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Food Citizens? featured in Horizon Magazine

on urban food systems.

Some of the following project-results about the diversity of citizens’ self-organization around food provisioning have been recently mentioned in the article 'The green shoots of urban argriculture'

Below are full answers and questions, for more contextualized information on how Food Citizens? approaches the topic of urban food systems.

Tell me about yourself, your research interests and how you got involved in this topic of food?

As a cultural anthropologist, I have studied food from different points of view through the years: first in traditional dairy farming in the Lombard mountains, then in heritage cheese making in the Italian alps, and currently in food gardening in the Netherlands. I do so through ethnography which means participating in, while observing, the practices of the communities we study. For example I spent two seasons with cow-herders (taking cattle to high pastures, up to 2,000 metre high, in the Italian Alps), took a diploma as cheese taster, and now I volunteer since 2020 in a city farm in Utrecht. Relevant publications are: Developing Skill, Developing Vision. Practices of Locality at the food of the Alps. 2009. The Heritage Arena. Re-inventing cheese in the Italian Alps (2017). And the latest article, “More than Visual. Apprenticeship in Skilled Visions”, Ethos. 2022.

Talk to me about the background to Food Citizens? – what do I need to know to understand the project?

The project is about reintroducing local contexts to the understanding of food provisioning. Even just across Europe, one finds a diversity of histories, styles of governance, and economic standards. Consequently there’s a diversity of relevant societal debates, ways of getting by, and modes of participation in culture and society. Because of this diversity, practices of food procurement exceed techno-scientific imaginaries of ‘future foods’ and one-size-fit-all ‘sustainability fixes’.

What are the aims of this project? What is meant by “collective food procurement”? How do you investigate collective food procurement networks?

The project started in 2017 plus an 18-months budget neutral extension because of pandemic disruptions. It will end February 2024. The aims of the project are to re-introduce the social element in the analysis of food provisioning. The goal is to investigate styles of societal participation through an analysis of local styles of food procurement, in three representative post-industrial European cities (Gdańsk, Rotterdam and Turin). Empirically, ‘collective food procurement’ defines the participation of multiple people in production, distribution and consumption of food.

How do you investigate collective food procurement networks? What is meant by urban foraging, short food chains, food gardens, local food governance, and how do they fit into the project?

We scouted for examples of participation of multiple people in the production, distribution and governance of food consumption. This can happen at multiple levels and with varying objectives. We chose three levels of empirical observation: 1. self-production and foraging (for example in community gardens), 2. short food chains (for example through food cooperatives, but also farmers markets) and 3. local food governance (for example through city food councils, but also through associations of allotment gardens such as the Polish PZD, or third-sector NGOs). We identified a pre-selection of potential case studies for ethnographic fieldwork, then the PhD candidates conducted about a year and a half of ethnographic fieldwork in each city to go in depth in the case studies. We asked: Which skills do people involved in collective food procurement acquire or lack? How do they operate across and within diverse communities? Do their networks scale ‘up’ or ‘out’, and how? How do they interpret and articulate solidarity? Our Research Protocol included participant observation, interviews, cultural maps, focus groups, life and career histories, and documentary analysis. It's published under Dissemination/Public Resources on our website. There’s about 50 case studies described in the project i-doc, designed by Federico De Musso. This is an interactive platform.

Give some examples of study cases from the project – in Gdańsk, Rotterdam, Turin.

Urban foraging and short food chains in Gdańsk:
In the city of Gdańsk, Ph.D. candidate Ola Gracjasz made a comparison of two radically different styles of collecting and redistributing food. She participated both in Food not Bombs and the Food Bank among other case studies. Food Not Bombs is an international anarchist network, groups are found in many cities across the world. Also in Gdańsk, they collect perished food at the end of a market day and cook warm soup, giving it away for free to whoever wants it in the town centre, whether they are tourists or homeless. On the other hand, the food bank where Ola worked as a volunteer was run by the city social services and had a much more bureaucratic way to assess whether one would be eligible, with long queues and strict surveillance. In a published article we reflect on these two radically different meanings and practices of ‘gifting’ and ‘sharing’. The published article is (click on title for open access): Gracjasz A. & Grasseni C. (2020), Food-gifting in Gdańsk: between food not bombs and the food bank, Ethnologia Polona 41: 33-50.  Further reflections are in the project blogs by Ola Gracjasz, for example: Reflections from the field: Linking the past with the present through pickling, fermenting, and food preservation in Gdańsk, Poland. - Leiden University (universiteitleiden.nl) 

Urban foraging and short food chains in Turin:
By contrast in Northern Italy most grassroots interventions fill gaps left by the state. For example in Turin there is a long tradition of open-air food markets, but when it came to the logistics of food aid deliveries under COVID, the large food distribution was the easiest to get on board, while there was no easy way to connect logistically with the abundant agricultural production in the area. Local producers where under strain because they didn’t have means to deliver, and the fresh markets were closed. Only large supermarket chains were allowed to open... so volunteer food aid tried to bridge this jarring paradox of food aid that doesn’t contain fresh and local food. Maria Vasile has written extensively about the paradoxes of volunteerism in food aid, food waste recuperation, and in urban greening agendas. Here is for reference a published article (click on title for open access): Vasile M. & Grasseni C. (2022), Visions of the Urban Green; Interrogating Urban Renewal in Turin’s Periphery, Anthrovision Vol 8.1, 2020, and one of the blogs: Torino: From food to demands - Leiden University (universiteitleiden.nl)

Local food governance in Rotterdam:
An interesting Dutch example is Herenboeren. In Dutch, Herenboeren were landowners who could afford to employ others to work their land - and it has been reinvented. It’s taking foot as a form of sustainable investment movement which does not generate income returns, but a shared harvest. Vincent Walstra visited a land trust of 20 hectares north of Rotterdam which, since 2019, is cooperatively owned by about 200 households and employs a salaried farmer. Herenboeren farm organically and wildlife-friendly. They participate in the management of the land trust and volunteer with on-farm tasks. So the Herenboeren are all shareholders in fact, in a land trust. They learn from the farmer and share the risk of the harvest, while guaranteeing the farmer an income as an employee. Here is Vincent Walstra’s blog about this movement: Herenboeren Rotterdam: Farming for the Future - Leiden University (universiteitleiden.nl)

What is wrong with the way food is procured and delivered in Europe right now and how could that be improved in your view? What benefits can this project bring?

If we look at the imagery surrounding the global food system today, there’s very little space for nuance, context, and for its sociocultural dimension - namely for agency, conflict, and diversity, or for relationships among humans, and between humans and non-humans. Instead, the Food Citizens? project shows how each bottom-up collective who organizes themselves spontaneously around food, tells us also something about the contexts of which they are representative. The 50 case studies tell us how in each of the three contexts some manners of self-organization around food are meaningful and some not. That is why the title has a question mark in it: ‘Food Citizens?’ This hints to the fact that it does not make sense to imagine one kind of ‘food citizen’ or one best practice of ‘food citizenship’. Rather we have to look for forms of self-activation on the ground, which make sense according to the needs, the resources, and the specific local cultures of self-organizing that we can find -for example – in Turin, Rotterdam, and Gdansk, and by extension in southern, western, or eastern Europe.

What are the overarching conclusions from the project?

In sum, more than 50 case studies tell us that in each of the three contexts (Italy, Netherlands, and Poland) only some manners of self-organization around food are meaningful, and some not. For example, volunteering can be used as excuse to withdraw public services from already marginalized local communities (as Maria Vasile has shown in Turin regarding food waste recuperation, and food aid under COVID). Vice versa homesteading sounds like a thing of the past, but as studied by Ph.D. candidate Ola Gracjasz, it is being rediscovered by food entrepreneurs and urbanites in Gdansk, Poland in ways that represents and reinvents their agency at the heart of a Polish society under transformation.

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