SOCIAL GASTRONOMY: CAN FOOD CHANGE SOCIETY?
It's not everyday you're invited to an event paid for by Cargill, attended by Slow Food and moderated by a man who knows the Dalai Lama.
A movement isn’t a marketing tool. It’s the antidote to “Old habits die hard.” It prepares the ground for new and different ways of thinking and acting. It creates cultural receptivity and popular support for new approaches. It makes it easier for a host of innovations with similar objectives to stick, to thrive and to have lasting impact.
I think I accidentally joined a movement a few weeks ago in Miami. A real movement with a cause and everything. It was me and about 70 others, though the global group is way bigger. We all got together in a circle, moderated by an expert, and many of us pledged to help. To offer our time, skills and creativity. To become advocates of the movement's message, flag-flyers for its final goals. The only real problem was: we still had to decide the message, and could we all agree on the goals?
The movement I'm speaking about is that of 'Social Gastronomy': a development that's been bubbling for a long time now and something in simple terms that equates to 'positively impacting society with food.' Like most movements, it's inception is hard to pin down, but the causes and projects launched in its name are tangible and impactful.
I'm speaking about things like The Clink charity in the UK that have, probably without realising, been pushing the idea of Social Gastronomy since 2009. The Clink equates to four restaurants housed inside UK prisons that see inmates train, learn, grow and feed a hungry public who pay top prices for their food. Brave to launch a kitchen manned by criminals, especially one packed with all manner of sharp objects, but that's the point: inclusion. The rewarding feeling of feeding someone, the discipline of the kitchen, the meritocratic hierarchy, it's all proven to be a perfect recipe for rehabilitation. A good percentage of inmates who leave The Clink acquire employment in the restaurant industry and they've trained over 800 prisoners. They've also launched two horticultural gardens to work alongside their restaurants.
This really is just one example. There are groups fighting food terrorism in The Middle East, chefs like Jose Andres and Massimo Bottura using their resources and status to create systems to feed thousands of people in need – in Bottura's case with food that would otherwise go to waste and in the case of Andres, the chef helped feed millions of people in Puerto Rico after the devastating Hurricanes that ravaged the country at the end of 2017.
The above examples barely scratch the surface of the movements overall momentum. There's Maria Fernanda pushing Venezuelan chocolate farmers to educate and earn more for their internationally revered product – product many of them have never tasted. There's the Italian chef Niko Romito producing healthier more delicious hospital menus in Rome, and Ebru Baybara helping vulnerable Turkish and Syrian women, many refugees, to improve their employment prospects through culinary training. The list is endless and above is just the chefs. This movement includes students, NGOs, charities, non-profits, academics, researchers, entrepreneurs and social enterprises. Ideas driving all manner of issues: from equality to economy, hunger to waste.
It's also important to note that Social Gastronomy is not just a charity crusade to feed the world. There's Dan Barber trying to rescue flavour in farming with his Row7 seed breeding company. Karen Leibowitz and Anthony Myint proving that top restaurants can operate with zero foodprint. Community farmers around the world taking local plots and turning them into dense gardens. The biggest misconception of this activism is that it's driven by a 'Let's-feed-the-world' rhetoric.
Social Gastronomy can also be for profit: innovation, technology, politics, education – even medicine. The Alícia Foundation, for example, is a centre “devoted to technological innovation in cuisine, the improvement of eating habits and the evaluation of the food heritage.” It was originally founded through a collaboration between the Spanish chef Ferran Adria and the cardiologist Valentí Fuster. The foundation works on many different topics including new food solutions for cancer patients.
Adria, forever at the cutting edge, was part of the G9 chefs summit in 2011 when he and eight fellow chefs published a manifesto dubbed the 'Lima Declaration,' a call to action for chefs that was shunned by many at the time who claimed they should stay in their kitchen and simply cook! “We dream of a future in which the chef is socially engaged, conscious of and responsible for his or her contribution to a just a sustainable society,” stated the document, which now reads as a prediction of what was to come from the future generation of chefs.
Chefs like Daniel Giusti, who trained under Rene Redzepi, who also part of the G9 meeting. Giusti stepped out of the Noma restaurant and launched BrigAid , a company trying to change the school food system in America by creating a business that can provide better, tastier and healthier food for competitive prices. The different walks of society touched by the movement are truly endless.
BACK TO THAT CIRCLE IN MIAMI
70 of us: farmers, writers, bankers, journalists, chefs, thinkers, ministers, experts of all manner. Social warriors sat with corporate giants, philosophers with pessimists, optimists facing opposition. At one point there were tears, a corporate rep coming head on with a food activist. It was awkward, uncomfortable, sometimes elating, often inspiring – we were there for difficult discussions.
The reflective circle of individuals had been created by Gastromotiva – a Brazilian NGO founded by chef David Hertz, which is behind a number of socially driven food projects. 70 people sounds like a lot, but it's a speck of the overall movement's members. Many people behind projects like those mentioned above don't even even know they're part of the Social Gastronomy movement: and this was partly the aim of the meeting. To cement it, define it, to help brand and market it, to try and bring shared values, goals and resources together under one roof: no easy feat.
That's why Charles Holmes, a leading facilitator and all-round inspiring guy, was hired by Gastromotiva to help the group share ideas, open up, convey opinions and, hopefully, agree to work together in the future to help push Social Gastronomy forward. This was done through a series of different conversations, breakaway-brainstorms and deep discussions sparked by photographs: my group had an image of a woman farming, she looked content in her space, surrounded by her chickens, perhaps she didn't need or want help – “Write that down, let's bring it up with the group”. Others stared at a woman buying cake, as another group discussed an image of chefs cooking together: each photo a catalyst for conversation. There were breakaway groups led by different members who felt passionately about specific topics. I led one on lexicon and the use of words, others led groups on all manner of topics: co-leadership, funding, the upcoming Olympics and how the movement could play a role. Even how Social Gastronomy could link with the Sustainable Development Goals set out by the United Nations.
“The most powerful dialogue I ever designed and facilitated was called Connecting for Change,” explained Holmes just after facilitating the final day. “It was with the Dalai Lama and 140 people from around the world, absolutely transformative. What it missed was change around what topic – change for the sake of what? This is the closest thing I have experienced to Connecting for Change,with a focus on something that we all need, all love and all require, and that's food.”
Even Holmes, a man who facilitated a talk between the Dalai Lama and 140 different CEOs, seemed surprised by the expertise and energy in the room. “There's something about the timing of this being right,” he said, “so many people in this room have been working directly or indirectly in this space for at least 13, 14, 15, 16 years – this isn't just a bunch of people suddenly coming up with an idea.” (See the full list of the attendees).
The meeting in Miami was just another cog in a machine that's been slowly building for years. A movement that's grown in speed, not coincidently, since the world population started to reconnect with their own food. 1903 was the earliest reference I found for the term Social Gastronomy, it referred to the idea of different social classes dining together at the table. A simple concept that still seems to capture the most basic essence of the movement's ideals in 2018.
The most exciting and affirming aspect of the two-day conversation was to realise just how prevalent Social Gastronomy now is around the world: to see protagonists sharing their ideas and being encouraged by each other. This movement impacts the whole of society and thousands of people are now making it their full-time profession. From groups innovating with food technology in Africa, to organisations feeding the homeless of New York and entrepreneurs creating apps to turn profit from the excess food we leave in restaurants. This is going nowhere, and it will benefit everyone.
In 2016, The Basque Culinary World Prize was launched. It was dubbed at the time, 'The Nobel Peace Prize of food.' They donate a 100,000 euro annual prize to chefs who “transform society through gastronomy.” An international award that investigates each finalist to measure and asses the impact they have made through their work with food. This has taken the 2011 G9 chef summit to the next level, legitimising what many originally cast off as shameless self-promotion by highlighting a large group of inspiring Social Gastronomy projects.
Perhaps the most inspiring thing about the talks was to realise how accessible the movement is. How it doesn't need a name or a brand to continue impacting society. How millions of people are already taking part without even realising it, every time they reduce their food waste, every time they choose a product with less packaging, every time they make a conscious choice to buy local. Every time you do something as simple as sharing a meal.
The Social Gastronomy movement is inspiring, there's no denying that, I also hope to take part in it one day. It's aspirational and fundamental enough to actually make a difference and in this society that resonates. I think anyone attending the talks in Miami would agree with this. But all the protagonists should understand that the beauty of the movement lies in the inspiring projects being launched in its name, in how society is being positively impacted by each of them. There's a danger in trying to force those steady trickles of tangible change to run together as one stream.
Pool the resources, of course, share ideas, swap inspirational stories and keep meeting to make sure the movement is on track, but don't allow it all to be packaged under one umbrella, and certainly don't allow a movement that already includes millions of people to be highjacked by an outside bidder. Cargill is one of the world's largest food-trading companies and it's pitched as the poster-boy of globalised food, they sit in direct opposition to most, if not all of the movements fundamental ideals. Movements by their very essence are started as direct opposition to ruling systems. Cargill paid $1.5 million for a seat at the table, to sponsor further Gastromotiva events, to pay for a new online hub. And, in their own words,“to take the Social Gastronomy Movement global." Such a big player paying to debate with grassroots activists just seems like an anomaly to me, but I'm a natural pessimist, perhaps it's just another example of the transformative strength of Social Gastronomy.