Kitchens’ Reflection Table #1 – Report

This is the report of the conversation we had, for the introduction text, see here

Politics of food: How can we use our kitchens and the food we cook with to bring forth change?

At this table we were with quite some kitchens with different experiences, from the ones getting food through dumpster-diving to kitchens buying from small-scale farmers or from food co-ops.

We started discussing dumpster diving, how it is still not a complete solution and it doesn’t bring us close to what most of us considered more or less ideal to reach, an exploitation-free small-scale agriculture that makes healthy food accessible to everybody.

We also discussed a bit Veganism, that is something that wasn’t mentioned in the text but that all the kitchens present are practicing. We recognised that cooking vegan is helping in reducing exploitations (both on animal but also partially on land and human, if we consider the shortening of the chain – from “veggies => animal => people” to “veggies => people”). This, however, while having it clear that reducing exploitations is not the same as removing them and that simple vegetables like tomatoes bought in supermarkets still underly a lot of exploitation, from the land where they are grown, to the people who harvest them, to the people working in the distribution centers and so on.
Furthermore we discussed the necessity of keeping in mind how the capitalist food production system is also adapting to these new needs in the consumer market, how vegan products are more and more available in supermarkets or in big fast food chains, not breaking at all with the usual exploitation logics. We could find similar dynamics with labels such as ‘local’ or ‘green’ that are not positive values in themselves if separated from a context of rejection of the above mentioned exploitation logics. As an example we mentioned the Food Future Lab at the Utrecht University Canteen, an attempt to make available there ‘sustainable’ and local food, done in the context of Sodexo, the multinational company having the monopoly on food at the University, the same one renown for various abuses all over the world, and especially in jails they manage in the UK.
Similar dynamics were also mentioned regarding ‘food waste’, with on the one hand expensive restaurants appropriating the concept, like Instock that is just helping the Albert Heijn brand in looking more sustainable, and on the other hand assistentialist models like Voedselbank.

It seemed like most agreed that, as collective kitchens, to bring forth change we need to recognise the importance of working on two levels: on the one hand exposing and boycotting the industrial food production system, on the other hand trying to build an alternative.

Exposing and Boycotting

Regarding the first level, we briefly discussed the necessity of finding ways to enlarge our outreach beyond the people normally visiting our spaces. Ideas mentioned were more public events, like for example cooking or serving food on the street from time to time to raise awareness.
We noticed differences among the anti-foodwaste kitchens in how far people felt safe to go in exposing the situation, while some were more open, others stated the fear of legal repercussions one might eventually face.

Alternative Economies

About the second level, the one of building an alternative, we started by exploring some of the options that do exist now, or that could exist on how to give access to healthy organic food. Examples that are known are community supported agriculture (both with people receiving weekly boxes of food in their neighborhoods, or with people harvesting themselves), local farmer markets or urban community gardens. People also liked to think of the possibility of kitchens running autonomous farms collectively as a mean to get healthy exploitation free vegetables.

While mentioning these examples we did not go in depth into the issues of each of these approaches singularly, but we did spend some time talking about the main problematics, that we always run into, when trying to build alternatives in the existing society: money and time constraint.

We recognised the question of compensation to farmers and more generally of money and sustainability under an economic point of view as a central node. While getting food from local farmers, how to be able to provide fair compensation for their work and still serve meals that are economically accessible to everybody, escaping the exclusive logics of organic food?
This is a problem of no small importance, that ties to many specific issues. One issue is the matter of donations for the meals that are cooked in our kitchens, it is not always an easy task, when having to pay for the vegetables, to get back enough money to cover all the costs, even more so if this happens at benefit dinners, where the idea is to use food to gather money for other causes: when the price of vegetables goes up (because they come from different circuits) this tension is of course bigger.
Another issue that came up, and on which we reflected, was the tension between operating in our kitchens on volunteer basis (not as charity work but as a way to escape salaried labour dynamics) and using this free labour to support farmers, doing their work not as volunteers but as paid workers. Of course it was mentioned that volunteer work is not a value of itself and that working to create different economies in the long run also implies trying to create the conditions such that we (just like anybody else) do not have to work oppressive jobs to survive while doing our political work in our free time, but that’s a broader discussion. We discussed then what were the reasons that, in our context, don’t make possible running farms on a volunteer-basis: running a farm is not something that can be reduced to a 8 hours a week activity, but it’s a work requiring a constant engagement and a certain degree of knowledge that most of the people have lost. This is something to keep in mind, even if we don’t want to idealize farm work.

Moreover, local organic farmers trying to escape exploitative dynamics do struggle to make a living out of their job to begin with. Access to land is a big issue in the Netherlands, a context where a big part of the farmable land is used for large-scale intensive agriculture. Also, it’s often the case that projects of community supported agriculture are run with the support of local municipalities (usually giving either land or subsidies for the project).
It doesn’t help either the fact that there isn’t a broader and more stable support network to these projects, this usually leads farmers to selling their vegetables wherever they can, and also to them having to undergo all the market logics of organic farming.

Starting from direct experiences we also discussed the problems around organic certification. This implies the strict following of a lot of regulations mainly meant for industrial agriculture that cannot be ignored if one wants to sell certified organic food. In this context the necessity to engage at a policymakers level and to push for changing policies around organic farming was raised. This was a point of debate and the contradiction between trying to create a new society and dealing at policymaking level inside the current one came out. The example of the Genuino Clandestino (Genuine and Clandestine) network in Italy was also brought up in this regards, as an example of shifting from state controlled regulations to farmers and consumers self-regulations. Farmers in Genuino Clandestino are refusing the organic certifications and deciding by themselves the criteria and procedures to follow to be part of the network.

Next to money, there is also a time problematic. We underlined the necessity of a cultural shift on how people relate to food and its production: from having finished products already on the table, to learning to cook and reserve time for it. Of course, this is not something that can be changed easily without changing the dynamics that are imposed on us under the capitalist system we live in, where we’re constantly out of time or energies due to our condition of exploited workers.

After all these discussions on the many issues and problems we however recognised that creating an alternative economy is not something that can be done overnight. It is a long, hard process when starting from scratch.
A person reminded us of the historic example of the phenomenon of Pillarisation in the Netherlands, when between 1850-1960 different communities regulated themselves. This example was brought up to point out how different economies can co-exist at the same time with the support of a community. Even if Pillarisation is something very far away from both what could be deemed as ideal and from the current system, it was meant as an invitation to learn from history and not underestimate the power of self-determination of a community.
In any case, confronted with the problematics of a long, hard process, the necessity to start from small actions was stated. As an example we talked about the difference (and all the implications) between buying products like dish-washing soap from supermarkets or buying them from the self-managed factory of in Greece. Just this decision would imply shifting the flow of economic resources from supporting the capitalist system to supporting a political project with similar goals as ours. The same reasoning could be applied to all the dry products (like rice, lentils, etc.) that kitchens need to buy anyway. Related to this also the importance of supporting projects that are politically close to us was underlined, understanding political proximity as a value to keep in mind next to the geographical one.

Furthermore, during the discussion we also realised that certain informal networks and connections between people in kitchens and farmers do exist already but a broader and more concrete network is lacking. It would be nice therefore, in continuing the work and the reflections started with this session, to strengthen the connections already existing by confronting ourselves with each other, exchanging knowledges and ideas among kitchens. Also the idea of creating a collective zine about VoKus in the Netherlands was proposed as a way of putting together many knoweledges and information.

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