Food Sharing: From Group Kitchens To Cutting Waste, The Drive For A Sustainable Future


By Alasdair Sandford

Locals and refugees cooking and eating together, “edible neighbourhoods” and surplus redistribution. How a digital compass will help people get oriented among food sharing schemes and issue a call to policy makers: “Resilient urban systems and fostering people’s engagement are key to saving the planet”.

It began with Angela Merkel. When the former German chancellor opened the borders to refugees in 2015, hundreds of thousands of Syrians and others entered. Many are now settled all over the country.

Within weeks, some 2,000 had arrived in Freiburg, near the French border, where one community organisation set out to make them feel welcome. Today Zusammen Leben (“Living Together”) is a thriving social and cultural centre, bringing together refugees and locals.

Food is at the heart of its activities. There’s a community café (“zuka-solicafé”) and a communal garden (“zusammen gärtnern”); the aim as far as possible is to use local produce from sustainable sources. With the new arrivals have come new ideas.

“We had a problem with lemon, because you cannot get it locally… until a Syrian woman who was doing this project with us said ‘you know what, in Syria we use unripe grapes, this is almost a similar taste’, and then we talked to our local wine producer, and now four years later it’s in the shops, it’s produced,” says Johanna Dangel, one of the group’s founders.

“We also have a project called ‘food waste’ that we’re doing this year and it’s focused exactly on how we can reduce our food waste at home,” adds co-founder Leonora Lorena. “For example, how can we be creative and create recipes with the way the food that is still in our fridge. Then we’re also teaching how to ferment, and how to do chutneys and pickles.”

A food sharing project is defined as “any group that grows food together, eats food together or re-distributes waste and excess food” by ShareCity, part of the EU’s Horizon 2020 programme that mapped more than 4,000 initiatives across 100 cities.

Zusammen Leben is now taking part in Cultivate, a four-year project that began in January aiming to build on ShareCity and accelerate the drive towards resilient and sustainable practice.

Others involved vary from Dublin’s FoodCloud – which redistributes surplus food from the food industry to hundreds of charities and community groups via its own tech platform – to the Amsterdam-based Cascoland, whose projects, including “Lab & Kitchens,” aim to engage people about sustainability through art and creative practice. Utrecht’s Rijnvliet Edible Neighbourhood is a grassroots proposal by residents to create a new city district with green infrastructure – including an urban “food forest” with over 200 species of edible flora – the goal being to improve the quality of life as well as enhance biodiversity.

A key challenge is that (sharing initiatives) are not visible generally to policy makers or the wider public in terms of their contribution to sustainability,” says Cultivate Project Coordinator Anna Davies, also Professor and Chair of Geography, Environment and Society at Trinity College Dublin.

The project’s goal is to develop automated, evidence-based systems to search, map, track and monitor food sharing initiatives via a digital “Food Sharing Compass”: an online portal featuring a database, a cost-benefit calculator, guidelines, advice and a forum enabling groups to come together.

“We’re hoping with this kind of real time dynamic interactive map, we will be able to demonstrate more clearly to publics and policy makers the contribution that these food sharing initiatives make,” Davies adds, stressing that the project is not about imposing uniform solutions but developing “flexible tools” that can be adapted to individual situations.

In three “hub cities” – Barcelona, Milan and Utrecht – Cultivate is working with academic institutions, local authorities, food sharing initiatives and other partners to develop the new tools over two years. These will then be replicated and tested in six “spoke locations” – which include Freiburg – before the Food Sharing Compass goes live in 2027.

“Many of these organisations have the same challenges as we do,” says Leonora Lorena of Zusammen Leben, arguing that her organisation is already reaping the benefits of the EU scheme.

“We’re really creating a network, so for example one of our goals is that one day all of the products which we have in the café, that we really know where and who is the person behind (it). About rice, for instance, we would really like to know a local producer in Italy, and now through this project we already have some connections.”

“The more you connect, the more you create this network of people, this sharing, you can only achieve better results,” says Samuele Tonello, research coordinator with EuroHealthNet, a European partnership working to improve health and sustainable systems. He is also a coordinator for the Horizon Europe project FEAST  that seeks to catalyse the transformation of the continent’s food systems.

Its stated goal is a just transition to a “win-win-win-win” scenario for the public and private sectors, people and the planet – from a current situation it describes as more “lose-lose-lose-win”, where only large food corporations benefit.

Tonello has been campaigning for an EU food system sustainability index. “We always say that our food systems are not sustainable, but the problem is that when we ask the question ‘how much (are they) unsustainable?’ then it becomes more complicated,” he explains.

The European Commission’s Farm to Fork strategy, part of its European Green Deal, aims to “make food systems fair, healthy and environmentally-friendly”. But the scale of the task is immense. According to the European Environment Agency, although total EU greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions have been cut by a third since 1990, reductions in the agriculture sector have largely stagnated since 2005. UN figures say agrifood systems contributed to 31% of EU emissions in 2020.

“The food system was unsustainable before COVID and global conflicts have increased the insecurity of our food system. Ensuring that we have resilient urban food systems is paramount. Things are not improving,” says Anna Davies.

“A lot of actors are doing lots of great things at regional, national, at European level, but the fact is that… we are not even on the verge of solving the problem. There is a lot to be done and we should not underestimate the gravity of the problem,” argues Samuele Tonello.

He admits there is a long way to go – but warns against pessimism, seeing positive signs of a joined-up approach to complex problems.

“The title Farm to Fork itself really shows that we are acknowledging this… so it’s about this connection, and the measurement from the scientific point of view is really important,” he says. “You really have to work together on connecting all these dots.”

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