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Guerrilla Cartographers Put Global Food Stats On The Map

Posted: November 28, 2012

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The mapmakers have amassed some 80 maps for Food: An Atlas, ranging from surplus in Northeast Italy to meat production in Maryland. The goal is to spread information about various food systems so they can be adapted locally.

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A page from

A page from "Food: An Atlas" showing the geography of a single Spanish dish. Montserrat Bonvehi-Rosich

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A page from
A detail of a map from Food: An Atlas that shows sources of food found at farmer's markets in Berkeley, California.

A detail of a map from Food: An Atlas that shows sources of food found at farmer's markets in Berkeley, California. Cameron Reed

A page from Food: An Atlas.

For the past five months, University of California, Berkeley cartography professor Darin Jensen has been collecting maps about food. They fill the walls of his office, each one telling a different story — about meat production in Maryland, about the international almond trade, about taco trucks in Oakland. Some are local, some are regional, some are global, but in a few days they'll all be bound together between the covers of Food: An Atlas.

In just five months — the time it takes to raise an artichoke, he says — Jensen and more than 100 new-found colleagues have built a book.

"This was two big projects," Jensen says. "One was building the atlas. The other parallel narrative is that we formed this community of cartographers and researchers around the globe who didn't know each other before."

In June, Jensen put out a call for maps that explored food distribution and production. The request made its way through cartographical societies and social media, and soon responses came pouring in.

Jensen called his growing coalition a "disorganization" of "guerrilla cartographers."

Some came with maps already made, others called in with ideas and still others offered up their skills.

"So we were able to say, 'Okay, food anthropologist in Spain — here's a cartographer in Guatemala. Make a map together,'" Jensen says.

The group has collected about 80 maps so far, and they vary widely in style, range and content.

"I do think that one of the criticisms this is going to get is that it's kind of all over the place," Jensen says.

But he hopes that the maps that are included in the atlas will inspire action and promote discussion, even if they aren't comprehensive.

"These maps are going to enlighten us about humanity's relationship with food — but they are going to raise more questions than they answer."

Take this map of northeast Italy:

"This map is less about northeast Italy and more about collecting food surplus," Jensen says. "It's a model — here's something that you can take to your community in Tucson, Arizona, or wherever you live."

To finance the project, Jensen and his colleagues raised more than $29,000 on the popular crowd-funding website Kickstarter. Working with a printer committed to a low carbon footprint, they plan to publish the book soon and start distributing copies. Any profits from the project will be donated to a food-related non-profit selected by the book's many authors. (You can order a copy or submit a map through the Kickstarter page.)

But the guerilla cartographers aren't done — they intend to keep collecting maps about food. Jensen says there are many topics and regions yet to be explored, and he hopes to release an extended second edition of the book with hundreds of maps. And then, who knows?

"We might do 'Water, An Atlas,' next," Jensen says.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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