MyOak Public Market "Rooted in Baltimore"

Biomimicry is the practice of looking to nature to solve human problems. 
Design process: Biomimicry + Human-centered Design

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, major disruptions occurred in the food system, exacerbating issues of food access around the world. Emergency responders worked overtime to coordinate assistance for food insecure communities. At the same time, grassroots efforts joined in an attempt to bridge the widening gap between food availability and food recovery. Still, challenges to align these efforts made it apparent there is a systemic issue of resource distribution and communication. In close partnership with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability (BOS), we wanted to understand how a resilient food system would recover from these disruptions.

Understanding this context led to the development of the design challenge:

“How might we cultivate a more connected and responsive food system network to ensure food access in times of crisis?”

January - June 2020

+ winner
Biomimicry Global Design Challenge 2020

+ winner
Johns Hopkins Ecological Design Collective 2019


Design Researcher
Service Designer


These images were taken during the stakeholder meeting in Baltimore, MD, USA pre-pandemic. 

Lee Davis 
Center for Social Design

External partners:
Anne Draddy
Sustainability Coordinator
Baltimore Office of Sustainability

Ava Richardson
Food Matters Technical Advisor
Baltimore Office of Sustainability

Expert mentors:
Nichole Labruto, Postdoctoral Fellow and Anthropologist at Johns Hopkins University

Robin Gunkel, Ph.D. candidate in Sustainabilty Education

Bill Hillgartner, Paleocologist, MICA + JHU


  The research phase included meeting with stakeholders and gathering data points about food waste and food access.

The team did some readings and looked at literature such as the Advisory Report and presented at the Sustainability Commission meeting with the Baltimore Office of Sustainability to collect feedback, more data and resources, connections and prep for the project and help create guiding questions.

Primary research consisted of a visit to the Northeast Market to interview Vendors and shadow and observe the customers to under the culture of wasted food. We also interviewed a food waste hauler, a chef at a catering company and the manager of a restaurant.

This is also when the project pivoted to work in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Within the first month of the pandemic, Baltimore emergency response coordinators reported almost one-third of the city were relying on food assistance-a significant increase from pre-COVID-19 times. This number is expected to rise with further economic uncertainty.


To ensure that the work was grounded in equity and sustainability, we generated a set of design principles, an overarching philosophy grounded in values we believe in called life-centered design.


Synthesis of the research further helped articulate the context, functional and biologized questions to better understand natural inspiration as appropriate for the project, to aid with the Biomimicry process.

How does nature depend on each other for resources?
How does nature manage disturbances in a community?
How does nature create connections across networks?


I. Through Biomimicry: Looking for Biological Inspiration


The symbiotic relationship between ectomycorrhizal fungi and the native white oak in Maryland’s forest ecosystem greatly informed this design. When the forest system is in relative homeostasis, oak trees operate within social communities to cooperatively distribute water, nutrients, and even communication in the form of electrical or chemical signals.

The relationship between ectomycorrhizal fungi and the native oak facilitates communication and nutrient flow among trees, while the trees in turn provide sugar to mycelium.

This exchange makes it possible for hub trees to nourish young saplings and demonstrates a unique way of staying connected despite ‘social isolation’. We translated this natural inspiration to design an interconnected food distribution infrastructure.

II. Through Human-centered design:

Some of the top ideas talked about leveraging and uplifting existing connections and using hi-tech solutions while ensuring connections through lo-tech implementations.




MyOak Public Market is an online platform designed to increase food access to vulnerable populations by diversifying the distribution of resources to community hubs and individuals. Vendors are provided a low-risk platform to an expanded customer base. 
Reciprocally, customers can access this variety of products regardless of physical proximity, income, or telecom munication capability. By cultivating new connections and aggregating valuable user data, MyOak Public Market simultaneously strengthens the resiliency of the Baltimore food system to face any crisis.

Systems mapping was crucial to understand intervention points

Based on the feedback from the larger team, we visualized the online platform and the app; looked at platform sites that could host us and plans for further development.

We shared the conceptualization and the ideas back to the Baltimore Office of Sustainability and our other stakeholders.

We submitted this project for the Biomimicry Global Design Challenge and were chosen as the winner; and as the finalist for the Biomimicry Launchpad, an accelerator program. 

At the accelerator program, we looked specifically at SNAP users as during COVID, there were very few online markets that accepted SNAP and other nutrition benefits programs. We received a prototyping grant from the Hopkins Ecological Design Initiative to further test out the service. Part of our team conducted the testing in Orlando, FL with Grow Orlando - a farm and garden community aiming to eradicate food deserts in Florida.

To see the Launchpad materials, reach out! 
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 2020 ︎Eesha Patne ︎