Ecological care through food community engagement

Hello, Roots Radicals community!

From Foodscapes that trigger future collective ideas in our last week’s post, now we’re taking a closer look at the social spaces that are created around food surpluses. As we learn more about the interconnected spaces with food and community, we’re becoming more aware of our food consumption impact and the actions we could take towards a sustainable shift. Throughout this Blog space and Rooted Lives, we shared with different collectives, projects and professions all connected through a sincere goal to eat outside the boundaries of our nonviable food systems. Either with written publications, future-image productions, or cooking practices, they’re all taking the first couple of steps, while inspiring us -and hopefully you too- to be part of the change! In Roots Radicals, we are constantly looking to nurture our preserving practice from local and global initiatives. Because we want to keep on exploring how to repurpose food bi-products and surpluses in the most creative and collective ways.

A surplus is an excess of food-material that can be found in a range of spaces from food production to consumption. These food-surplusses either are too much to handle and distribute by producers or they simply don’t meet the capitalistic standards of supermarkets, and so they become waste. Instead of this food becoming land-fill waste –causing 2.7 Tg of nitrogen emissions per year– a variety of community-based and solidarity groups and institutions have taken the scope of food surpluses to feed those in need and generate social engagement. Food in Community (FiC) is one of these, and through co-creative actions, they are redefining the value of food surpluses in Totnes’ community. Last Friday 19th we invited them to our Rooted Lives #6, and we had a heart to heart conversation with Nadine Ungefugt, a dear team member of this organization that ingeniously manages food-surpluses in the UK.

Creative System for managing Food-surplusses. Image by: Food in Community, 2020

“In the FiC project, the medium is the surplus. This one connects local producers, through ethical and collaborative actions, to deliver food to people in need. These are often vulnerable private households, but also different organizations that take care of vulnerable groups in society (mental illness, seniors, refugees, etc.) so they could have access to great local, seasonal and bio food -which otherwise would not be accessible for them. Food is the social glue that sticks together all those -sometimes broken- pieces inside a community. We have different nationalities, backgrounds, religions and age groups -but we are all there to save the food and help those in need. This is a purposeful action that we bring into sharing the table.”

The Food in Community team manages to bring closer and give visibility to all the communities involved in the project: farmers, volunteers, cookers and families (of different cultural background and shapes). By creating first this social bond, they can foster spaces of encounter with the natural process of the land, following the idea from farm to fork, and then fork to farm again. But how and where exactly is this amazing effort taking place? From land-gleaning events with local farmers to cooking and upcycling workshops with chefs and also packing and distribution of saved-food boxes to local houses in need. All of this with the common thread of creatively manage Food-surpluses.

“There was one delivery last Christmas, during the Covid-19 pandemic, that can explain the challenge we sometimes face when managing one type of food surplus. After the seasonal gleaning, we had around 20 boxes of lemons and had run out of ideas on how to preserve them. So we reached out to the community cooking & processing group for some feedback (they got stronger during lockdown by learning new recipes digitally-together to tackle social isolation). Then, they connected us to very talented chefs in the town, who created an elaborated recipe with lemon curd and organized an online cooking event with other members and volunteers of the group. Over one day we delivered the entire boxes of lemons to them and prevented food to go to waste. This taught us that food-saving it’s about being creative, spontaneous and resilient!”

And we surely agree with Nadine! When food becomes the reason to bring down social or cultural barriers and open up to a common responsibility with the earth we eat from, then we are truly going into the roots of community-building. In the Food in Community project their food-saving practice is not understood as separate or isolated actions, rather they see themselves as an interconnected, communal and caring labour alliance. “Nourishing the community with community actions, is such a circular win-win idea!” -says Nadine. Like this Totness foodscapes include democratic spaces for neighbourhood engagement, in which each person feels welcomed to contribute with ideas and even share their needs in a safe and open space around food. 

Food Community Power! Photos: Food in Community, 2020

As we keep on talking, we learned that the resilient power of this project’s community and volunteer work, paired with creativity and empathy, in managing to democratize access to good food for vulnerable houses. So, regardless of the scale of a community, small and collective changes can have a huge impact on the global Food Systems. This valuable lesson is something that I personally discover with Nadine, as a foodie and a designer. Back in 2019, she introduced me to practical and communal food saving actions in Dessau through her project Mit-tag. She managed to put together the efforts of a wonderful group of Design students and professors from Hochschule Anhalt, in collaboration with the community kitchen of the VorOrt, to save and share food surpluses from the Bibernelle Bio-lieferdienst with the Dessau community. 

This local and collective project was the foundational stone of her transition path into a more grounded design practice dedicated to building community across borders. In 2020, she took the decision to take the Erasmus programme as an opportunity to keep learning within other context and geography in Totnes, UK. “My current design studies didn’t teach me what I wanted to learn, so I searched for another source of knowledge into the people who are already doing this.” Even when this idea took her far away from Germany, she expressed her will to bringing and sharing what she learned within the Dessau community, to see how it could work and adapt to her homeland context. Nadine’s story is one to be shared because it could inspire others: no matter the background or life-stage you’re at if you have a burning curiosity dare to follow it! 

“From a perspective of Master in Integrated Design, I learned that we need to think about design beyond the university context, where we usually typify the human’s needs and desires to fit our prototypes. Today, for example, I’m looking into service design as putting my design skills into service for and with the community, through food-saving actions. Sometimes I can be actively propositive and others I would observe and learn from the team of volunteers I’m working with on the FiC project. So then I could figure out peoples needs by looking into what brings a community together. This allowed me to add another layer of social design skills to my practice which looks at food as a catalyst to re-thinking everyday ecological behaviours. If I think further, I would like to connect this to our current climate emergency, biodiversity loss and social fragmentation and inequality.”

And she certainly found an incredible mentorship with Chantelle Norton and David Markson, co-creators and leaders of Food in Community. This is why I was compelled to carry through this Rooted Lives #6 with Nadine a little bit further and get to know the core team and story behind this initiative. Together with our dear Monica Kisic, we manage to gather the tables from Berlin, Dessau and Totness during a morning tea time over zoom. There we found so many similarities between this Totnes-based initiative and Roots Radicals, from the foundational goals -and struggles- and food community values and engagement strategies.

Leaders that inspire citizens engagement! Photos: Food in Community, 2020 and Roots Radicals, 2020

Similar to Monica’s story, for David, the Food in Community project was a carrier shift and life-changing path. From being a professional photographer in London, he moved to the rural area of south Devon and enrolled in a sustainable food-coop course. Whereas he wanted to do something about sustainable food consumption, he was yet exploring how to do it. Then, during the organic farm field trips of his course, he was astonished to presence the big amount of surplus crops laying on the ground, evidence of the UK’s huge food-waste problem. This was it! David set a goal to not only save organic crops but that these serve to feed vulnerable communities, creating social empathy and a strong sense of belongingness.

“The idea appeal to the organic farmers’ community, as I proposed collaboration during the land gleaning season, as the beginning point for Food in Community actions. But it took me over a year -or more- to present this idea to ‘business men’, so they took a chance and invest in it. Thanks to the collaboration of another foundational member, we managed to do it! And by the end of 2011, we delivered our first food boxes to the homeless charity for Christmas dinner. This was a great and meaningful start to then constitute the project as a Community Interest Company (CIC). It has been quite a unique journey through all these years, into adapting to change of politics, environmental concerns and community needs around food.”

The FiC project recognized since the beginning that to make a collective idea for change sustainable and inviting, they needed to add social activities and spaces to the focus of managing food surpluses. “We want to support people’s nutritional, social and emotional needs” mentioned Chantelle. With community building at the core of their food-saving actions, we relate to the power of a radical idea and acknowledge the creation path of Roots Radicals: “there were a lot of courageous steps to take -when you don’t come from the business world- to make a vision of change happened. But we took them, and because we want to share the conscious responsibility to put Planet over Profit into our own hands” recalled Monica.

When we -any conscious community of eaters around the globe- decide to shift into a locally-grown, ecologically mindful and community caring food consumption, we attract likeminded people from different backgrounds. A perfect example is both Chantelle and Monica, who coincidentally are two excellent microbiologists. Both decided to put their scientific know-how and their food passion into the fermentation of food surplusses so they become delicious and sustainable food preserves. Looking beyond disciplines, into an innovative and open knowledge-exchange is the  at the base of solidarity-based economies. Creaitve communities are actively changing the unsustainable Food Systems and we could resumed their actions into the principles of the Transition movementstarted by Rob Hopkins in -here is another serendipity moment- Totnes, UK. Through a local and caring culture, transition communities “are reclaiming the economy, sparking entrepreneurship, reimagining work, reskilling themselves and weaving webs of connection and support.”

The community at the heart of food-saving efforts! Cooking workshops, agricultural events and food recipes from the FiC project. Photo: Food in Community, various years.

“I see a lot of creativity in both of our projects, and I think that is our strong suit. In the kitchen of Roots Radicals, we are always excited when a box of saved organic food arrives, because it’s a moment for incubating new ideas on how to transform it into something delicious. That’s how we ended up with around 40 products! Also because we believe in diversity, not only of ingredients but the cultural background and food heritage. And this is something I also find inspiring in the FiC project, its strong relationship with a multicultural community. I think that the bigger the food-community the greater is the cultural knowledge exchange. Even if you were born in the same town, from grandma to grandma there is so much richness and creativity in each recipe.”

For both Food in Community and Roots Radicals, the Covid-19 pandemic represented a huge challenge for our community-building efforts around food, since most of our activities required a close physical presence. But throughout the crisis, we have also discovered new ways of interaction in digital spaces and continued to connect and take care of our communities. Also, for the FiC project the volunteer work and neighbourhood groups have demonstrated a huge solidarity engagement to keep the project providing food to vulnerable households. We learned that voluntary labour is a key element in food-saving actions not only because they help in the logistic aspects of managing surpluses, but because they -and all of us – can perceive the social and emotional value of their effort with each saved-food box or creative recipe. This is what Chantelle called “abundance mentality” and it is found in each of the FiC volunteers and team members: “We’ve got fantastic people coming from a homeless background, or refugees community, even people with previous mental health problems, disabilities or other vulnerable groups. And they are all are valuable members of the project.”

Food is a social catalyst for ecological change and both Food in Community and Roots Radicals are thriving from this idea. We hope to soon be able to share more than an online tea time with this amazing project, and also open up co-learning spaces to keep innovating with you -guest/reader- around cooking ways that also reduce food waste. For now, we will keep our efforts to empower our local -and even global- community to take change into their own tables. Every step into a more sustainable consumption counts, and is even better when you share these efforts with others. As Hopkins mentioned in his book From what is to what if, “by unleashing the collective genius of those around us to creatively and proactively design our energy descent, we can build ways of living that are more connected, more enriching and that recognize the biological limits of our planet.” Couldn’t be more excited for what is coming up next, as we transition together one delicious and conscious meal at a time.

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