In Conversation with Mayya Papaya

Earlier this year, a talented Toronto-based design student working on a magazine called JUICY contacted us. As part of her final year project, she wanted to interview us for it and we’ll admit we were sold at the name but the concept was even better…

“Juicy is a magazine that combines visual art, photography and educational articles on the social, environmental and political impacts of food.”

Kick off your shoes, make yourself a nice cup of tea, snuggle up on the couch to read the full interview by Laura Rojas here:

The internet is (sometimes) a beautiful place.

Last summer, Instagram led me to discover Foodisms and the wonderful work that the founder Mayya Papaya is doing in Spain surrounding themes of food sustainability, community building, and consumer awareness.

I reached out to her with a few questions to help us explore the subject more thoroughly and was delighted when she agreed to have a chat.

How did you first learn about the social, political and environmental impacts of the food industry? What made you want to get educated and involved?

This is something that goes way back for me as food has made me tick from early on. I did a couple of culinary courses during my mid-teens so when it came to graduating from high school, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next: I wanted to go to culinary school but a part of me also just wasn’t ready to give up on going to university. I went to the UK and studied nutrition as an undergrad which was very research-based and scientific. On an instinctual level, it did not make sense to me. It was about compartmentalizing all these different nutrients and looking at the isolated impact of each individual nutrient. It didn’t make sense to me because when people are eating everything gets mixed up and there is quite a lot of interaction going on. It wasn’t until my last year of undergrad that we had a class on Public Health Nutrition and I was in awe. It was basically about how politics and social issues, economics and the environment all piece together, and how it impacts people. That’s also when I started realizing that I liked this part of nutrition: it was a global perspective, and a lot more in tune with what’s happening on the ground.      

After finishing my undergrad I ended up coming to Barcelona on a gap year. I had no idea what I wanted to do afterwards, just a gut feeling that I wanted to come to Spain and see what was up. So I came here, taught English for a bit, and then was thinking about what my next move was going to be. I found a really great masters program that I wanted to do in London, so I went to that school. It was an amazing school in itself: probably my best educational experience up until now. It felt like the UN in a way in the way that it had so many different people from so many different walks of life, nationalities. It was fantastic. That and the exposure to different projects and professors who were doing so many amazing things around the world was something that I found so stimulating.      

For my masters thesis, I went to Gambia for six weeks and did a field study on the impact of parental socio-economic status on child growth. It was set in this clinic in a very remote town in rural Gambia and I was pretty much going around interviewing people across the whole village. I loved the field work, but struggled so much with putting it into the traditional scientific paradigm. I graduated and they offered a PHD on the same topic, this time taking it further, but I turned it down. I wasn’t very interested in the traditional world of research– I felt it was very constrictive and unrealistic to an extent. It just felt like you always had to justify things with references into the context of science, in the context of a controlled experiment, when life itself is not controlled. I found it really difficult to translate what it was that I had seen and felt and experienced during my time there into what they wanted as a scientific report. That’s when I started playing with discovering different ways to express what it was that I saw.      

I ended up moving back to Spain and eventually got into the world of co-working spaces. I started working at one near place, and got more and more involved with the community and my food research. On the side, I was also writing independently for the World Public Health Nutrition Association. I was fascinated with the topic of food waste, mostly because it is unfathomable to me that people are throwing out food when I had seen some pretty dire situations of famine when I was in Gambia. It struck on a personal level that this contrast was happening, that people weren’t seeing it, and the world is at a complete imbalance when it comes to food.     

One night I had the idea of organizing a group dumpster dive. I threw out the proposition to a group of friends and half of them were like, “Oh no, we’re not going with you. There’s no way we’re going to touch food from the garbage,” and the other half were pretty much like, “yeah, we’ll come with! But we won’t eat anything.” The idea was that I would plan a route, and then based on what we found we would go to a communal kitchen that a friend was running and cook dinner and have a discussion around it. It was so much fun because I did some thorough field research before to come up with the route, and we were about 12-13 people that night. People were in absolute shock about how much food we were finding and the state that the food was in- everyone ate dinner that night. The discussion that came about was absolutely fascinating for me. It was that eureka moment when you’re just sitting at a table, and you’ve put a proposition forward, and people run with it and go deeper with it. It was really beautiful to be a part of that and to realize the power of an experience. Using that also as a tool to communicate, to raise awareness, and educate people around certain things. That was the moment I put together what I’m working on now without even realizing it.      

I started connecting with all different food people, getting food jobs in the area, running a local organic farmers market. I started getting deeper and deeper into food and people and how they interact. That’s how the idea for Foodisms came forward!

Can you talk about your recent work with Foodisms?

Foodisms are essentially events at this point. We’re starting with events because we believe it’s the best way to get people involved. These are put together around food sustainability, and we’ve made a conscious choice not to treat this as a mono-topic, but rather an umbrella concept with all the different topics that make up this term, because we aim to spread that understanding of it as a global, or holistic, concept.      

The events that we do are game based. We seek to engage people through playfulness because we want to attract their attention and be able to generate exactly that openness to interact with something on a personal level. Once we’ve gotten through the playful intro, we move on to putting food and discussion on the table. The food is there to feed the thoughts and conversation that’s going on, as well as physically and sensorially represent what it is that we are connecting with. While we started with events, we also do workshops for universities, fairs, conferences, and the like, as well as private groups and companies who are looking to research certain topics or explore what’s happening in the sustainable food ecosystem. We also give talks and write articles.

Can you talk about some of your organization’s successes?

I think one of the best choices I made so far was in the very beginning. I kept randomly crossing paths with Marianne Noble, a girl that I had met when I was first in Spain, and found out she was a graphic designer. I spoke to her about what I was trying to do, and at the time she was getting into service design and tying it in with graphic design. She basically came on board at the perfect time, as we were putting together the pilot of our main event, the Urban Food Challenge. She started shadowing us, following our team meetings, taking pictures, recording things, and following what people’s own reactions were. She did follow-up interviews with the people who came, put together a questionnaire and got a lot of information out of everything that happened. She handed over a report to us and literally showed us everything that we wouldn’t have gotten a chance to see. That’s why then, based on that experience, we put together the really unique branding and identity of Foodisms.

Which is beautiful by the way! I love it. It’s so colourful and fun.

Marianne is so talented and such a pleasure to work with! It was really great to have her on board. The second she unveiled the new branding I could see Foodisms.

Have you noticed any changes in the consumers around you or the people you’ve interacted with since you started Foodisms?

Yes, definitely and particularly in terms of the people around me – it’s really great because my model of change is via a one-to-one level. I very much believe in people needing a role model who is close to them to be able to instigate a change in their own habits. They feel like if that person can do it, they can do it too. To start with, not a lot of people saw eye-to-eye with me when it came to food and what I was trying to do around it, which then meant there was a lot of potential to have an impact on the people around me with respect to food. It’s amazing the reaction I’ve had. The more I do things, the more they participate, and how much support I’m getting from them to keep doing what I’m doing. They feel like I’ve now become a food point of reference for them. People are engaging and enjoying what I’m putting forward, and it’s very humbling.      

For me, the one thing that really hits home is when people approach me after attending an event and say they want to get involved somehow. To get that level of commitment is a great reaction and a good indicator.

What do you think is a difficult aspect of creating consciousness around this subject?

I understand that people have very complex, intricate relationships with food. Food is so complicated on an individual basis, let alone on a population basis. We’re dealing with something that people will have a hard time making changes with, and we’re also dealing with people’s varying habits and varying behaviour around food. What I want is for people to actively reconnect with the food chain, because they are already playing a part albeit passively just by the sheer fact that they’re eating and they’re buying their food somewhere. I’d like to activate the awareness that as a consumer, you actually have an impact, and you can actually use it for the better. That’s the thinking behind it.     

The philosophy of Foodisms in general, is that we are not asking everybody to make the exact same changes. What we’re trying to do is inspire people to make those changes that they most identify with and are closest to them to begin with, and to just talk about and explore the possibilities of making bigger changes down the line. It’s about priorities, inspiring them to make those small steps. And the second you start feeling more comfortable and confident in those small steps, you are a lot more likely to start making some bigger changes later on.

For people who are just starting to learn about this subject, what do you suggest they do? Any important resources or documentaries to watch?

I think it’s very important to focus on the local. Going local is very key in food sustainability, so I would encourage people to really research what’s happening with food in their local context.      

There are loads of food blogs and different influencers who are talking about some interesting things, be it on a small or large scale. It’s important to find a voice that you identify with because anybody can say something that is completely factual and correct, but it has to sing in a tone that you resonate with in order for you to listen.       In terms of food documentaries, there’s absolutely so much. I was recently told about a documentary series on Netflix that I’m dying to see and it’s called Cooked. I’ve heard very good things about it. It’s about slowing our relationship with food and how it is that we’ve come to eat the way we eat today. There’s also Just Eat It, a food waste documentary from North America. I would also follow an organization that I’ve worked with on some occasions called Feedback in the UK. It was started by a man named Tristram Stuart, who is the godfather behind uncovering the global food waste scandal and wrote a book about it back in 2009 which he won an award for. He then went to set up the Feedback Foundation which is doing a lot of activism, both working with the private and public sector, to push for a more conscious use of food, particularly with respect to food waste.      

I’m also a big fan of Jamie Oliver. He’s currently doing a degree in nutrition and is being a great, highly relatable advocate for people’s relationships with food, which I find very inspiring for a person of great influence.

Do you have upcoming projects that you’d like to share?

One of the things in the works I’m currently working on organizing is we’re calling the ‘Food Sustainability Talks’ for now. They’ll be a series of interactive discussions where we’re looking to get people to understand the concept of sustainability is in particular to food. It’s a buzzword nowadays that few people really understand what it means. So instead of us lecturing people about its definition, we’d like to bring everybody together, including key stakeholders and actors to really piece together what the word sustainability means, and draw up what our sustainable food system could look like in the near future.      

We also have an app version of the Urban Food Challenge on the pipeline. Can’t share much else just yet, but follow us on social media to stay tuned with our foodist news!

Thank you Laura for including us in this beautiful publication raising awareness about such important topics in a tasteful way. We hope to see more from JUICY soon and look forward to future collaborations 🙂

Check out the JUICY magazine’s look & feel along with more of Laura’s great work here!