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April 1, 2019

Christy SpackmanThe Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.

Read on for an interview with Christy Spackman, assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society.

Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?

Answer: My father grew up on a potato farm, and although he was not officially a farmer he has always gardened and loved to be outside. My parents love good food, they grow good food and they make good food. We weren’t a particularly well-to-do family, which qualified me to get free school lunch, but never did. I went to school with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on homemade bread and thought I was unfortunate, but now I think I was pretty fortunate.

During my undergraduate program, I was studying chemistry and molecular biology and the American Chemical Society published an article by Harold McGee about the interaction between copper and egg whites. That was the first time I was introduced to food science and technology. I was fascinated.

I moved to Chicago after graduating and worked as a lab tech doing cancer research, and I just really wanted to be doing things with food. I was good at my job, but I didn’t like it. So I went to culinary school at night, and it was there that someone started talking to me about food science. I realized the thing that would combine my passion for food and my passion for science was to do food science, and I ended up in a masters program doing just that.

I started thinking about systems issues and became really interested by the molecular gastronomy movement, and these fine dining establishments using these scientific processes to make really expensive plates of food, which led to my doctoral work in food studies.

All of my thinking about food systems has been tied to this question of how science and technology systems shape what’s on our plate. These systems shape the sensory experience that give us information about the environment of the things we eat and drink. It’s a question of how molecules are being managed and moved from whatever is producing them into their final moment when they enter your mouth and nose.

Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.

A: How does science and technology shape sensory experience and what impact does that have on the way we interact with the environment? Water management is such a good case study for thinking about things that are much less visible. If we’re polluting our water system, and we have techniques to make that water safe and palatable, that process ends up divorcing us from earlier activity where humans are polluting the water supply, or human activity is impacting the microbial activity.

But the broader question, and this is where ASU is so great because they just explode the bubble of what is possible, is can we shift the way food science is done? We’re developing a food science lab in a food truck that will allow us to go into communities and bring food science out into the street.

I’m thinking about the way food is produced, managed, and manipulated and eventually ends up in the home. There are a certain set of values baked into the food system, and I investigate how we shift those values. That’s what exciting about local food movements  —  it’s not necessarily the immediate sustainability aspects, but that as the values shift, that changes the system itself.

Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?

A: High-pressure processing is crazy interesting because when you look at most shelf stable foods, the one thing they’re selling you is air and water. High-pressure processing allows you to take things like fresh fruits and vegetables and make them shelf-stable while still being delicious. Foods produced this way will retain their color and texture. I’ve only really seen it in speculative form (apart from shelf-stable guacamole), but I find the potential fascinating.

I also love the idea of DIY scratch-and-sniff stickers, because it’s a great citizen science opportunity, and it also would break down the barriers of communication when it comes to perceptible signals in the environment.

Consider for example the sulfur smell that’s added into natural gas to tell you something is off; educational communication campaigns often use a scratch-and-sniff sticker to train people to recognize that smell. There’s an ongoing challenge of being able to communicate about sensory experience. I love this idea that someone would make something delicious, and catch some molecules off the headspace, and share these stickers and that experience with people.

Q: What’s your favorite food?

A: Cheese, because it’s this amazing cooperative ecosystem. Humans, animals, microbes and environment all coming together to make something crazy delicious. With some really great homemade bread.