Tasty Tuesdays is a weekly community meal in Lenton, Nottingham. This blog asks where the line is between charity and food justice, and advocates a hopeful approach to food projects.
It’s a cold evening in Nottingham. As I walk up to Thomas Helwys Baptist church, people are gathering outside, cups of coffee and squash in hand. They’re chatting, familiar with each other. Not with me. It’s my first time volunteering for Tasty Tuesdays, and the regulars spot me as I walk in. “First time?” they call, and without waiting for an answer they carry on their conversations.
Tasty Tuesdays is a weekly community meal cooked by volunteers. The food served has been saved from supermarket bins that morning, following supermarket alerts. The project began as a mechanism for integrating Nottingham’s large student population with local residents. The idea was to use food as a way to bring the community together, dissolve tensions and build a kind of mutual understanding. But that’s not what happened. With the offer of a free hot meal, it was Lenton’s food insecure that came to eat.
Using surplus food to feed people experiencing food insecurity is controversial. On the one hand, it reduces food waste, and can support services in engaging hard to reach groups with other services, such as housing, finance and employment support. It can also normalise consuming what we would normally classify as ‘waste’.
Yet many argue that it’s undignified to feed people left overs and that it need reduces the incentive for governments to deal with the root causes of food poverty. Equally, the supermarkets and producers that donate food get the PR benefit of reducing waste, whilst still profiting from insecure working conditions.
Whether people believe that redistribution projects are good or bad, there appears to be agreement these projects are ‘charity’. They meet an immediate need in an unjust system, but they aren’t doing justice (whatever that is).
I don’t agree. Tasty Tuesdays, and other food redistribution projects, contribute to a more just food system in the here-and-now, and lay the groundwork for a transformed food regime.
What is food justice?
There isn’t much consensus on what food justice actually means. It’s a movement that has roots in the US, and is generally concerned with empowering marginalised communities to feed themselves. It therefore focuses more on eaters than on producers, in contrast with other food movements like Food Sovereignty. However, no-one seems particularly sure how to spot project that are actually doing food justice. Look at the various definitions, there seems to be 3-4 key criteria a project needs to meet in order to ‘count’:
- Recognising/unmasking injustices in the current food regime – Food justice projects recognise that not everyone has access to safe, affordable and culturally appropriate food. Food justice is about making these injustices visible, and showing how they are rooted in forms of structural inequality, particularly racism. This contrasts to other alternative food networks, such as localisation, which do not focus on inequalities in the food regime.
- Developing community interventions to address current inequalities – Food justice takes place within communities, and involves grassroots rather than top-down interventions that seek to build capacity and resilience. What justice means, therefore, is specific to that community.
- A willingness/capacity for transformation of the food regime, and social change more broadly – Food justice movements have to be concerned with transforming the food system as a whole, as well as dealing with here-and-now inequalities. Some authors extend this to a fourth element which entails building a theory for long-term structural change and social justice as a whole.
So how does Tasty Tuesdays do food justice?
If we take these criteria at face value, Tasty Tuesdays doesn’t do food justice at all. Although the first two conditions are met (there is a recognition of inequality in the food system and an attempt to address this through redistributing food) there is little in the way of community organising to change the food system. This approach would have us believe that Tasty Tuesdays is a somewhat neutral event. It’s not doing justice. The people who come to eat and cook are passive: they have no role in reshaping the food system.
For me though, this doesn’t recognise the transformation that happens each Tuesday over dinner. Tasty Tuesdays is doing food justice by creating a space where those marginalised by the current system can participate in society. It is a space where people can be together, or be in common and recognise their interdepencies. Finally, it transforms social relationships through the radical act of care.
Participation in Society
Food insecurity means that participating in society is more difficult. Many things that are usually taken for granted, like having a cup of tea with a friend, become impossible. This can contribute to social isolation and loneliness. Tasty Tuesdays creates an opportunity for people to build relationships through eating and sharing food. Each week, there are challenging conversations about what it means to be a resident of Lenton, of Nottingham, of the planet Earth. Importantly, there is no guardianship over who can and cannot participate – all are welcome. For many, this is their only opportunity to participate as a citizen and eater. This sets the groundwork for developing new spaces of citizenship, where democratic participation can take place
It’s important to add that food justice isn’t as well established in the UK as it is in America. Where in the US the food justice movement has organised itself around issues of race in particular, it is not yet clear how justice is understood in the UK, particularly to those excluded from the conversation in the first place. Tasty Tuesdays is an opportunity to participate in shaping the understanding of injustice.
The act of simply being together, as people and eaters, can begin to transform systems in the way that the definitions of Food Justice demand. The current food regime hides social relationships such as those between producers and consumers, or those who can access food and those who can’t. Being together, cooking together, and ‘finding food and deciding what to do with it’ together begins the process of unmasking our interdependence and the inequalities that exist between us.
The creation of a just food system requires radical visibility for knowing food origins, ensuring fair labour and trade, and fair food distribution. Understanding the interdependencies of the local community is a good place to start.
Care is a need that is not met in the current food system. Tasty Tuesdays subverts the food regime by placing care for the community at the centre of their provision, rather than profit. This alone is a radical act.
The current food regime states time and time again that people who cannot access food are undeserving, or a burden on society. Tasty Tuesdays disrupts this idea by practicing care through sharing food, providing warmth, shelter and above all kindness. They go beyond saying, ‘you are deserving’, and instead remove the notion of ‘deserving’ altogether by simply providing access to food for anyone who comes along each week. This is a radical re-framing of food that is necessary for any successful reformation of the food system.
These three acts of justice help to transform the social relationships that take place in food systems. This is equally important to policy change or economic change in creating and sustaining a just food regime.
A hopeful approach
When we look at alternative food projects, we need to start from a place of hope and optimism. It’s easy to close our minds to projects like Tasty Tuesdays and look for ways that alternative food practices contribute to the current regime, rather than creating something different. But what does that leave us with? The dangerous question of “what’s the point?”.
That’s not to say that it isn’t essential to keep questioning why people aren’t being fed. But it’s also important not to abandon people who are not able to eat right now, and to give projects space to contribute to meaningful social change. Tasty Tuesdays might not transform global labour rights, but that doesn’t mean that an equally radical social transformation hasn’t taken place, one that is just as important in creating meaningful change.
The way we tell stories about food justice projects is also important. As we narrate, we also construct. The way we describe things can make them more powerful. If we view projects like Tasty Tuesdays only as symptoms of the current food regime, we somehow allow this regime to take even more space. Instead, we can use our narratives to inspire, mobilize and support these efforts to create a just food regime.
When we’ve shut down the kitchen, boxed up the leftovers and sent everyone home with bags full of pastries and fruit, we all feel a little different. We’ve shared something – a meal, and something more.
Header image credit: Author’s own