'Plating the Desert' Blends Food, Art, Environment, Community

March 16, 2016

Foil and wax-paper linings, plastic trays, foam plates — these are just a few of the disposables used to plate popular foods, says Stephanie Choi, chair of the Environmental Arts Committee of the University of Arizona's Students for Sustainability.

"Burritos and on-the-go sandwich wraps, TV dinners, pizza slices, and the list keeps going, inclusive of frozen-food grocery store aisles and fast-food joints," Choi says. "Even 'real' plates — the ones that we wash and reuse over and over again — remind us of our globalized world, where the things we buy and use are likely being made across seas in conditions we couldn’t imagine, and most of the time don’t."

To explore the intersection of environment, desert food and community, the Environmental Arts Committee invited students and community members to design and craft original works melding the themes. With "Plating the Desert," the committee features 40 works created by UA and high school students and members of the general public, depicting concepts of food in a desert environment.

The exhibition, funded by the Office of Sustainability's Green Fund, asks: "What does it mean that we either eat off a single-use wrapper or tray or a plate shipped from a factory with regulations that allow for continued labor and environmental exploitations?" 

Says Choi: "These are questions that we don’t necessarily wrestle with each time we eat a meal, if only because the choices are so rooted and aligned with our American culture." 

The exhibition features works by students involved with school garden sites on and off campus, the UA School of Art's "Critical Issues in Design" course and also the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona. The exhibit will be open in the gallery at the Student Union Memorial Center through March 25, although it is closed during the week of spring break (March 14-18).

"In developing the 'Plating the Desert' project, I was thinking about how the actual food on our plates even further complicates the cultural story of our meal," Choi says. "I wanted to imagine what would change if our plates — both the physical plate and the food on it — reflected our place here in the Southwest. How could we create a fully local plate, and how would it inspire us to think about local food systems here in the Sonoran Desert?"