Bring It to the Table: Creating Justice Through Food

In Articles on 20 November 2011 at 11:19 am

 Guppi Bola & Bethan Graham

Our decisions about food are complicated by the fact that we don’t eat alone. Table fellowship has forged social bonds as far back as the archaeological record allows us to look. Food, family, and memory are primordially linked.
— Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals

What do we understand by the term food justice? Is it the search for accessible, affordable and healthy food for all? Or is there a role for food in tackling today’s larger-than-self problems?

If we think about scarcity, the term food justice describes our reaction to the stark injustices of our food system; one in which more than a billion people live in hunger while more than half of all the food produced globally is lost, wasted or discarded. The UK alone produces 16 million tonnes of food waste each year, while The Trussell Trust food bank has reported a 50% rise in the number of people coming to them for food parcels. At the same time giant multinational companies, banks and hedge funds rake in the profits as food is traded and speculated on, like any other commodity on the global markets. The essential role of food in maintaining human life and health is devalued as the system is skewed against the people who need it most.

Living in a world of contradictions prevents us from feeling a real connection to, or the power to change, the political structures around us. For activists, our understanding of the problems can be so far removed from what we do and where we live that we find an added challenge in connecting our personal activity and our activism. Making this connection — for example by rummaging in bins for thrown away food, changing our diets or growing our own vegetables — is truly empowering as it represents an active disengagement from the companies we disagree with and a redirection of money and/or energy to the practices that we approve of. Yet to do it alone, or only with other activists, can lead to isolation from our own communities as we seek to stay true to our own values yet miss the opportunity to reach outside our comfort zones and engage with others.

Here we look at some examples of exciting projects in the UK that are working with their communities to create food justice, and in doing so are bringing up new ideas and thinking around creating justice through food.

Transition Town Brixton

Our first project takes us to the bustling streets of Brixton, South London. With its rich mix of cultures and history, it was also the birthplace of the first inner-city Transition Town. It is here we meet Emily* (*some names have been changed), part-time Brixton Farmers’ Market manager and part-time London Honey Company worker. Between both these jobs, she spends time with her neighbours growing vegetables in a community garden plot. For her, food is an essential essence of life as it punctuates and structures our day three or more times and gives us the opportunity to enjoy and be good to ourselves. It is a crucible of history and culture; a common thread between everything that lives.

“When I was at an international school food was an important means of teaching each other about our cultures,” Emily says. “Again, it is a chance to give, to show generosity between cultural groups. Food tells stories of religion, climate, abundance or inequality and of historical influences: why do Brits like curry? It is an excellent way into any discipline you want to teach or issue you want to explore.”

Soil Tests at a community garden in South London by London Permaculture. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Living in a highly urbanised area of London, our connection with food is a good way to remind us of our animal nature. We hunger, we eat, we shit. All food ultimately comes from nature and we are more removed from this as a society than we consciously realise.

“I have tried to involve people in my block in growing food and I have been surprised not by the ignorance but by the interest,” she says. “Sarah who lives upstairs suddenly started arriving with gardening equipment, old copies of gardening magazines and all sorts of knowledge. I used to find Tim and Kevin a little scary due to their drinking and sometimes loud discussions on the balcony. But when I started growing food in the courtyard Tim was the first to rush down and start giving me advice.” Little did she know he was a gardener during the week, and his expertise and enthusiasm became the foundation for the others’ interest in recreating their local space.

Emily soon found that by growing food in a neglected corner of the garden into her own block of flats, she had found the common ground that was missing in her interactions with her neighbours. Food provided the context for this to happen, which is all the more poignant in city neighbourhoods where the environment has mostly been concreted over and communities are transient and stratified.

“The necessity of food unites us,” Emily says. “This is why I feel it is an important lynch pin in the community. In the food shop where I work, I cherish meeting a wide variety of people. Sharing tips and ideas about food is a conversation starter and the food itself a prop which gives us a reason to interact. People are more inclined to talk when they have an activity they are engaged in. The tactile nature of picking up vegetables and fruit slows you down – which is why they are always at the front in supermarkets. When working at the farmers’ market I have met many people I never otherwise would have. Food shops help people feel less lonely in the community. That the barista knows which coffee you want before you ask, because they recognise you, is a nice feeling of belonging. In the urban jungle we can often miss this.”


When thinking about food injustice, the issue that seems to shock and resonate with people the most is the sheer amount of good food that is wasted. Globally, 50% of food stocks are thrown away, and the British food industry alone wastes 18 to 20 million tonnes of food each year. That’s five tonnes for every person in the UK living in food poverty. While good food goes to landfill every day, and malnutrition costs the NHS £13 billion every year, more than 2.4 million people are searching for work, including a million 16 to 25 year olds. These statistics too can be seen as waste; it is a waste of human potential that is denied the opportunity to learn and develop new skills. These contradictions are at the heart of Foodcycle, an organisation that seeks to tackle this waste with one simple idea. By providing expertise and lots of support, Foodcycle empowers communities to set up groups of volunteers in their own cities to collect surplus food and turn it into nutritious meals in unused kitchen spaces. The meals are then served to those in need in the community.

Certainly Not Rubbish: Loading the trailer with top quality Metfield Bread. By Unique Multiples CC BY 2.0

For Foodcycle each different type of waste — wasted food, wasted potential and wasted kitchen space — provides a kernel of a solution to the other. Volunteers have the capacity to transform surplus food into nutritious meals for people who need it and in doing so reclaim more than just food. They take back physical space, too, in the form of empty kitchens. More importantly they restore human potential, as people of all ages who have struggled to find meaningful employment are given the opportunity to develop skills, build confidence and take away useful qualifications and character references.

Regular volunteer at the Bristol Foodcycle Hub, Tristan Pringle explains what attracted him to the project:

“The thing that inspired me about Foodcycle initially is still what motivates me to volunteer regularly now — and that is an appreciation of the essential and unique position that food occupies in our personal and social lives, and its resulting power to bring people together. My experience of attending Foodcycle events and feeling the atmosphere of community and kinship created through the act of communal eating really highlighted how working with food could be a way to make a positive impact. From the creativity of preparation in the kitchen to the conversation around the dinner table, I realised that every element of the process can be a source of enjoyment and good energy.”

For Tristan, it’s about communicating the message of food justice in a way that includes everyone. Food isn’t the only way you can do this – but it is a language that every human being shares.

The heart of Foodcycle in Bristol is the Community Kitchen that runs every Sunday in the Easton Community Centre. With no shortage of volunteers or customers, 60+ people come together to chop, eat and chat. Outreach is particularly strong, and has seen many people from homeless and refugee groups initially come to the project for a free and healthy meal, to then become regular volunteers.

The need to generate funds and ensure a steady flow of volunteers for The Community Kitchen has led to the formation of a Student Restaurant, a fortnightly event in which student volunteers prepare a three course meal using food which would otherwise go to waste and sell it for £3 to other students. Different student groups take turns to organise the events, bringing with them their own volunteers to help. In this way one organisation isn’t stretched beyond its capacity, as the responsibility is taken on by a different group each time. Once costs have been covered, the co-ordinating organisation takes 20% of any profit, while the rest goes back to the Community Kitchen, so that everyone who puts energy into the project benefits. Each organisation has a different cause and so their volunteers learn from each other, as new opportunities to collaborate arise.

“Previously in Bristol there had been disparate pockets of motivation,” Tristan says, “but a lack of connection between them and not enough physical events bringing people together to share what they were doing, inspire and learn from each other. Both The Community Kitchen and the Student Restaurant act as hubs for people to meet and talk. Topics of conversation are often centred around ethics and politics; it’s an opportunity to meet new people and discover new ideas, while the meal ties it all together.”

The success of the project lies in the way it combines the power of food with creativity to engage a wide range of people in long term action. Tristan summarises it like this: “It’s all about making the experience as powerful as it can be so it has a lasting effect. To do this you have to make it as fun and as interesting as you can.”

In an effort to make this happen the restaurant is now a place for other student societies to display their work, giving them an outlet to play live music, display artwork and screen films to a large audience. The Photo Soc’s most recent theme is ‘waste’, illustrating how the message behind Foodcycle has been taken and translated into a new medium in a way that helps to spread the message.

The impact of the food system on the environment is not only about where wasted food ends up. It also about where and how it is produced — how far it has travelled, under what conditions workers along the chain have been subjected to, what price farmers have been paid for their product, with what pesticides, on whose deforested land. The problem is political — about who profits and who pays — as food now arrives in Britain from countries around the world with appalling human and animal rights records, and trade systems which benefit big business and lock small farmers into poverty.

Historically, food justice developed during the anti-slavery movement. In Haiti, African slaves were brought over to plantations to raise food and other crops for the French colonisers. After recognising the injustice in which they lived was directly connected with growing sugarcane for their masters, Haitian slaves burned the fields in an attempt to free themselves from oppression. The role of food was not used as an end in itself, but as a means to an end: the sugarcane fields were a representation of suffering and their destruction was a necessity for freedom.

Actions echo through history, and on Environment Day in June 2010, approximately 10,000 Haitian farmers protested by setting fire to the seeds sent to them by Monsanto, a multinational corporation that gains huge profits from propagating hazardous chemical herbicides and genetically engineered seeds that grow into sterile plants, thereby preventing small farmers from carrying out their tradition of saving seeds from one harvest to the next. For a country which suffered so severely during the 2008 food crisis, to then be ravaged by an earthquake which magnified already entrenched problems, food sovereignty is fundamental. It is an approach that emphasises self-determination for small farmers and rejects the corporate control of the globalised food system.

Leeds Abundance Harvest

The last project we will look at, Leeds Urban Harvest, is about highlighting the abundance of fruit growing for free in your local area, entirely outside the capitalist system of food production. In this way it shares the values of the food sovereignty movement, as the project rediscovers the natural routine of picking unharvested seasonal fruit every autumn. The trees and bushes grow in both public and private spaces around the city, thereby pushing through and creating links between the usual demarcations that separate us from each other. The fruit is distributed around the city to local groups, volunteers and the local community, while damaged fruits, which would otherwise be viewed as unsellable in shops and supermarkets and end up in the bin, are turned into juice, preserves, jams and chutneys. The money raised is put back into the project to help with the running costs.

The Urban Harvest project was founded by a group of people who were interested and active in growing their own food. Already engaged in planting fruit trees in nurseries, they began to notice the fruit trees already growing in parks and gardens around them, and the amount of fruit that was available to be picked. Inspired by the The Abundance Project in Sheffield, which hands out free fruit outside supermarkets and uses bike trailers to deliver collected fruit to people in need, Leeds Urban Harvest was formed with the principles of sustainability and sharing free food at its centre.

“It’s a brilliant project,” says Ben, a volunteer who has been involved since the start, “because people get really excited about it, and anyone can get involved, from all ages and backgrounds.” Both projects have an educational aspect, as they seek to show people that home-grown fruit is just as tasty as anything you could find in the shop. When locating fruit trees in Sheffield, the project came across an old lady who would bag up all the apples growing in her garden and put them in her black bin at home because she thought it wasn’t safe to eat them. It is these types of myths that the Leeds Urban Harvest aims to dispel.

“People come just for apples but end up trying all the other different kinds of fruit that they might never have even heard of; cherries, plums, pears but also quinces and mulberries. In doing this you educate new people about the diversity of indigenous fruit in the UK, and start to break down the idea that you need to import tropical fruit for a varied diet. In the supermarket there are sometimes only four different types of apple to choose from, whereas in reality there is so much diversity in the many different varieties of apples that you can sample; each one has its own unique flavour. The project is also becoming more skilled in developing new ways of preserving fruit, so we can extend the amount of time we can rely on it.

Leeds Urban Harvest: Picking and sorting apples.

The group are also developing a map for their website, showing the location of all the fruit trees in public spaces around the city. They are also dividing the area they cover with local Transition and community groups, as there is too much fruit available for one group to manage. Each group will pick the trees in their local areas, allowing them to rely on more sustainable modes of transport, as the majority of all fruit picked is taken to the kitchen and storage area using handmade bike trailers. Food is grown locally, eaten locally, and the money that is generated from the project simply allows the process to repeat itself the following year. It’s a closed-loop system that allows an urban community to take ownership of food production, and in doing so come to know the city in a whole new way.

Food justice issues are complex and communicating them can be difficult. In a country where supermarkets are stacked to the ceiling with food products, how is the population to understand the reality of a global food crisis? The front line of food injustice is felt most keenly abroad, but food projects in this country do have a vital role in addressing the issue here ­— they reinstate the value of food, bringing it to the centre of our debates around social and environmental justice, whilst reducing some of the environmental impacts of food production and delivering access to healthy food for the community right now. In doing this, food projects facilitate the discussions and learning that leads to action, and promotes the ‘social glue’ that makes communities more resilient and vibrant in the face of insecurity.

The three projects we have looked at are three of hundreds taking place around the UK. They are a small snap shot of the multitude of different ways people are expressing their relationship with food, and in doing so creating positive change:

Emily started gardening with her neighbours in order to break through the irony of the isolating structure of an urban block of flats. How it is possible for people to live on top of one another, and yet can remain strangers until some common ground is found?

Foodcycle in itself doesn’t demand structural change to the system that creates the imbalance, but allows people to come together, giving time and space for discussion, whilst making a direct, long lasting, positive impact on the people involved in the project and therefore on the whole issue of waste in the UK.

For Leeds Urban Harvest, the map that traces the fruit trees in Leeds are symbolic of the links that are made between people as they rediscover the productivity of the land beneath the city streets. The map is a blueprint for the future, one in which the food system is something we can trace from tree to table, and that we work together to create.

“Food is a way to engage people in complex environmental and societal issues,” Emily says. “More importantly, my interactions with food allow me to interact with people from different cultures and different age groups that I wouldn’t otherwise connect with. Building social capital is vital for our feeling of general wellbeing. It is simply the ability to phone a neighbour and ask if they could check whether we left the oven on. The more we have of it the more we are able to tackle problems together.”

In this case, food justice can be said to mean bringing the many issues connected to food, as well as food itself, to a table that is surrounded by the diversity of your community. By sharing food you create ‘table fellowship’, which does not change the broken system, but can break down the walls that, by separating us, allow a system so broken to survive.


Guppi Bola came into food justice activism after having a brainwave with her partner-in-crime Casper Ter Kuile on Brighton beach. She gets fired up by the environmental and health impacts of the food industry, but has enjoyed exploring new food based campaign tactics after helping run the Create Justice Through Food programme earlier this summer. Guppi’s academic background is in public health, her “spare time” is spent on activism.

Bethan Graham started thinking more consciously about food after dicing what felt like a thousand onions in the Wales neighbourhood kitchen in the Kingsnorth Climate Camp in 2008. Since then, she has been involved in community kitchen and food growing projects in Leeds and Swansea, and has recently moved to London.

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