Plants, protein and plastic: sustainability in food

How do people perceive food in terms of health and sustainability? Where do they get their information about food from, and what do they do with it? And how do they perceive so-called ‘new’ proteins, derived from plants instead of animals?

STBY conducted an ethnographic research project for the Rijksinstituut voor Volksgezondheid en Milieu (The National Institute for Health and Environment) to find out how Dutch citizens perceived food in terms of health and sustainability. The research institute that had plenty of quantitative data on what people eat and drink in the Netherlands, but not why.

Food is a complex topic, but one that everyone can relate to. It’s such a broad and deep topic, however, that it wouldn’t be possible to cover someone’s perceptions, beliefs and behaviour around food in a single one-off interview. What people say at one point in time and what they actually do in the course of normal everyday life may be quite different. People’s attitudes and behaviour around food may also change depending on the circumstances — for instance, their choices for a weeknight dinner and their choices during a carnival are likely to differ.

Shadowing is also not a suitable technique to capture all the meaning around food, as food moments are intermittent, and following participants around constantly would be pointless during the large expanses of time between mealtimes and/or food shopping.

Auto-ethnography, on the other hand, is highly suited to a topic such as food. With this method, participants record their own data when they find it relevant and convenient to do so, producing a high volume of meaningful data. It is also possible to run a study with far more participants than it would be with one-on-one interviews.

Mixed method sandwich

STBY therefore proposed an auto-ethnographic study of 32 participants over a period of a month, sandwiched between two workshops: one to get to know the participants and to ‘prime’ them for the month of remote research, and the second to co-analyse the findings that emerged during that month.

This combination was important: the initial workshop was needed to ‘prime’ people for the project ahead and make them feel motivated to continue for a month of remote research. Without the initial workshop, participants would be more likely to misunderstand the goal of the study, to drop out, or to have technical problems with the app. The final workshop was needed to reflect with the participants on the themes that emerged during the auto-ethnography, and to substantiate our early analysis and test our insights. Without it, our insights would have remained shallow, due to the nature of the data collected from the app.

Co-creation workshop

Throughout the remote ethnography, we drip-fed participants new information and questions each week. For the first and second week, we asked them to evaluate their meals and snacks for sustainability and healthiness, and to explain the reasoning and/or evidence behind their evaluation. In the third and fourth week we asked what participants thought of a selection of articles from Dutch newspapers and the RIVM site itself, which were about sustainable food and protein-rich plant-based foods as a substitute for meat.

Perhaps as a result of a lively initial workshop, the participants were deeply motivated and involved throughout the auto-ethnography study. We received 750 messages in total over the month, an incredibly high number for just 32 participants. Many wrote long, detailed posts about their personal history with food and emotional relationship to their food choices. Others voluntarily looked up new information in response to questions we asked them.

In the second workshop, the participants were deeply involved and the discussion went into great depth— not only about sustainability and health, but also dilemmas they had with food and information about it. There was a feeling of fraternity, as everyone had been through the same experience over the previous month, albeit alone. As they came together again they were able to emphasise with one another and delve much deeper into the themes than in the first workshop. Having ‘observed themselves’ for a month, they now had concrete examples to illustrate their points and were much more self-aware about their thinking processes and behaviour around food. In a group discussion, one person’s points provoked reflections and reactions from others. These discussions led to insights about trust, openness to new kinds of food, including new forms of protein, and new ways of thinking about it.

Client collaboration

Rather uniquely, the client was a consortium of several government bodies who pooled their innovation budgets along with RIVM to fund the study. We had an extremely transparent relationship with all these stakeholders throughout: representatives from each of these institutions and ministries participated in the fieldwork sessions, and we had a weekly sync call to discuss weekly assignments and participants’ responses throughout the month.

Before finishing the report, we held a co-creation workshop to share and discuss our findings with them, to understand what they found interesting and where our insights could match their institutional needs. We used these findings to polish our final report.

The client team were eager to learn from our co-creative and iterative approach throughout the project. They invited us to demonstrate our approach during a workshop at an annual Innovatie Parade, where we guided participants through a co-creative data analysis exercise to give them a feel for our approach.

Tried and tested: an auto-ethnography tool

For the auto-ethnography, we used the Experience Fellow app. We’ve been meaning to try it out for a while, and it was a good fit for the project, even though it is more designed for user feedback on a service rather than their perceptions around a general theme.

Participants found it easy to use, and many used it frequently, often writing deep, detailed accounts of their thoughts and behaviour around food. We managed to accumulate a large quantity of data through it, thanks to its ease of use, and also found it tagging and analysis tools extremely helpful in sorting through the large volume of posts. We also had great support from the app team, who were always fast to respond and quick to resolve issues.

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