Meet FoodLab Sydney’s Co-Founder, Alana Mann

eater, reader, and food activist

Written by Abhati Tarkunde, May 13 2021

At FoodLab Sydney, we have a team incredibly dedicated to transforming our local food system in Sydney. We want to take a moment to shine a spotlight on some of our team members.

Associate Professor Alana Mann is Chair of the Department of Media and Communications and a key researcher in the Sydney Environment Institute in the University of Sydney. She is currently researching how we can increase engagement of local residents in transforming the food system and bring meaningful societal change. 

She likes to think of herself as an eater, reader and food activist. In her free time, she likes hosting gatherings with creative meals, reading fiction and swimming in the ocean.

She has written two impactful books in the field of food politics, and is launching her new book ‘Food in a Changing Climate’ this week… And we couldn’t be more excited!

What drives Alana?

Alana grew up in a family fishing business in Queensland, surrounded by all things food. From very early on, she had a strong sense of how important it is to have fresh healthy food. 

“I always understood the connection between food and the environment. Because, when you rely on the ocean for your food, you tend to think it’s extremely important to look after it.”

After a successful career in marketing communications, she began travelling and realised how  lucky she was to have healthy food like that, and it wasn’t a luxury that everybody could afford. This realisation drove her to research food politics to ignite a disruption in the flawed food systems of the world. 

A photograph on Alana Mann

The conception of FoodLab Sydney

FoodLab was founded by Alana Mann and her colleague Professor David Schlosberg in 2019. 

“FoodLab really grew out of our desire to do a local project that was really specific to Sydney, and also as a way to make visible all of the great things that are happening in the food system in Sydney.”

She has worked with people across the globe to fight inequity and food insecurity, but she also wanted to transform the food system on her own doorstep, while simultaneously thinking about the bigger picture. 

“We wanted to use food as a way to talk about how we can work together- university, city council, lots of different businesses and organizations. How can we collaborate to bring about change?”

Alana and David were inspired by the model of FoodLab Detroit and wanted to bring that to Sydney, but it wasn’t that simple. 

We didn’t really know who our target customer was. I think it was difficult because when you take something from Detroit, you don’t know how it’s going to work in Sydney. It was quite difficult making it a program for people without knowing exactly who those people were and without knowing what they needed. So we kind of learned that as we went.”

Her first book Global Activism in Food Politics: Power Shift (2014)

“I had colleagues saying to me, you know, no one’s really interested in the farmers, why are you doing this?”

Alana was doing research on La Via Campesina, an organisation that focuses on peasant rights, farmers’ rights and food sovereignty. She was working with farmers from Mexico and Chile whilst learning another language. But the main challenge was the lack of conversation around food sovereignty

“I think the biggest achievement for me was resisting a lot of the feedback I got about the topic. I had colleagues saying to me, you know, no one’s really interested in the farmers, why are you doing this?” 

However, after she published her PhD, it was published as a book ‘Global Activism in Food Politics: Power Shift’ (2014). She received great acclaim for her work from several notable people, including the former UN Special Rapporteur Jean Ziegler, who wrote the foreword to it. 

The Journal of World Systems Research called it a unique book that offered “nuanced characterization of social movement logistics that should inspire collective action against a food regime that undermines farming cultures, exploits agricultural workers and degrades ecosystems.”

Alana felt like she had more to talk about…

A photograph of Alana Mann with her book Food in a Changing Climate
Image: Edwina Pilch

About Alana’s new book Food in a Changing Climate (2021)

Food in a Changing Climate is for anyone and everyone that’s concerned about the future of food in a rapidly changing world. It starts a conversation about food, social justice, and food justice.

“My new book is probably the first one I’ve written that I would ask my friends to read. Because it’s not as it’s not as heavy. It’s not as academic as the other two.”

The book highlights the fact that we’re locked into a global food system that has its roots in inequality. The book traces the history of food from colonial times to the current day, when there are still countries around the world that rely on export agriculture, and they can’t feed their own population.

It demonstrates that food is really a lens, giving us a perspective on the world that reveals how we got to the situation we’re in today, including the pandemics. 

“A lot of the research about food systems talks to the fact that we do a lot of things that are leading to the emergence of these pandemics, like factory farming, eradicating biodiversity, living, living, putting too much pressure on ecosystems.”

Who has inspired Alana?

Eric Holt Gimenez, the author of The Foodie’s Guide to Capitalism. He was also the executive director of Food First in the US, and a researcher of agroecology in Central America. 

“I am a huge fan of Eric. He proved that agroecology, ecological methods of farming, will make crops more resilient than industrial crops, because they had no ground cover and no biodiversity.”

She is also inspired by Francesca Rodriguez, the leader of the female indigenous peasant farmer’s movement in Chile. 

“She and all the women she worked with survived through the Pinochet dictatorship. And now they focus on saving and rights for seasonal workers. Because a lot of the women do the fruit picking in Chile, and they get poisoned by the pesticides because they don’t have proper equipment, and then they don’t have adequate safety.”

Whose work in hospitality does she admire for their good food practices?

Alana loves the work of Josh Niland whose philosophy centers around waste reduction, particularly in seafood. 

She also admires Sean Christie David, co-founder of Colombo Social, a local social enterprise Sri Lankan eatery that helps to employ and train asylum seekers. 

“He is somebody who I think has taught everybody how you do food really differently and how you help people during a pandemic.”

Feather and Bone are her heroes as well, for their ethical, sustainable butchery in Marrickville.

Internationally, she loves the work of Dan Barber in the US. He runs a restaurant in Manhattan called Blue Hill and wrote the book The Third Plate

“He gets a carrot, and makes it the center of the meal instead of the steak. And then he puts beef stock on it. It’s showing people beautiful produce, you can still have some meat with it, but you can do it really differently.” 

Alana’s quick tips for being a ‘Good’ food consumer

“Move away from ultra-processed foods, immediately.”

Alana is a firm advocate of cooking. 

“I think the problem with our diets is that we’ve been told that we can eat processed food and, and solve all our nutritional and energy challenges, when in reality, we don’t really know what’s in that food. So my first thing would be, you should where possible, consume food that’s being cooked by a real person that you trust.”

She also recommends having food that is free of pesticides. 

“I think a lot of the cheapest food is that ultra processed, pesticide laden produce. So we really need to step out of that commodification of foods and step out of those products that give us hyper-convenience. Because what they’re really doing is giving us probably lots of salt, sugar, and we don’t need it.”

Alana’s book launch is on Friday May 14 at 6pm, in conversation with Laura Dalrymple, Feather and Bone, and Barbara Sweeney, Food & Words. Register here.