Social food or how our meals connect us to global issues and personal stories

MARCH 2019 Highlights

Have you ever thought about the many dimensions that food have? I was invited to participate on behalf of SIMRA in the foundational meeting of something called the Social Food Forum that took place in Italy in early March.

(Own photos. Social Food Forum, March 2019)

The event:

The Social Food Forum was co-organised by Casa Netural (an incubator and co-working space in Matera) and the multifaceted John Thackara, who had contacted me a few weeks before curious about the SIMRA database of examples of social innovation, about which I have already talked here. He was setting up something similar only focused on ¨social food¨ projects, and we had a good talk around curating online catalogues, social innovation in general and the scope of SIMRA in particular.

He was working at the moment in setting up a Social Food Atlas and a Social Food Forum as part of a project called MammaMiaaa that it was being developed under the umbrella of Matera European Capital of Culture 2019. And that is how I ended going to the Mezzogiorno at the beginning of March.

The Forum, who take place between Matera and Grottole, gathered over 15 people involved somehow in very different types of projects related to ‘social food’: producers, curators, facilitators, and researchers. During three days, we discussed all aspects of social food to deliver a Green Paper that sparks the conversation about it.

And what is ‘social food’?

The Forum worked without a formal definition, and although we were close to providing one at some point, the group agreed at the end to not include one in the Green Paper, leaving it so open to possibilities. That decision fitted well with the tone and purpose of the gathering, but as a social researcher, I need more. I need conceptual boundaries as clear as possible.

Social food resonates to other food-related concepts out there: social innovation for a start, but also local food, slow food, food citizenship, food activism… In my opinion, the distinctive element of ‘social food’  could probably be the focus on the social connections created through food. Food is kind of an excuse, the MacGuffin which triggers the development of a wide range of social interactions.

And why food and not something else? The answer is obviously connected to the multiple dimensions of food: our basic human need of it, its simplicity, its complexity, its powerful symbolic dimension, its economic value, its political implications, its creative element, the power it has to convey memories, etc.

  • Food is about nurturing, getting the essential nutrients needed for living. It is about life and our physiological functions. It connects something from outside to our bodies. It physically build us with critical impacts on our health and welfare.

What is that we are connecting with our bodies?

  • From a material point of view, a product. Something tangible susceptible of being processed and exchanged.
  • From an immaterial point of view, heritage. Our diets talk about the communities in which we live and in which we were brought up. About history (culinary traditions) and geography (crops, geographical indications, etc.).

But we do not only relate to food when eating. We do it through other actions as well that produce and reproduce another completely different set of narratives, values and connections.

  • We produce food. Although capitalist modernity has tended to separate us from direct food production, there is still a significant percentage of people involved in food production activities. The instantaneous traditional image remits to agriculture and rural areas, but we should not forget other forms. There is, of course, the peasant in the farm, but there are also urban gardens. And there are as well all those darker corners of food production that nobody likes to think about, like the industrial intensive poultry farms, for example. And what about the pot of strawberries and basil you have in your kitchen yourself? Food is produced in very different spaces, by a wide range of actors and with very different ambitions.
  • Food production connects you to land and or other living beings. It connects you to a seed, a soil, a process of growing and at some point, collecting. Sometimes even we still collect food (gamekeepers, fishers,…) connecting you with the wilderness in terms of landscape and life. And that can be done in solitude or with other people -who you might know well (relatives, neighbours, friends, etc.) or not at all (seasonal farm workers)- in contexts of celebration, leisure, or work.
  • We process food transforming it into meals. Sometimes that is done at home for ourselves, or to share with somebody else -usually close ones- or it can be done as a job -in food factories or in hospitality- for somebody else who we do not know. Creativity and standardisation play a significative role in those processes.
  • And we trade food. We can buy it directly from the producer at a farm or at a farmers market, for instance, or from a large choice of  retailers -from small independent groceries shop to large supermarkets- that embody a highly diverse set of social and environmental values and political and socio-economical implications/

Thus, the bite that we put into our mouths has deeper social meanings, even if invisible. Food connects us to global issues and to personal stories and makes us participants of traditions, economies, geographies and communities.

If you are interested in knowing more about the Social Food Forum check this post that I wrote for the SIMRA blog and the Social Food Forum Green Paper.




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