All across the globe, grown adults are indulging their inner child and building giant, colorful sculptures using cans of food with the same excitement that some children have when they play with Legos or Minecraft. Unlike these toys, however, every building block of these can sculptures will be used to feed someone in need.
Canstruction is a unique non-profit organization which hosts competitions, exhibitions and events showcasing these enormous sculptures made entirely out of full cans of food. After the sculptures are built, they are on display to the public as a giant art exhibit; at the end of the viewing, all food is donated to local food banks. Since it was founded in 1992, Canstruction competitions have been held annually in over 150 cities around the world and have raised more than 20 million pounds of food to feed the hungry. Their mission is simple: provide hunger relief assistance while promoting the design/build industry.
The results are impressive; sculptures are limited to, and usually fill, a 10’ x 10’ x 8’ volume of space and weigh thousands of pounds. Teams of architects, engineers, designers, contractors and businesses compete by designing and building a canned food sculpture while following a set of rules and regulations. The winners of each of four categories (Structural Ingenuity, Best use of Labels, Best Meal and Juror’s Choice) receive awards at the Canstruction gala held locally, and then go on to compete internationally.
Although the competition’s “Build Day” takes place only one day a year, teams will spend as much as six months planning, designing and prepping for the big event. Most use computer modeling software to design their structures so that they know exactly how many cans they need to build it correctly. Cans are selected based on their label as well as nutritional content, and all participants try to use only the items desired by the food pantries. Some teams will use this digital model to create templates to speed things up on Build Day.
Build Day is a unique event all on its own – the energy is astounding. Pallets of food arrive the night before and are placed near each team’s build site. Each team has only eight hours to build their sculpture and is restricted by how many people can be inside the 10’ x 10’ square at a time. A few teams have this down to a science, using templates and tag-outs to speed build their sculpture in a mere four hours, while others stretch it out and take their time. By the time the sun sets, all of the structures are complete, looming overhead like giants and all participants are exhausted from a fun day of creative construction.
Each team has to come up with a theme that somehow relates their design to ending world hunger. Oftentimes teams will find creative ways to connect popular characters to the mission, such as “Avenging World Hunger” (Marvel’s Avengers) or “Striking Out Hunger” (a set of bowling pins). Teams have built everything from the Kool-Aid Man (Oh yeah!) to murals of famous civic leaders, to landscapes illustrating ethical farming. Teams are encouraged to take it as far as they want to, and to be as serious or as silly as they’d like. It is not unusual to see teams constructing their sculptures in matching shirts, decked out in garb that matches their theme. Seeing the team members looking at home atop ladders and stacking cans, you might never know that these professionals spend most of their careers behind a desk!
Though Canstruction has been around for a couple of decades, West Virginia’s Canstruction competition is only on its tenth year. The competition takes place in Charleston each spring and is coordinated by joint efforts between WV’s AIA Chapter and the Covenant House. This year’s competition took place on April 6th at the Clay Center in Charleston, W.Va.
Seven teams participated, including our own Pickering Associates in Parkersburg, and a total of 18,358 cans were collected and donated, providing 15,596 meals. Pickering Associates’ structure was awarded Jurors’ Favorite Award for creative design and use of food labels. The team chose a patriotic theme to honor our nation’s veterans, many of whom are food insecure or homeless. The giant American Flag and Saluting Soldier (“Now It’s Our Turn To Serve Them”) weighed in at a whopping 2,500 lbs. of food.
As much fun as it is to participate in Canstruction, the real benefit comes from the impact it makes on the community. Hunger plagues every city and community around the world– nearly 17.2 million households in the US alone are food insecure. These events raise awareness through a creative and educational medium and have consistently provided food for hunger relief organizations each year.
In Kanawha County alone, 13.3% of the residents are food insecure. In the past ten years, Canstruction West Virginia has helped raise over 137,000 cans of food (126,000 lbs) for the Covenant House Food Pantry. Last year, the food pantry was able to serve 12,700 people in need. The need is real, and it is not an invisible enemy. Hunger is something we can fight, right here in our own state.