethnic food.” Preparing and eating ethnic food is a politically ticklish business. If pursuing authenticity, what makes a food “authentic?” Is it who prepares it? What is in it? How it is eaten? How does a progressive chef or discerning consumer distinguish enjoying from purloining another’s cuisine? How can cosmopolitan cuisine be buffered from the taint of colonialism? Anthropologist Crowther notes that imbuing food purchase, preparation and consumption with respect, knowledge and reflection, and with a certain degree of joy, makes such consumption authentic even when the cuisine is not from an ancestral tradition (2013: 190-205; Johnston and Baumann 2010: 104). Cosmopolitan cuisine involves learning more about food than nutrition, or even recipe-based preparation, it means learning the context of the food. James, who had worked in Japan, understood the refinement of a smaller portion size, and that knowledge becomes part of his cognitive palate. Food knowledge can be gained abstractly, from the Internet and multiple food information channels, and intimately from family, peers and social relationships. This constantly shifting foodscape requires effort to keep up, and that work defines the world of the foodie (Ferguson 2014: 183).

Pierre Bourdieu’s work on class distinction in 20th century France speaks to the creation of subtle and barely conscious choices that distinguish one class from another (1984). French food is at the center of those choices and practices, linking “healthier fare” to refinement (1984: 177). Not surprisingly, food scholars, now looking at 21st century food movements of production, preparation and consumption spot a parallel process. New distinctions are being created that signal sophistication, quality and moral integrity. How foods are grown, prepared and presented, and enjoyed mark the creative class. Cosmopolitan food choices become cultural capital when effort has been exerted to understand the greater context of a food (where it comes from, how it is to be eaten, how distinct flavors are to be savored). Coined “omnivorous inclusion,” a broad and educated palate is something that is learned at some combination of home, work, or restaurant (Johnston and Baumann 2010: 36).

It is in this context that corporate food service goes beyond the snack bar and café to reinvent corporate care. High-tech companies, from Apple to Yahoo have nurtured workers with a combination of benefit packages and on-site care. In the 1990s, masseuses tended to stressed engineers. In the 2000s Pixar employees could de-stress with yoga and pilates. Corporate gyms supplemented a rich ecosystem of conventional health and alternative wellness facilities (English-Lueck 2010). Food could be purchased in corporate cafes on high-tech campuses that mirrored university cafeterias. In the Bay Area, those educational cafeterias frequently provide sushi chefs and sustainable and locally-grown food.

Knowledge about the food system, however, imbues the foodscape with a moral character. This political foodscape is not simple. Protecting animal rights might be at odds with human rights. Eating locally, being a locavore, might actually be less sustainable that growing a food in a suitable ecosystem. However, tracking and factoring in such social and ecological elements defines the moral character of the producer, preparer and consumer (de Solier 2013: 16-18). Thich Nhất Hanh, the Zen Buddhist teacher, spent a day instructing high-tech corporate chefs and consumers in the art of mindfulness, reminding them of the ecological and moral consequences of each bite they take. In doing so, he augments their growing sense of distinction. They are one step more prepared to understand how, what and why they eat. While it is possible to track and quantify information on soil health, nutrition, and food miles, it is much harder to capture a metric for farm worker justice, or agricultural resiliency. The small farm movement is seriously attempting to map the value that can be added by using organic and sustainable methods, but the earth must double food production by 2050 to sustain the growing human population, and the demand for water and energy expensive meats is only increasing (Foley 2014: 45). Moral and political decisions are embedded in even the smallest food choice, and global corporations make choices that are magnified by their scale and visibility.

Those workers who were fresh from the academy make the transition from university dining hall to corporate café with little disruption to their daily habitus. Google’s game changing free food for employees enhanced the sense that the workplace is a campus among high-tech companies. Then these corporate care practices began to expand. While workers still might want plentiful pizza and a salad bar, the food services professionals had the opportunity to think about their impact as purchasers and food educators. Which foods had an impact on the environment, and how could that choice be made transparent to café guests? How could preparation illustrate a more optimal configuration of nutrients, tastes and cuisines? Could cafes and MicroKitchens be places for social interaction and cognitive casual collisions, not just refueling stations? One engineer in high-production mode might crave comfort food, while another lost in thought might be reinvigorated by a culinary adventure. The workforce is global, hailing from Denmark, China and India. What complex of flavors will satisfy a native eater, and still appeal to an adventurous culinary sojourner? Some eaters crave bacon, others vegan or gluten free foods. Workers have online discussions about their preferences and give a constant stream of feedback to food services. There is no one Google café, but many diverse points of contact ranging from small self-serve MicroKitchens to themed cafes.


By the time we had unpacked the first dozen stories of the Greater Silicon Valley corporate food system, we had glimpsed the importance of corporate care, and begun to see what futures mattered to people in this intensely moral foodscape. In the methodology of forecasting, the purpose is to provoke reflection by anticipating possible consequences, including unintended consequences. These anticipated futures drive thoughtful choices, but do not necessary predict actions. In this project, the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences wants to identify and pursue positive outcomes, but it was clear from the onset that stakeholders varied in what they thought would be the most important outcome. Positive outcomes combined mundane and audacious goals hoping to “improve the productivity of the workforce” to “end world hunger.” We looked closely at the relationships people identified as important, the sources of power and agency within their social worlds, and their particular configurations of hope and concern to reveal potential futures.

In our ethnographic forays we stayed primarily in the present, identifying work niches and practices, and tracing connections to other parts of the food system. We asked policy advocates about their connections to farmers, and farmers about their ties to educators. Chefs were queried about their ties to corporate wellness and to the workers that ate their food. Each person was asked to give an ethnographic tour of the work space, whether literally around a farm or kitchen, or if suitable to the work, figuratively through stories of travel between worksites. In our experientially-focused interviews we asked about the spaces and rhythms of food purchase, preparation and consumption. We queried about workmates, friends and family and their roles in the interviewee’s personal foodscape. We watched people in corporate cafes choose dishes, cluster and talk. Some workers had their children with them, a few grabbed food and zipped back to their workspace. We pulled weeds on an organic farm, and asked interns how they saw what they did fitting in with the corporate foodscape.

As we listened we began to discern several key lessons. First, people have deep abiding aspirations for the future of food—either imbedded in their own sense of self and wellness, or through passion for the future of the food system. They could identify clear “good” outcomes, but the criteria for that goodness shifted. We needed to parse those varieties of goodness more exactly. Second, we began to hear particular words and concepts repeatedly, “utopia,2” “practical,” “efficient” and “moonshot.” Miriam Avery, having worked with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on Dissident Futures, understood that these words hinted at a threefold framework that sorted overlapping aspirational futures into Speculative, Utopian, and Pragmatic Futures (Hertz 2014). Third, participants were already actively engaged in trying to incorporate elements of Carol Sanford’s Responsible Business Framework, which emphasized reconnecting stakeholders into a larger system. As we coded and talked through our first set of interviews and notes, the three analytical lenses jelled into a single coherent whole.

While Pierre Bourdieu was publishing his tome on French distinctions, Georg Henrik von Wright, the Finnish philosopher, was publishing his abstract consideration of the varieties of goodness (1963). In this work, he systematically considered how goodness distinctively expresses diverse concepts linguistically and morally. We used his framework to ask, “what do these nuances mean in the foodscapes we were exploring?” Avery and I translated his typology into robust questions and combed the notes and transcripts, translating them into insights we could use to describe people’s aspirations. Von Wright’s domains of technical, instrumental and utilitarian goodness translate into the kind of information that could play out on a smart phone or wearable device that promoted food education—nutritious food, that could be tracked, and could be effectively and appropriately produced. More intriguing for us, would be the sorts of goodness that benefited people. Beneficial goodness integrates food into wellness, and compels action. Moral goodness might mandate environmentally sustainable food systems, or mindful eating. Hedonic or playful goods support adventurous eating, delicious food, nostalgic and “awesome” experiences. Social goodness is inherently moral, and would point to that elusive cosmopolitan set of virtues such as cross-cultural and cross-class respect.

This analytical exercise proved powerful for us. From there it was a short step into sorting interview and observational stories into the overlapping aspirational futures, linking the details of the future fictions with ethnographic realities. Each scenario took the values, practice and aspirations of Utopian, Pragmatic, and Speculative approaches to the food system and projected them into three possible futures, from 2014 to 2040. The terms were drawn from language used in conversations with our interlocutors. Each scenario asked, were corporations to focus their influence on just one approach, how could they impact the food system as a whole? What might be the intended and unintended consequences of privileging one expression of future values over the other two? Our April 2014 Farms to Firms memo, introduced to the summit of the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences, presented these future scenarios, as well as excerpts from the ethnographic realities to which they connected. The forecasts read like narrative fiction. For example, the Utopian narrative, “Good food in 2040” read:

A network of family farms stretches around the world, in cities and rural areas alike. It starts as a niche, separate from the rest of the food system, but clear benefits to People, communities and the Earth quickly accelerate its influence. Global firms move from reactively addressing damage to people and the planet to proactively participating in co-creating and sustaining a resilient, equitable food system. They support a fledgling network of local farms, pioneering a new form of CSAs—“company-supported agriculture.” This, along with the efforts of artists, journalists, and chefs, begins to change people’s ideas of what a food system can and should be. To feel good about eating, we have to know that food sustains more than individual appetites and wellness. Food isn’t good for anyone unless it is good for everyone.

This scenario drew on both the language and practices of research participants engaged in farming and food service vending. However pithy we made our scenarios, any insights we could come up with would have to translate into actions that could be taken up by many participants in the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences, and our specific partners within the food systems team. To provide a quick and provocative overview, we imbedded this chart in the memo (see Figure 1) outlining aspirations, varieties of goodness, limitations and inquiries sorted by scenario (Avery et al. 2014: 8). Playing with the scenarios should be a way of thinking through the consequences of a project, or a strategic plan so that “varieties of goodness” would be achieved. We also framed the scenarios not only as visions of one scenario triumphing over the others, but of each expression of the future offering lessons for the others.


FIGURE 1. Guidelines to participants for engaging with the alternative future scenarios.

Simply being thought-provoking is not enough. How could our insights translate into the world of business people? One of the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences participants held the key to this challenge and her collaboration shaped our thinking. Carol Sanford, a business consultant, grapples with integrating corporate responsibility as a necessary part of global business survival. She defines a pentad of stakeholders, which we immediately translated into stakeholder communities we had identified within the context of the food system (see Figure 2):


FIGURE 2. Carol Sanford’s pentad of stakeholders translated to the food system (Avery et al. 2014: 7).

These stakeholders must connect, often restoring connections once extant in the past, but now no longer reinforced. When a proverbial modern child is asked, “Where did this carrot come from?” That child will say, “Safeway,” not a farm. In this framework, Utopian aspirations reconnect customers and the earth, educating people who will make choices about the fate of farm land in acts ranging from the voting booth to the kitchen. Having been sensitized by prior Institute for the Future Global Food Outlook forecasts (see Avery et al. 2013), we imagined that different stakeholders would relate to particular scenarios more enthusiastically. We did not want the participants to think that these scenarios were mutually exclusive, or that they should identify with only one scenario. In practice, at the April 2014 summit of the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences, we asked people to self-identify with particular scenarios, donning stickers. Participants validated this integrative approach by consistently self-identifying with more than one approach, and eagerly seeking out those with different combinations than their own.

As we talked to purchasers, chefs, and food managers it was clear that more than serving food was at stake. The choice made by companies to amplify their impact through holistic corporate care creates potential ripple effects. Even as such care makes workplace inequalities visible within and between companies, it also opens up new possibilities for creating positive impacts on the food system, and on the lives of workers. In the 19th century a forty-hour workweek was an almost unattainable aspiration, but it marked the emergence of the 20th century middle-class. In the 21st century, new practices of corporate care could redefine the habitus of food production and consumption, as well as the larger realm of wellbeing. It requires thinking intentionally about the future we collectively make.

Anthropology has long been the great thief of theory, inspired by philosophers, sociologists and each other, to view the world in a new way. We have turned ethnography into reports, films, and plays. We turned our data into near-term science fiction, thinking about corporate food systems and experiences that had not yet come to pass, but would inspired the reader/listener into reflection. Storytelling, particularly storytelling about the future, stimulates such conversations.

J.A. English Lueck is an anthropologist, Interim Dean of the College of Social Sciences at San Jose State University, and a Distinguished Fellow at the Institute for the Future. English-Lueck has written ethnographies about cultural futures from California to China, including three on Silicon Valley (

Miriam Lueck Avery is Program Co-Director, Health Horizons and Global Food Outlook at the Institute for the Future. Miriam identifies innovations in health and well-being, health care, food, nutrition, and sustainability. She studied anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley and has been a professional forecaster for seven years.


Acknowledgments – Many team members contributed to this project. The San Jose State University practicum students and alumni Armando Ayala, Chelsea Bahr, Evan Branning, Sarah Goldman, Robert Johnston, Jason McClung, Alex Moreno, Nicolas Thoryk, and Deborah Walde-Baughn worked with Institute for the Future partners Ben Hamamoto. Google, Inc. collaborators Michiel Bakker (Director Global Food Services), Michelle Hatzis (Global Food Program, Health and Wellness Program Director) and Kelsey McNamara (Global Food Program Operations Coordinator) and the participants of the Google Innovation Lab for Food Experiences were invaluable partners. Special acknowledgments go to Carol Sanford for her thought partnership and generous permission to use the Responsible Business Framework as an integral part of process.

1 Data was collected in two phases. The first phase, Farms to Firms, focused on identifying stakeholders and getting an overview of the food system, a map view. The second phase, Firms to Families, examined the lived experience of chefs, corporate managers, workers and their families, a street view. We engaged in days of participant observation in cafes, farms, community events and corporate workshops, and interviewed 27 people at length, from different farms, vendor organizations and workplaces.

2 This term was not used by the interviewees, and then by us, in the literary sense of “no place,” but as a metaphor for ambitious aspirations.


Avery, Miriam Lueck, Ben Hamamoto, Bradley Kreit and Sarah Smith
2013 Seeds of disruption: How technology is remaking the future of food. Institute for the Future publication SR 1618B. Palo Alto, Ca.

Avery, Miriam Lueck, J.A. English-Lueck and Ben Hamamoto
2014 Farms to Firms Scenario Memo: Creating better food futures. Institute for the Future publication SR-1704. Palo Alto, CA.

Belasco, Warren
2006 Meals to come: A history of the future of food. Berkeley: University of California Press.
2007 Appetite for change: How the counterculture took on the food industry: 2nd ed. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre
1984 Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste. Translated by Richard Nice. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Crowther, Gillian
2013 Eating culture: An anthropological guide to food. North York, ON: University of Toronto Press.

Cunningham, Brent
2011 Pastoral Romance. Lapham’s Quarterly. 4(3):178-185.

Darrah, C.N., James M. Freeman and J.A. English-Lueck
2007 Busier than Ever! Why Americans can’t slow down. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

De Solier, Isabelle
2013 Food and the self: Consumption, production and material culture. New York: Bloomsbury.

English-Lueck, J.A.
2002 Cultures@SiliconValley. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
2010 Being and Wellbeing: Health and the Working Bodies of Silicon Valley. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst
2014 Word of Mouth. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Foley, Jonathan
2014 A Five-step plan to feed the world. National Geographic 225(5): 27-60.

Hertz, Betty-Sue, Curator
2014 Dissident Futures Annex. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. San Francisco Accessed January 1, 2014.

Institute for the Future
2006 Bottom-Up Technology Forecasting: Putting People at the Center. Institute for the Future. Palo Alto, Ca: SR-1039.

Johnston, Josée and Shyon Baumann
2010 Foodies: Democracy and distinction in the gourmet foodscape. New York: Routledge.

Kneafsey, Moya, Rosie Cox, Lewis Holloway, Elizabeth Dowler, Laura Venn and Helena Tuomainen
2008 Reconnecting Consumers, Producers and Food: Exploring Alternatives. New York: Berg.

Leavy, Patricia
2013 Fiction as research practice: Short stories, novellas, and novels. Walnut Creek CA: Left Coast Press.

Massaro, Rachel and Jill Minnick Jennings
2014 Silicon Valley Index. San Jose: Joint Venture Silicon Valley Network.

Miller, Jeff and Jonathan Deutsch
2009 Food studies: An introduction to research methods. New York: Bloomsbury.

Mol, Annemarie
2008 The Logic of Care. New York: Routledge.
2010 Care in Practice: On Tinkering in Clinics, Homes and Farms. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishing.

Paxson, Heather
2011 The “art” and science” of handcrafting cheese in the United States. Endeavor: 35 (2-3): 116-124.
2013 The Life of Cheese: Crafting Food and Value in America. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Sanford, Carol
2011 The Responsible Business: Reimagining Sustainability and Success. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Turner, Fred
2006 From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brad, the Whole Earth Network and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Von Wright, Georg Henrik
1963 Varieties of Goodness. New York: Humanities Press.