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An architectural twist on ordinary food drives with ‘Canstruction’

November 27, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
What do you get when you give an architect canned yams, corn and tuna fish? Perhaps a 12-foot bridge or larger-than-life sea creature. Each year around the globe, designers create sculptural masterpieces out of canned goods in Canstruction events. Jeffrey Brown reports on how the the creative contest boosts typical food drives.
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GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight, our Thanksgiving week food series continues with a look at a global competition by architects and engineers designed to be a fresh twist on the typical holiday food drive.

Jeff Brown is back with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Pork and beans, sweet corn, tomato sauce and tuna fish, mix them together and what do you get? Well, if you’re in Norfolk, Virginia, you get a 12-foot arched bridge.

Elsewhere, similar ingredients have cooked up a football at the 20-yard line, a sea creature stuck in the sand, video games gone wild, even a beating heart. This is Canstruction, an annual competition dating back to 1992 and now held in more than 150 cities throughout the world where architects, engineers and designers face off to build the most elaborate structures out of full canned goods, all for a good cause.

The rules are basic. The statues must be self-supporting, formed almost entirely of cans, and completed in just six hours. Ribbons go for structural ingenuity, best use of labels, and potential to make a nutritious meal, among other things. After a few days in the spotlight, the edible building blocks are donated to local food banks.

Mark Hinckley has been organizing the competition in Norfolk for the past 17 years.

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MARK HINCKLEY, Canstruction Hampton Roads, Inc.: Architects, by nature, like to compete against each other. There’s always a lot of competition, and there are very few projects, and there’s also a lot of architects and engineers that are going after the same projects.

And it’s nice to have those bragging rights when you can beat out your competition, especially if you’re a smaller firm going up against the more goliath firms.

JEFFREY BROWN: But what occasionally looks like child’s play has a very serious purpose. Organizers hope these Canstructions will raise awareness about hunger in local communities throughout the globe and bring in far more donations than a typical food drive.

It generally takes between 5,000 and 10,000 cans to build a sculpture this big, and that translates to 30,000 to 90,000 pounds of donated food each year in Norfolk. The worldwide total from Canstruction events in 2012 alone weighed in at 3.4 million pounds. And the sculptures just keep getting bigger.

Disney broke the Guinness World Record for largest Canstruction statue to date in 2010, just to be plowed under by John Deere’s creation in Illinois a year later, built with more than 300,000 cans.

JOANNE BATSON, Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia: We have gotten far more than we have had to.

JEFFREY BROWN: But these, of course, only begin to address the needs of so many struggling in a difficult economy.

At the Foodbank of Southeastern Virginia, CEO Joanne Batson says the haul from this year’s Canstruction will be gone in a few days.

JOANNE BATSON: As soon as they come in, we will get them out. We deal with, at this facility, over a million pounds of food every month, so it’s in and it’s out.

JEFFREY BROWN: Batson says the city of Norfolk and the wider area, known as Hampton Roads, were rocked hard by the economic downturn and the government cutbacks that followed. And she said the trend deepened in recent weeks after many families saw a reduction in their food stamp dollars.

JOANNE BATSON: We have seen, just in the Hampton Roads area, a 65 percent increase since 2008 in the number of people that need our help. And, most recently, we have seen 40 percent of the people that are coming to us now, at this one location, over the past month are new people. They have never been in a food bank before.

JEFFREY BROWN: Deana Ogbe is one of those out of work and down on her luck. She had almost given up on the idea of fixing a Thanksgiving meal this year for the 10-year-old granddaughter she’s raising.

DEANA OGBE, grandmother: We are a family of two and we’re only getting $63 now. And there’s no way you could get Thanksgiving dinner with that.

JEFFREY BROWN: Then Ogbe heard about a local church giving away Thanksgiving meal kits, including cans from the food bank.

DEANA OGBE: It just means the world that we’re going to have a turkey on our table for Thanksgiving and we will be together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Stories like that represent the larger, serious goals of Canstruction, even if the way to get there is a bit adventuresome, even risky, like getting cans of tuna to do something like this.

The arched bridge by a team of students from Tidewater Community College contains more than 11,000 pounds of food. Building it in just six hours left everyone on edge.

MAN: The most minimum mistake can have the biggest impact on it. Towards the last part, we miscalculated by about a half-an-inch. And it kept us struggling for a good 20 minutes to get it finished.

WOMAN: There’s a lot of people, not only us, but other competitors, all standing around watching us.

WOMAN: It was also nerve-racking, because the tuna cans started moving.

JEFFREY BROWN: In line with the rules, the arch is built mostly of cans, 13,000 of them, but it also contains some small wooden wedges to help the tuna cans form the arch and cardboard to help stabilize the layers. No permanent adhesives are allowed, making for an uneasy couple of minutes when the team removed the central wooden support known as the template.

MAN: The moment that that template comes down, and you can actually see the light from the other side of the arch, that’s the moment of, yes, it works.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the end, the Tidewater students came out on top for structural ingenuity.

“Faceblock” took home the award for juror’s favorite. Images of both of these creations will be sent to the next level, where the two can — maybe that toucan — compete for a slice of national action and much bigger glory at the American Institute of Architects Convention next year.