We are thrilled to welcome Sarah Sha to the team as KitchenTown’s new Director of Strategy. Sarah is a researcher, strategist, foresight practitioner and designer with almost a decade of experience working across the global food and agriculture industry. She formerly led the Food Futures Lab at Institute for the Future. She’s a dynamic facilitator and trusted advisor who loves supporting food changemakers to make sense of emerging trends and build more resilient, equitable, and humane food systems. We sat down with her to chat about futures thinking, how it can be useful to food innovation, and her favorite pandemic cooking recipes.
You come to us with 8 years of experience leading the Food Futures Lab at the Institute for the Future. What is futures thinking, exactly? And why is that a helpful lens for thinking about food?
Sarah Sha: Futures thinking is really a mindset—a way of seeing the world—where you constantly stretch your imagination to consider what else is possible. It’s not about predicting what will happen, but rather getting creative to envision what could happen, and then putting it into practice by aligning the right resources and people to make it happen. When it’s applied in a business setting, it’s called strategic foresight. Here, it’s especially important that it’s not just about imagining wild possibilities, but then also getting practical about how to start taking action.
One foundational skill of futures thinking is learning how to spot early signals of change. At KitchenTown this comes naturally as so many of the startups coming through the facility are themselves signals. It has been fun to learn more about a few KitchenTown Makers, such as Air Protein, Prime Roots and Zero Egg, who are great signals of the future of alternative protein.
Futures thinking is so important for the food industry because short-termism is so rampant. Historically, businesses have been designed to focus on maximizing short term profit and providing cheap, convenient food. We’re all very familiar with the outcomes of this: climate destruction, chronic disease, struggling rural economies, inhumane treatment of animals, and the list goes on. But I’m really proud to be part of a new generation of food systems changemakers who are demanding accountability and totally rewriting the rules. A lot of that ambition is coming from within big companies and it’s exciting to be building a supportive network for everyone to do more impactful work. Futures thinking gives us permission to say, “just because that’s how it is now, doesn’t mean that’s how it will always be.”
Sarah at a market in Copenhagen, named after herself.
How did you get interested in food as a tool to tackle climate issues?
I started my food career in the restaurant industry, where I served a lot of steaks and witnessed a lot of food waste, but also fell in love with the conviviality and generosity of a busy restaurant floor. Now that I’m on the strategy and consulting side of the equation, I remain committed to encouraging every single person who interacts with food to understand what a powerful tool it is in the fight against climate change.
The quantitative answer to this is simple: food, ag, and land use make up 24% of greenhouse gas emissions. Everyone needs to eat. Combining those two things creates an obvious, daily opportunity for climate action.
Last year I co-authored Eating Our Way Out of the Climate Crisis, which forecasts how, over the next decade, food could actually become a delicious and resilient solution for climate change. I’m particularly motivated to help food businesses take action because food products can only be as healthy and delicious as the ingredients they’re made of. Growing great ingredients requires happy soil and fewer natural disasters. The rising interest in regenerative agriculture is a great place to start and I’d love to see more big food companies making bold commitments to increasing carbon sequestration, eliminating animal-based ingredients, and promoting biodiversity.
Where is plant-based going? Why now? And what needs to happen for it to succeed?
The New Protein Map is a great roundup of just how active the plant-based protein space is right now, and I’m so happy KitchenTown has been involved across the board: supporting early stage companies, digging in deep on ethnographic research about flexitarians, and running accelerator programs with established food brands. From my experience working with some of these companies, the successful ones are putting eaters at the center and helping them better align their daily eating habits with their eating aspirations. The flavors and textures are only going to get better, the labels are getting cleaner, and a proliferation of brands are speaking to audiences from professional athletes to busy parents to technology nerds. The focus now is on alternative proteins, because reducing industrial animal agriculture is the most important place to focus for climate action. Additionally, COVID has highlighted the supply chain disruptions and horrible working conditions of today’s meat and dairy supply chains. In the longer term, I’m hopeful that the obsession with protein eases a bit and “plant-based” comes to just mean all the ways that people are growing vegetables, fruits, nuts, and grains in sustainable ways and turning them into nourishing, delicious meals and snacks.
What are you excited to work on at KitchenTown?
KitchenTown has its feet firmly planted in the world of food startups, and that is such an energizing and optimistic place to live. Founders are inherently futures thinkers who are actively building new visions and I’m excited to get to learn from more of our Makers. I’m also excited to serve as a bridge between those startups and our corporate partners to create real value exchange and tangible outcomes for both groups. Over the last eight years I’ve worked with many of the world’s biggest food companies to help them generate visions of what futures they want and plans for how to get there. I know there’s no shortage of information and innovation services out there for the food industry and that it can be overwhelming to know where to start. I’m most excited to continue my work as a trusted advisor and partner guiding organizations to make sense of all that information and start taking action to make better food.
How do KitchenTown’s innovation services fit into your higher-level vision for food systems change?
We need all hands on deck because there is no single solution that will magically transform the food industry. I joined KitchenTown because I think it’s important to have established CPG companies, food tech startups, early stage ingredients companies, farmers, policy and advocacy groups, and more all in the same conversation. Changing a whole system means inviting the whole system to participate. Whether it’s scouting for early signals of change to inspire corporate innovation, hand-picking the best startups to participate in accelerators, conducting ethnographies around what’s driving eating decisions, or working with our food scientists in the lab to actually formulate new products, all of KitchenTown’s innovation services work together in service of creating a more nourishing, equitable, and resilient food system.
Last but not least: what is your go-to weeknight meal?
Normally, it’s soba noodles with some assortment of vegetables, seaweed, tofu, and chili oil. But the best thing to happen to my COVID-cooking routine is Ottolenghi’s newest cookbook, Flavor. It’s an amazing ode to vegetables and all the ways to make them taste incredible. His “ultimate roasting pan ragu” and “one-pan orecchiette puttanesca” both make perfect, cozy winter weeknight meals.