Do we really have a choice?
Kwame Kondor, spoken word artist from Ghana, introduces the everyday dilemma’s of billions of people, of billions of Aida’s when it comes to healthy and sustainable food choices.
My name is Kwame. Kwame Kondor.
I am here today to ask you questions.
My first question: why are YOU here?
What are you bringing to the table?
Now ask your neighbour, I want to hear you ask: what are YOU bringing to the table?
Let me tell you a story. I was born on a farm, in Ghana. We grew foods, a whole lot: cassava, corn, carrots, sweet potatoes, and so much more. Herbs! They kept me healthy, and I thought to myself: what a wonderful world.
But now? Living in the city? Things. Have. Changed.
Do you remember that song? [Kwame sings] “Them belly full but we hungry. A hungry mob, is an angry mob! A hungry mob, is an angry mob…”
Everyone wants to be healthy. But what is healthy food? Some food makes you healthy, some just fills your belly. Some food makes you healthy, and some food makes you sick.
Healthy food – unhealthy food.
Organic food – processed food.
Cheap food – expensive food.
Free food – bought food.
Healthy food – healthy land, rains and climate.
Unhealthy food – destroyed Earth.
It looks like we have many options. But let me ask you.
Do we really have a choice?
Say it with me: do we really have a choice?
Now meet our friend, Aida. We’re fake friends. She doesn’t exist, but she exists a billion times. She represents a reality in our food system. Does Aida have a choice?
Oh Aida, I feel for you.
She is living in a Bob Marley song:
“Cost of living gets so high.
Rich and poor they start to cry!
Now the weak must get strong.
They say: Oh, what a tribulation!
Them belly full but we hungry.
A hungry mob Is an angry mob…
A rain-afall but the dutty tough…
A pot-a-cook, but d’food not enough!”
DO we actually have enough? DO we really have a choice?
Charles Michel, Colombian French former elite chef from Netflix’s The Final Table turned food educator and activist, immediately puts the audience of food professionals in Amsterdam on edge, at the beginning of his inspiring story and perspective on food:
Not enough food is a choice
‘’Why don’t we eat the whole broccoli plant?’’ he says, showing the audience a small broccoli flower with a long, bare stalk from which all the leaves have been removed. It is perfectly edible, but we only eat 10% of the plant, just the flowering head and small portion of the stalk is considered a commodity. At least another 80% can be made into something delicious. The full plant may be used much better: every seed can generate more seeds if they’re harvested and grown. And the dirt on the stems can be used to compost other plants.” Which leads to what he calls the “greatest lie we’ve been told—that there’s not enough food for everyone,” he says. “We need better food, not more.” The world is abundant, but it is disguised as scarcity.
Charles wants to foment a “food revolution,” reconnecting humans with “their most fundamental source of energy, health and well-being - food.”
Using a mix of art, science, experimental psychology and community-building, Charles, a descendant of generations of cooks, seeks to use education to reinvent the way we see, consume, prepare and digest food, our “first love and greatest joy.” If people - even (or especially) kids - learn basic cooking skills, for example, they can “turn that broccoli into something delicious,” he says. “The crunchy stems are like asparagus; the leaves are like kale. We live in an incredibly abundant world.”
Disconnect from food
Charles points out that only two generations ago, most humans were still farming, including his grandparents, and a little before that, there was no refrigeration and mass markets weren’t an option. “Cooking made us human,” he quotes anthropologist and primatologist Richard Wrangham saying, “but we’ve lost what it means to be human.”
It’s this “crisis of values,” says Charles, that has led to “the distorted value we put in food and the commoditisation of nature that makes a tree more valuable dead than alive. Food is sacred, like the air we breathe. It connects all humans and life.”
Yet we waste around one third of all food produced, and 17% of the food available for consumption. This food waste is responsible for one-tenth of global carbon emissions. At the same time, there is overconsumption of food: around two billion people are overweight. “We must address this imbalance,” says Charles. This may start with a better understanding of the underlying values of current trends:“It seems our emotions haven’t yet evolved into a structure of abundance; a lot of today’s decision-making seems to be of a tribal nature.”
So . . . how to be a cook without working in a restaurant? Charles decided to use food instead as a tool for communication. “Food is the medium,” he says. With that in mind, he recalls the time he created a salad in Colombia from fresh and local ingredients and served it to a public craving French and Italian delicacies. “I needed to decolonise their mindsets to enjoy local ingredients and not look to Europe,” he says.
That led him to experimental psychology, and his realisation that he needed to design food experiences with “beauty embedded.” Research he did to get people to incorporate protein-rich insects into their diet showed that if people were told their bug cookies were good for them or the environment, they didn’t like them. “The cookie tastes best when we tell them other people were eating it,” he says. Chalk it up to human nature, but it’s a question of “leveraging the power of the conversation at the dinner table,” says Michel. “We need to lead with pleasure, which is the indicator of good.”
Charles’ food revolution starts with education. “We learn math at school, but not how to cook,” he says. “But if you learn to cook, you can be independent. Food literacy can change the world! Restaurants and groceries will feed your body, but not your soul.” Charles is eager to understand which solutions could help shift current consumption behaviours, and would like sharing the different toolboxes with other educators.
Universal Basic Nutrition
Based on his vision, Charles proposes that instead of giving people a Universal Basic Income (UBI), "how about providing them with an assurance of nutrition, a ‘Universal Basic Nutrition’ (UBN). And a place for parents to leave their children.” In such a world, people like Aida, an urban-dwelling single mother who feeds her daughter fast food from street markets because it’s cheaper, easier and more accessible, would be able to ensure her child has a healthy meal.
“Because it does take a village to raise a child,” says Michel. “Mental health isn't the pandemic, rather it's the conditions that affect our mental health. But imagine if there were public kitchens and public gardens with lovely leeks where you can eat the flowers. Where you can gather around food like humans have been doing since the dawn of civilisation. Food is growing, cooking, eating and sharing, the true source of joy and wellness to the human body and to our society as a whole.”
Which brings us back to broccoli. “Don’t force your kids to eat it,” says Charles. “Just make it more attractive. Turn it into a green sauce.” Revolutions sometimes begin with small steps - something to surprise your mother with the next time you share a good meal of broccoli.
Inspiration to make transformation happen - let’s find solutions
There are billions of Aida’s
Aida has many everyday challenges as she told us in her story. As a single working mother living in a megacity, she works 10-hour days, six days a week to support her 3-year-old daughter and pay her share of the rent on the small apartment she shares with her sister. Her long working hours leave her with little time to shop for and cook nutritious meals for her child. “I have the feeling my food habits are not good,” she said. “But where can I buy healthy food for a price I can afford?”
That’s her main dilemma. But there are more challenges:
- She lacks information on making healthy food choices
- Healthy food is too expensive and far away
- Fast food is everywhere
- She doesn’t have enough time or money to buy and prepare nutritious food
“I want myself and my child to be healthy and strong,” says the 26-year-old mother with a secondary school education. But she feeds her daughter mostly fried “easy street food” she picks up, exhausted, after her one-hour commute home. “Luckily, my child loves fried rice.”
Let’s find solutions
Around thirty participants reflected on possible solutions for the challenges of Aida, for one of the key food system challenges world wide: enabling healthy and sustainable food choices.
Community Food Hubs: a convening space for urban food citizens
The participants came up with what they say is a game-changing solution: Community Food Hubs.
Promoters of healthy and sustainable food choices use the experiences of the past to create a future full of urban spaces where city dwellers can farm, cook, eat and connect to live their cultures and identities to the fullest.
Part community centre and part wet market, garden, community kitchen, food bank and day care centre, these decentralised food hubs are places where community members can gather to not only share information, but also to grow, exchange and prepare food together.
“I love this idea,” says Charles Michel, who helped come up with the community-based initiative. “It’s very close to my heart.” He mentions a similar successful food project in Brazil that diverted supermarket food surpluses to cooks, who then used the “leftovers” to teach would-be chefs how to prepare food. The resulting meals were passed out freely to the community’s homeless people. These kinds of solutions, he believes, can be scaled up and localised.
“They provide capacities for community members of all ages to come together,” he says, “to gather around the fire to share food and company like people have done throughout history. This is a step up on that.”
Using role models and social media campaigns to promote the food hubs will, say its creators, help reach its target audience, including Aida, who spends what few night-time hours she has available, scrolling through social media as she falls asleep.
“There are 1 billion Aida’s in the world,” said Sophie Galema fom the Ministry of Foreign Affairs when presenting the food hub idea to her peers. “That’s why we looked at the community level in urban areas to address the issue. Caretaking in cities has been lost. People aren’t eating together. The community food hub can address all these issues.”
By adding the day care centre element, children like Aida’s daughter can be surrounded by peers and caretakers, learning how to grow and cook food. “By linking day care to the community kitchen and focusing on social networks already in place, there are built-in safety nets,” says Sophie. “Nutrition for the young is very important. If you focus on them, it’s a very good start. They can also learn the importance of food and nutrition from an early age.”
Nout van der Vaart from Oxfam Novib, who also contributed to the idea, further addded, “The food hub brings back the social conditions of communities of the past, which can be supplemented by support from governments and private actors.” By making the hubs membership-based, the idea is to increase the sense of community ownership. “Community gardens and kitchens are not new ideas,” he says. “We’re returning to what we know, bringing healthy food back into communities.”
It’s all about empowering people like Aida, Alfredo Echeverria, Director of the Costa Rican Gastronomy Foundation, FUCOGA, told participants by video link. “We need to educate people, there’s too much misinformation out there. We can use social media, where young mothers connect. We can make healthy eating fashionable by using influencers and creating digital healthy eating guides.”
In the end, it’s about arming young urban workers like Aida with the information, food, resources, childcare and community support they need to achieve her personal and care taking goals. “If you teach Aida how to cook,” says Eva Koffeman, the Netherlands UN youth representative on Biodiversity & Food, “the children will benefit, and they will pass their knowledge down through the family.”