The Landed Community Kitchen addresses the gap between social movements promoting agroecology and food sovereignty, which are overfocused on the reality and livelihood of farmers, on the one hand, and community initiatives and policy discourses focused on food poverty, food justice and urban food policies, which often overlook the role and lives of farmers. The Landed Community Kitchen is (1) land-based and as much as possible provides food sourced from agroecological growers, (2) enables community empowerment and reskilling (3) seeks to transform the broader food system to ensure access to healthy food and dignified livelihoods.
Building bridges between initiatives driven by food sovereignty and food poverty
Community kitchens exist in many forms. Some are institution-led (such as school, prison or hospital cantines) and some are society-led (such as factory cantines, church soup kitchens, or kitchens within collective spaces). Community kitchens coordinate large-scale food sourcing, food cooking, and availability of food to large numbers of people. Not all kitchens aim to subvert the food system, but a few of them have progressive aims. They are born out of care and solidarity aims and are focused on transforming some aspects of the food system: be it how you source the food, who cooks it, who can access it, and at what price — if there is a price at all.
The Landed Community Kitchen addresses the the gap between social movements promoting agroecology and food sovereignty, which are overfocused on the reality and livelihood of farmers, on the one hand, and community initiatives and policy discourses focused on food poverty, food justice and urban food policies, which often overlook the role and lives of farmers. The gap between the two means that the two communities hardly ever work together to build resourceful communities.
The potential to articulate new relations between food producers and consumers, aligned to principles of care and solidarity, makes the Landed Community Kitchen pivotal in the building of an agroecological urbanism.
The common reliance on surplus food is a problem
Grassroots initiatives across a number of cities in the Global North have in the past ten years been attempting to address the many failures of current food systems, and particularly the unequal and irregular access to fresh, healthy, nutritious and culturally appropriate food for a growing population of undernourished, vulnerable and marginalised populations. The initiatives take a variety of forms: from food banks to soup kitchens to social supermarkets, to community kitchens. The Covid-19 pandemic has further exacerbated the problems related to the current unjust and unsustainable food systems, but the pandemic has also seen a proliferation of community-run food support initiatives, some of which based on solidarity cooking.
Most of these initiatives use so-called ‘surplus’ food – that is food discarded by the mainstream retail sector or manufacturers when close to the sell-by date – because this is largely abundant, easy to access and extremely cheap. Supermarkets and retailers would normally have to pay a landfill tax to get rid of this food, but the rise of this new economy of ‘food for the poor’ has enabled them to sell this excess food (therefore recovering all or part of their costs) and to continue the practice of overstocking and underpaying the producers.
While the use of surplus food or food waste is commendable to provide food for the vulnerable during emergency situations in the short run, the normalisation of the existence of food surplus sold or distributed as ‘cheap food’, overlooks the problematic reality that food surplus exist because a powerful retail sector ‘extracts’ agricultural products with exploitative farm prices at the expenses of dignified livelihood of farm workers. Indeed, more and more farmers each year abandon their farms because of their inability to make a living, while the overproduction (between 30 and 50% of all food produced in the world is wasted) contributes to soil depletion.
The pandemic as a catalyst of alternative economies
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a trigger for many more community kitchens to emerge to support all those unable to work and earn a salary to pay for food, those who were self-isolating or sheltering and could notn’t leave their home for shopping, and those who did not have access to institutional kitchens who would provide their meals. The disruption to farm workers' travel (especially seasonal workers) and to the food distribution infrastructure have also been a reasons for many communities to begin rethinking alternative ways to produce crops, to source food and to prepare meals, that could be controlled by communities directly, bypassing the problems emerging from fragile and unsustainable capitalist practices. While some of these initiatives have been limited to the peak of the pandemic and short-lived, others have been seeking ways to become viable and reliable alternatives to the way food has been produced and accessed to date, helping to change the food system for the better.
Some of the most interesting examples of community kitchens and community cafes aligned to the vision of an agroecological urbanism include the Granville Community Kitchen and the Wolves Lane community food hub in London (UK), the many pop-up kitchens and community ovens scattered across Rosario’s huertas in peri-urban green belt (Argentina), the Cuisines de Quartier, or neighbourhood’s community kitchens network, in Brussels (Belgium), the Uphakanini Community Kitchen in Cape Town (South Africa), the Ollas Comunes in Lima (Peru), and the community kitchens in Gaza (Palestine).
Community kitchens exist today in many forms. From charity-led or church-led approaches (mostly soup kitchens), to self-organised self-help kitchens. In its idealised form the Landed Community Kitchen combines three ambitions:
It is a land-based and agroecology-based kitchen: land-based means that it not only sources the food externally from agroecological farmers, but that it does also grow food to some extent (and hence it provides an opportunity to learn about the whole cycle of food from soil care to plant growing, to harvesting, to cooking). The food that is sourced externally comes as much as possible from agroecological farmers in the territory/locality (so, organic short-food-chain produce), and from agroecological farmers overseas when culturally appropriate food cannot be grown locally.
The kitchen has a political pedagogies programme focussed on community empowerment (for example promoting decolonial awareness and action, i.e. antipatriarchy, anticapitalism, anti hetero-normativity, knowledge on history of food, exploitation in the food system, etc.) and reskilling (around soil care, plants growing, food cooking and food-based medicine).
The kitchen is actively seeking to transform the broader food system, and particularly issues of broader access to healthy food, and dignified livelihoods, by actively seeking to build alternative economies, rather than just food provision for a small group of members.
The Landed Community Kitchen we imagine is a place that integrates agroecological food growing, community composting, food cooking facilities and political pedagogies for transforming the food system. It works as a food hub, possibly run as a community interest company, to provide both, reskilling opportunities across the board, from field to fork (agroecological food growing skills, soil care training, multi-cultural cooking skills and decolonial, ecologically sustainable food system education) and sustainable, seasonal and affordable healthy meals to eat locally or take away.
We imagine the community kitchen to be present in local communities as much as primary schools are, to be run by local community groups (in an intersection of diversity of belonging, identities and ages) and to be participated and supported in a variety of ways (funding, logistics, time, social programmes) by local businesses, schools, local councils and the broader community. The on-site food growing and composting would mostly have pedagogical functions, rather than the ambition to provide all the needed resources to feed the community. Indeed the community kitchen would be a nodal point to interface with a range of food growing spaces across the locality and farmers in the peri-urban fringe, from which to source the bulk of the seasonal food.
The community kitchen could be linked to alternative currencies and time banks to enable broader access to food (valuing a diversity of resources to be exchanged for food in the community) and would have links to a number of other building blocks, for example it could share land made available through the implementation of the Productive Housing Estate, it could host political pedagogies initiatives (see Political Pedagogies) and, through the hosting of the community compost, contribute to cycling of organic waste -constitute a neighbourhood hub for organic waste collection and processing - and contribute to the creation of a Healthy Soil Scape.
Within this configuration the community kitchen can transform the food system by recentering it at neighbourhood scale and into the hands of the community; it would provide a concrete opportunity to create food commons; it could radically decommodify food provisions by linking to time banks and alternative currencies; it would offer transformational reskilling opportunities by sharing people’s diverse food knowledge, including nutritional and medicinal properties of food; if linked to institutional catering, food procurement and employment hubs it could contribute to broadly relocalise the local food economy.
From the metabolic perspective, the community kitchen would operate as a hub for a healthy soil scape, for example by collecting organic food waste from the neighbourhood, partially using it on its own land, and partially redistributing it to the farmers in their network. The short chain nature of all the food it handles would also largely impact on, and substantially transform, the current layout of metabolic flows in the city. It would operate as a component of a territorial hub and pedagogical centre and would link its reskilling work to a broader understanding of the politics of food, including the politics of urban metabolism.
The key messages illustrated below address some of the key issues that community groups face when trying to create long term and viable community kitchens, such as: how to source the food locally and keep it affordable? Is waste food or food surplus the only viable option? Can kitchens offer culturally appropriate food? Who is doing the cooking labour? Should people pay for the food or not? And if yes, how? Do community kitchens require a new value system?
A transformative community kitchen is a social infrastructure of social reproduction.
Community kitchens can be an important neighbourhood infrastructure, to be able to offer highly equipped cooking spaces to communities in need. However, this doesn’t reduce the community kitchen to a mere physical infrastructure. For a community kitchen to work as an empowering device, it needs to be cherished, valued, resourced, and invested (socially and financially). The labour and the relations that make them function needs to be recognised. They need to be seen as effectively a piece of social infrastructure, with the potential to reconfigure the labours and relations of social reproduction out of oppressive models, moving away from gendered and racist binaries.
The network of the Cuisines de Quartier started in Brussels in 2019, originating from several previous action-research projects looking into the accessibility of healthy and organic food. Of course, the price came up as an issue in these trajectories, but also the lack of decent kitchen infrastructure and time for cooking, and cultural and dietary differences were identified as obstacles. As such, the non-profit organisation supports mostly self-organised community groups to frequently cook together and connects them to kitchens, for example the one of a local community centre or school. Although inspired by the Cuisines Collectives in Quebec, the network of Cuisines de Quartier (neighbourhood kitchens) specifically does not only target precarious groups, but strives to be a movement with a big diversity of groups that can learn from each other. Several activities are set in place within the network to link to agroecological initiatives, such as pedagogical activities and games on needs, cultural habits and demands, understanding of additives and the food system and visits to agroecological farms. Similar initiatives exist in cities around the globe and flourished during the Covid pandemic. Community kitchens like the Cuisines de Quartier cannot be reduced to mere physical infrastructure but function as an empowering device and work effectively as a piece of social infrastructure with the potential to reconfigure the labours and relations of social reproduction out of charity models.
A community kitchen in every neighbourhood can help dismantling patriarchal, colonial and individualised approaches to food, and nourish ideas and practices that consider food as a commons.
The current dominant approach to food is based on individual choices: people choose what to buy and most worryingly, how much food to waste individually, or as part of their family arrangements. The current food system approach does little to include considerations of what food is available, how this relates to a colonial past, and how this is prepared and eaten. Often women are expected to be in charge of food preparation even when they have caring responsibilities and a full time job outside the home. However, the emerging community kitchen movement can build on the historical imaginary of the materialist feminist movement of the late Nineteenth century, which has been envisioning a world in which kitchens where part of social collective arrangements, rather than individualised segregated spaces aligned with patriarchal oppressive family structures.
A multiplicity of spatial and social arrangements were experimented and designed: from kitchenless houses with shared housekeeping facilities, to large scale co-housing /neighbourhoods with central kitchens (see image). Contemporary, agroecology-based and politically-active community kitchens can help to reconsider food and meal production as a collective responsibility, challenging patriarchy and colonialism both in the fields and in the house.
Community kitchens don’t have to rely on food discarded from the conventional supply chain to be able to operate: equity and solidarity funding models are alternatives to funding agroecological food for all.
“Surplus” food discarded by the mainstream food supply chain is abundant, and there are often financial incentives to access it (i.e. it is cheap, or free). However, this is often food that is conventionally grown (using agrochemicals and pesticides), shipped from the other side of the planet, and unfairly paid to farmers and farmworkers, who struggle to obtain dignified livelihoods. Charity-based food projects often rely on donations to distribute the food to people in need, without challenging the injustices in the food systems that affect farmers and consumers.
One of the key challenges for community kitchens is to move away from this food (and these allocation models), and accessing agroecological food, which is healthy for people and for the planet, and grown and marketed with justice. This is particularly difficult when the aim is to source food locally (which is more expensive than imported food), when people most in need are on low incomes, and when culturally appropriate food can not be grown locally. The Granville Community Kitchen in London is an inspiring organisation in the North-West London. While at present, Granville is not yet able to organise food aid without surplus food from the mainstream food supply chain, they have undertaken several actions to provide as much as possible local, healthy and socially just food. One of the core values of the organisation is also to provide for culturally diverse dietary needs. For example, through a veg box scheme called ‘Good Food Box’ in a pay-what-you-can principle, they cater for a wide range of eaters, providing optional African and Carribean Heritage bags. By linking community supported agriculture (CSAs) models (producers-consumers alliances), with equity models (sliding scales of veg-box, to allowing the creation of an equity fund), and when necessary, by importing from agroecological producers cooperatives overseas, community kitchens can enable a much broader access to good food, that would otherwise only be available to middle classes.
Agroecology-based Community Kitchens can be places for decolonising and re-articulating the entire food system.
The historical movement for co-operative housekeeping brings the burgeoning reflection of cooperative enterprise of the workers movement into the sphere of domestic work. Pierce's revolution begins in the kitchen and in the de- and reconstruction of the many social, political and economic relations wrapped up in it. Taking control of the kitchen is taking control of the many relations of dependency reproduced in everyday life. Today this translates directly into the decolonial struggle and unexpected forms of solidarity that come out of community kitchens.
A transformative community kitchen based on the principles of agroecology can play a pivotal role in the radical restructuring of the entire food system, including both relations with producers (near and afar) and urban consumers. By accessing urban and peri-urban land or liaising with peri-urban farmers they can contribute to develop a territorial food system, mindful of farmers’ livelihoods. By making the food broadly accessible, it addresses injustice in the availability of healthy food for all. By cooking and eating together, it can break with patriarchal and individualised approaches to food. By also sourcing food overseas from agroecological farmers, it can make available culturally appropriate food to a wider group of people. By organising forms of political engagement and knowledge sharing within the territory, alongside convivial initiatives, the kitchen can encourage the broader resourcefulness and solidarity, vis-a-vis the neoliberal city.
During this research carried out within the Urbanising in Place project we have engaged in conversations with a number of actors engaged in community kitchens in different contexts, ranging from South America to the Middle East, from South Africa to Nepal and many countries in between. Some of them have been approached for in-depth interviews and others have been engaged through webinars and workshops. Alongside people with current experience of community kitchens, we had in-depth conversations with people who had an extensive experience of community kitchens over the past decades as part of their day-to-day life in former socialist countries. Finally, we have also grounded our reflections in our own practices, as some of us are/have been active in community food initiatives that have set up community cafes or kitchens, or have done research on the deployment of food waste to tackle food poverty.
Agroecology Now! collective (2022), “For feminist agroecologies” – a short animation in multiple language - https://vimeo.com/685389619
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Gennari C., Tornaghi C. (2020), “The transformative potential of community kitchens for an agroecological urbanism. Preliminary insights and a research agenda”, in Agroecological transitions confronting climate breakdown. Food planning for the post-carboncity. Book of Proceedings of the 9th International Conference of the AESOP Sustainable food planning group. Madrid, November 2019. Publisher: Editorial Universidad de Granada. pp. 80-90. ISBN: 978-84-338-6533-5. Published online on the 2nd of March 2020.
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