Eat.Think.Design at UC Berkeley


“How would you get more people who aren’t eating butter to eat butter?”

Sixty-five UC Berkeley grad students puzzled over this light-hearted question as they vied for just 25 slots in the public health innovations course Eat.Think.Design. Course instructor Jaspal Sandhu likens this class audition to putting together a team or theatrical production and finding “a cohort that will work together in interesting ways.” Butter Day also gave students a taste of design thinking as they brainstormed various angles on butter consumption, including the recent McDonald’s decision to start using butter in its Egg McMuffin.

Once selected for Eat.Think.Design, students spent the semester exploring design thinking (also called human-centered design) to devise solutions for quandaries related to nutrition, food, and farming. This year’s class tackled seven projects that took them from East Oakland down to Monterey County, and across the country to Brownsville, New York. In teams of three or four, students representing 12 graduate programs grappled with issues involving home cooks, farmers, middle schoolers, people with disabilities, pregnant women, and more. Each team’s mission was the same: Find solutions that stick.


Grace Lesser, here with husband Shawn Johnson, spent her semester developing Farmcation, a business that invites city dwellers to savor a taste of farm life. Photo by Kim Heath:

A DIY Wedding Leads to Farmcation

After acing the butter challenge, Grace Lesser, a dual business and public health (MBA/MPH) candidate, spent her semester developing Farmcation, a startup that matches farmers with city dwellers who want a taste of farm life. Lesser came to Eat.Think.Design. with this project already in mind: She and her then-fiancé had recently organized their own DIY wedding for 250 guests, growing all the food and raising 65 chickens for the celebratory meal. Lesser’s combined experiences, from gardening as a child to working in agriculture and public health in East Africa, along with growing the food for her wedding, gave her some perspective on the challenges of farming and evolved into her idea for a business to support farmers.

The process of design thinking, Lesser says, “encourages you to ideate and come up with many, many, many ideas, even the craziest ideas that you never thought were possible.” Next step: “You scale them down to what could work and prototype nutty and creative things and see what sticks.”

Each group begins with a far-reaching “How might we…” question. “The ‘might’ opens it up to possibilities,” says Sandhu. “Design thinking is about consideration of multiple solutions. And the ‘we’ is important because innovation is a team sport.” Lesser’s query was “How might we connect small-scale farmers with food-curious individuals to make farming a more sustainable livelihood?” She says it’s important to make your question as broad as possible, so you don’t come in with a preconceived solution, but admits that she’d initially imagined a platform like an Eventbrite for food and farming experiences. “Jaspal [Sandhu] encouraged me to step back and ask a bigger question because technology might not be the solution,” she says. Her team’s question evolved into “How might we connect food-curious consumers with the source of their food in authentic, memorable ways?”

Lesser and her teammates spent the first part of the semester doing interviews to figure out who might be interested in pursuing a hands-on food and farming experience. What were people’s preferences and willingness to pay? The team zeroed in on millennials and young families, and with a month left in the semester, put their idea to the test. Extensive outreach led to a partnership with Terra Firma Farm in Yolo County. Farmcation was launched with a pop-up lunch, farm tour, and strawberry picking attended by 30 guests paying $50 each. Attendee Emily Yao said the experience reminded her of the excitement of going on a field trip as a child, and she appreciated the “delicious and vibrant meal” and the chance “to learn and be connected to the land and the food.”

Farmcation will continue to evolve. “One of the most important learnings from this event,” says Lesser, “was that for this farm the biggest priority wasn’t making money from the event, but rather driving CSA enrollment.” Farmcation guests each went home with a CSA box to try out. Looking ahead, says Lesser, events will be priced at a sweet spot that supports farmers and also makes Farmcation profitable. In partnership with MBA graduate Caitlyn Toombs, Lesser is planning another Farmcation event this fall.


Farmcation guests spent an afternoon at Terra Firma Farm, where they picked strawberries, feasted on a popup lunch, shared favorite food memories, toured the farm, and brought home a CSA box filled with organic produce. Photo by Kim Heath:

Empathy and Tacos

Unlike Lesser, most people don’t come to the course with a project idea. Early in the semester, the students listen to three-minute pitches from potential client organizations and rank their preferences. Course instructors Sandhu, pediatrician and researcher Kristine Madsen, and physician-turned-social entrepreneur Robert (Nap) Hosang aim to create teams balanced by a diversity of skills and experience.

Victoria Benson, a joint public health and city planning student (MPH/MCP), was particularly interested in the pitch from Civil Labs, a social enterprise that creates opportunities for young people in Oakland to participate in food ventures. In partnership with Civil Labs and the East Oakland Youth Development Center (EOYDC), Benson and her teammates took on this question: “How might we create a meaningful and nontraditional learning experience that fosters an entrepreneurial spirit among EOYDC youth through the co-design of a food business?”

Initially, Benson says, she thought the group’s focus would be on creating the food business. Over time, though, she realized that the priority was to co-create an experience in which middle school students could begin to take ownership and responsibility for a project.

“How do you get youth to be motivated and involved in their own way?” Benson asks. She says the semester was one of trial and error, filled with challenges and small victories. Eight middle schoolers started the project, and five stayed with it until the end. At meetings and cooking sessions, the youngsters were sometimes attentive, sometimes rowdy or distracted.

Group gatherings, held three days weekly, included Civil Labs co-founders Isaac Buwembo and Graham Gardner and were marked by experimentation with strategies for engaging the youths. “We flexed that muscle of prototyping and taking a risk and going for it,” Benson says. “Maybe it fails, but that’s ok because we can come back in two days and try again.” They asked themselves a series of questions about their young partners: How do we find their skill sets? How do we make them aware of their skills and their inherent creativity?

When the adults recognized that sessions were starting to feel “a lot like a classroom,” says Gardner, they decided to move the program more into the kitchen. “It was an insight that we gathered through our collaboration with the UC Berkeley team,” he says, “that putting the food and the recipe in front of the young person concretizes the high-level business concepts: You can create a taco and then have a conversation about the cost of supplies and the concept of profit.”

Design thinking is centered on empathy: It relies on understanding clients both as unique individuals and as part of a group with distinct patterns and needs. To help put themselves in the shoes of the middle schoolers, the adults spent several hours on empathy mapping: first writing and then discussing what they imagined the students see, hear, think, and feel throughout the various parts of their day.

Benson recalls a memorable group session in which one of the students was talking about an assumption another person had made about her. Benson explains that as the student spoke, “one girl was messing with another girl, but the girl said ‘shh, let’s listen; I want to listen.’” Benson was elated to see that the girl not only wanted to listen, but was also willing to hold her peer accountable. “It seems really simple,” she says, “but that moment was huge for me.”

The project culminated in a pop-up stand the group called Terrific Tacos, at which they prepared 230 tacos and served about 100 people. The youths were involved with event promotion, planning, setup, cooking, and interactions with customers. Civil Labs will continue this project with another taco event this fall.


Middle schoolers Nakiyah Caldwell (left) and Gabrielle Igondjo serve taco fixings as part of a popup venture created by Eat.Think.Design, Civil Labs, and the East Oakland Youth Development Center.
Photo by Ching-Wei Jiang

The Big Answer Might Be a Small One

MPH student Simone Saldanha smiles as she recalls the butter challenge and how her group came up with the slogan “Live a Butter Life.” On that first day of class, she wasn’t quite sure what design thinking was, but a semester in Eat.Think.Design. has proved enlightening. “It’s a process of thinking that leverages empathy as a starting point in any question or method,” she says. “It’s about trying to use empathy to connect with people and meet them where they are.”

Saldanha and her teammates partnered with local startup Josephine, which allows home cooks to sell meals within their neighborhoods. It’s a business model that combines the convenience of homemade takeout food with the comfort and connection of getting to know the person who cooked your dinner.

The Cal team started with the question “How might we make Josephine more accessible to people with disabilities?” To brainstorm ideas, Saldanha and her teammates took part in the process known as “Queen For a Day,” in which a team draws upon the brainpower of the entire class by posing questions about their project. Following some of the suggestions this exercise generated, Saldanha’s group conducted about 20 interviews with disabled people at Berkeley’s Ed Roberts Campus and the UC Berkeley Disabled Students’ Program. They also used the technique of journey mapping, in which you examine a potential customer’s emotional and practical experience at each stage of a process (in this case, the journey of ordering, picking up, and eating food prepared by a Josephine cook).

Through the interviews and mapping, the team learned that barriers to using a service like Josephine center on uncertainty and social comfort: not knowing whether there is parking nearby, whether there might be hills or stairs, and whether someone will be available to help carry the food. Over time, the focus of the project broadened to include all diners, and the question evolved into “How might we make meals at Josephine more reminiscent of a family gathering?”

Just as Cal’s spring semester was wrapping up, Alameda County health regulators issued cease and desist notices to home cooks selling food through platforms including Josephine. Although Josephine had to indefinitely stop this part of its business, its founders are engaged in drafting legislation to create new guidelines for sales of home-cooked food. Meanwhile, the team was able to finish its project and make recommendations.

Early on, the students came up with the solution of meal delivery, but this didn’t fit Josephine’s goal of helping neighbors get to know one another. The students’ final recommendations create ways to help all customers feel at ease and have their questions answered before they come to pick up food. Ideas include a welcome call and packet, a chat window on the website, and the possibility of a volunteer outside the house to greet people and assist as needed.

“In class we’re challenged to think about big, inspiring questions, so we wanted a big, inspiring answer,” says Saldanha, “but that’s not always the most helpful thing. We realized that Josephine has a good model, but for this one population it’s not working. How can they make small tweaks along the journey to make it work? Maybe the big answer is the small answer.”

Contributing editor Rachel Trachten writes about food, gardens, and cooking as tools for social change. She also contributes to Oakland and Alameda magazines and The East Bay Monthly. You can view her stories at and contact her at