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U+I THINK

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

22.05.20

This is the first newsletter dedicated to our U+I Think programme of talks, showcasing the ideas, insights and perspectives that shape our future.

In this edition we address the power of food: the key challenges, opportunities and radical new ideas that will influence how we create places, reinvigorate our economy and grow thriving communities.

 

What will the world look like after Covid-19? Whatever the answer to that question, one thing is for sure: it will not be a return to business as usual. By disrupting our lives more profoundly than any crisis since the Second World War, the virus has achieved what years of vacillation in the face of global threats had signally failed to do: make us genuinely question the direction in which we were headed. 

Like lifting a rock, Covid-19 has shone new light on the state of things before the virus struck – most obviously in terms of our relationship with the natural world. The fact that the outbreak began in a Chinese wet market reveals just how out of kilter that relationship has become. The vast monocultures and poison chemicals of industrial food production have critically weakened global biodiversity, while our encroachment on previously unexplored wilderness has exposed us to deadly new diseases. Experts have long warned of such dangers, yet it was only when supermarket shelves were stripped bare during lockdown that the threat became real for many Westerners. In that moment, the illusion of effortless plenty was shattered.  

By showing us how fragile our place on earth really is, the virus has arguably done us a favour. It has reminded us of many things: the power of nature, our interdependency, the true value of the key workers (the clue was always there in the name) who sustain our lives. The best thing that could come out of the crisis is that we learn these lessons and rebuild our new lives around them.  

Shaping the world

As I argue in my recent book Sitopia (from the Greek sitos, food + topos, place), there is no better way to do this than through the lens of food. Our lives, as Covid-19 has reminded us, revolve around food. Our bodies, minds, homes, habits, societies, cities, landscapes and climate have all been moulded by it. We live in a food-shaped world – a sitopia – but because we don’t value the stuff from which it is made, we live in a bad one. We’ve based our lives on the concept of cheap food, yet no such thing ever existed. Climate change, mass extinction, deforestation, soil depletion, pollution, water scarcity, pandemics and diet-related disease (responsible for most of the underlying health conditions that make us so vulnerable to Covid-19) are just some of the consequences of the way we eat. If we are to rebuild our post-pandemic lives in a way that addresses all the existential threats we face, our most direct path will be to revalue food, with all that implies. 

In fact, Covid-19 has already shown us some of the ways we might do this. Under lockdown, families are cooking and eating together again, people are sharing food with neighbours, celebrity chefs are cooking in schools and local producers are forming new supply chains to sell directly to consumers. The author and activist Naomi Klein talks of “disaster capitalism”, in which corporate interests take over during and after catastrophe. But I call our current situation “disaster democracy”, meaning the discovery, in adversity, of what really matters in life: health, safety, love, community – and food. With political vision, such resilience could form the basis of a new post-Covid-19 life, based on more regional food systems, closer ties between city and country, and more flexible buildings and adaptable shared spaces in which to live, work, grow and play. 

2020 vision

By valuing food and putting it back at the heart of our vision, we can build a world around the things that make us happy: good work, a nice home, time spent with loved ones, close communities, making stuff, contact with nature, being in the here and now. Such a transition would, of course, need to be supported by strengthened local and global governance: a new social contract based, not on profit and consumption, but on resilience and collaboration. 

Like all major crises, Covid-19 has given us the power to see: to distinguish good from bad, necessity from frivolity, virtue from folly. Nowhere has this new vision been clearer than in the unaccustomed proximity of death: as the Stoics knew centuries ago, nothing reveals life’s preciousness more clearly than the imminent threat of its loss. By deriving joy from simple things, we can grasp what the Stoics understood but capitalism has long obscured: that good lives don’t have to cost the earth. Social resurgence has always revolved around food; the shared problem of how to eat, after all, was how we evolved as a species. It is only in times of scarcity that we remember what food really is: living things that we kill in order to live. Food is both the stuff of life and its readiest metaphor; it is the most powerful tool for reshaping the world that we never knew we had.  

Carolyn Steel is a leading thinker on food and cities. A London-based architect and academic, she is the author of Hungry City: How Food Shapes Our Lives (2008) and Sitopia: How Food Can Save the World (2020).

 

One of the great mysteries of the urban planning profession is why it neglected food for so long. Planners addressed all the other essentials of human life: land, shelter, air and water. But there was one glaring exception: food. In a damning indictment of the profession, researchers said the food system was “a stranger to the planning field”. But that charge was levelled 20 years ago, so where are we today?

Fortunately, there are signs of positive change, as city planners have begun to recognise the strategic significance of the food system. Even so, feeding the city in a sustainable fashion – that is to say, in a manner that is economically efficient, socially just and ecologically sound – is one of the quintessential challenges of the 21st century. And, with a majority of the world’s population now deemed to be urbanised, the urban foodscape will assume ever more significance in food security debates across the globe.

Two clear trends have helped bring food to the mainstream of the urban planning agenda: the escalating costs of diet-related diseases (which threaten to bankrupt health services including the NHS) and looming climate change (which poses an existential threat if we fail to counter it). 

A better system

It is sometimes suggested that cities have little or no capacity to shape the food system. But cities throughout Europe and North America are proving that they are not powerless victims of circumstance. On the contrary, they are using a range of tools at their disposal – including planning and procurement – to fashion a more sustainable food system.

Making up for lost time, more enlightened planners are using policy to reform the urban foodscape and deliver a variety of public benefits. They are ensuring that fast-food outlets do not target deprived areas. They are protecting and increasing the diversity of food retail outlets, like farmers’ markets, and making sure they are accessible by foot or public transport. They are promoting urban agriculture in and around cities by expanding access to allotments and community growing spaces. They are discouraging food waste and promoting more ecologically benign ways of recycling it. And they are creating jobs and income for producers who need access to the ‘footfall’ of urban consumers. 

Food pioneers show what can be done, often inspiring others along the way. Waltham Forest in London, for example, used its planning powers to prevent new hot food takeaways opening up near schools. And Brighton & Hove used supplementary planning guidance to incorporate food into the planning system and encourage more food-growing spaces in the city. 

Come together

Cities can also influence policy through procurement. The power of purchase can be highly effective as part of a healthy food provisioning programme for schools, hospitals, care homes and the like – all of which are important parts of the urban foodscape, even if they are less visible than branded fast-food chains. 

The Greater Manchester Combined Authority, for example, combines ten local authorities and highlights the benefits that can arise when smaller public bodies join forces. Within that group of ten, Oldham became the first authority in the north of England to win a Gold Award from the Food for Life programme for the high quality of its school meals, highlighting what can be achieved through a focused, creative and localised procurement policy. 

Oldham is now scaling up its ambitions with the Northern Roots project, building the largest urban farm and eco-park in the UK on 160 acres of green space in the heart of the town. Northern Roots will be developed for and with local communities, creating a wide range of activities and businesses, including growing edible crops at scale, animal husbandry, beekeeping, forestry and horticulture training. The Mayor of Greater Manchester, Andy Burnham, plans to build on such local examples to transform Greater Manchester into a sustainable food city. 

Regenerative power

Through these inspiring examples of urban food planning, we can begin to appreciate the convening power of food – that is the perennial capacity of good food to bring people from all walks of life together in time and space. Smart urban planners and enlightened developers have long recognised this intangible asset and they are deploying it to great effect to connect people and revive places. Sadly, most planners have yet to get the message and urban food planning remains a minority sport in the UK. In time, however, there are high hopes for change, as food-led regeneration projects gain more traction.

Borough Market in London is perhaps the most celebrated example of food-led urban regeneration in the UK, having won innumerable awards, including the Visit London award for the most popular London experience. It has become a model for food markets all over the UK, so much so that the Academy of Urbanism extols it as a piece of urbanism that has encouraged wider urban regeneration in London.

A less well-known, but no less important, example of food-led urban regeneration can be found in Altrincham, Greater Manchester, once dubbed the biggest ghost-town in the UK because it had the worst shop vacancy rate. Trafford Council responded by creating Altrincham Forward, bringing together public, private and community stakeholders to revitalise the town through food. The Council invested in a Grade 2-listed building and a covered market and sought a private sector operator to transform it into a gastronomic food hub. Nick Johnson, formerly of Urban Splash, took up the challenge and today the market attracts over 7,000 people a week. 

Local examples of urban regeneration show what can be done when the food system becomes an integral part of city planning. Even before Covid-19 struck, food security was entering the lexicon of urban planning. After the pandemic, planners will be obliged to treat the food system with much more care and attention. And consumers might even continue to recognise food workers as key workers, according them the respect they have been denied in the past.

Kevin Morgan is Professor of Governance and Development in the School of Geography and Planning at Cardiff University. 

 

As a teenager, I applied for a job in a kitchen: a bakery on an industrial estate in  Leamington Spa making trifles for supermarkets. A foreman showed me the production line, where migrant workers on minimum wage squirted cream, custard and sprinkles into plastic cups. After my tour, the manager bluntly explained that, as I could speak English, better jobs were available to me. Any romantic illusions about the nature of contemporary baking evaporated that afternoon. The conditions in which our food is made are the hidden story behind the food itself.

Food and its preparation can tell us a lot about ourselves and the society we live in. What, where, how and with whom we eat raise questions of class, ethics, heritage and prejudice. With shockwaves from Covid-19 rippling throughout the global economy, food has been a recurring flashpoint of debate, revealing how the virus has hit different communities in dramatically different ways. Hipsters showing off their home-baked sourdough loaves have become a lockdown trope in certain corners of Instagram, while food shortages in supermarkets have been blamed, arguably unfairly, on panic buying by the masses. And, as restaurants everywhere close their dining rooms, attention has turned to home-delivery services such as Just Eat, Uber Eats and Deliveroo, and their mysterious infrastructure of so-called dark kitchens.

Look deeper

Dark kitchens are restaurants without dining rooms attached, dispatching food to customers entirely through home delivery. They have courted a growing clientele of hungry citizens but attracted heaps of controversy along the way. The Guardian’s John Harris invoked William Blake, labelling these sites the “dark satanic mills” of our time. Shrouded in obfuscation, operating from windowless rooms in anonymous industrial estates and widely associated with poor employment practices, dark kitchens may have earned their poor reputation.

But let’s be clear: despite the handwringing of certain restaurant critics, dark kitchens are not unusual. Most professional kitchens are equally windowless and can be just as gruelling. Many chic eateries bury their kitchens underground to save floor space for diners. The hospitality sector is infamously tough, with razor-thin profit margins and enormous consumer expectations driving poor conditions across the board. Critics are right to hold gig economy companies to account and demand decent conditions for chefs, but the idea that dark kitchens are uniquely bleak may tell us more about pundit snobbery than it does about improving workers’ rights in catering.

In truth, the landscape of much contemporary food architecture in the UK leaves a lot to be desired. A friend recently took some work at a prestigious hotel in Manchester, preparing food for its conference suites. Each day she and her colleagues would sit for hours in a giant windowless walk-in fridge and company-issued gilets (the cost of which was docked from their pay) making triangular sandwiches served on black plastic trays. I haven’t been able to look at a conference buffet the same since. 

Use your loaf

Food should be nourishing for the soul as well as the body, but often the people who make our food work in conditions that would leave a bitter taste in the mouth if they were better known. We value labelling standards that tell us about the origins and ingredients of the food we consume. We even know about the hens who lay our eggs. Isn’t it time we were told about the working conditions of the people who make our food? 

I believe this is a design problem. There is no reason why a dark kitchen shouldn’t be a dignified, convivial and pleasant place to work. There is no reason why, with the right client, architect and management, a so-called dark kitchen couldn’t be a more attractive workplace than many conventional restaurants. The ingredients of a good kitchen are less complex than the meals which are prepared in one: plenty of storage and surface space, natural light, easy to clean and a building which is not hidden away on an industrial estate, but an honest and open part of the civic realm. 

The lockdown has heaped pressure on the high street. But this may be just the time for dark kitchens to shake off their shabby reputation and drive long-term innovation in a sector facing an existential threat. “The way that restaurants used to work was already really unsustainable,” says former head chef Rachel Karasik. “Covid-19 has just highlighted that further. So the question is, what creative models could we be using during the lockdown that rectify some of the deeper issues in the food industry around bad hours, low pay and poor conditions?” With some smart thinking, new kinds of dark kitchen could be shared across multiple businesses, reducing overheads, making more efficient use of resources and lowering the bar for chefs to set up shop. 

A century ago, Austrian architect Margarete Schütte-Lihotzky used design to improve the lives of women cooking at home. Empowered by a forward-thinking client, she invented the Frankfurt Kitchen, with built-in furniture, multiple appliances and easy-to-clean surfaces. Designed to improve working conditions for housewives, it formed the basis of domestic kitchen design for decades. Today, professional kitchens need a redesign. Contemporary dark kitchens are a product of short-term decisions made by miserly operators. But if a client as adventurous as Schütte-Lihotzky’s takes up the challenge, dark kitchens could become an important part of the future of every neighbourhood. It is time for dark kitchens to come into the light.

Phineas Harper is the director of Open City and Open House London. His latest book, Gestures in Time, explores slow architecture in the Austrian region of Styria.

 

No one moves to a great city to eat alone in their apartment. And yet, right now, many of us are staying home, while thousands of independent restaurants and bars, which give cities their distinctive flavours, are shuttered. We do not know when these restrictions will end completely, or when ‘the new normal’ will just become ‘normal’, but nearly every forecast predicts the restaurant landscape will be profoundly changed by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Even in the best of times, running an independent restaurant or bar is a labour of love, built on razor-thin margins and a fundamental belief that good hospitality makes cities, and their people, better. Unique businesses, they cater to both the practical and emotional needs of their customers – serving food and drink alongside an intangible but essential sense of connection and community. Perhaps that’s why grim forecasts of a blighted restaurant landscape seem so heartbreaking. 

But, as curves flatten around the world and restrictions begin to lift, there are signs of hope. Our essential human need to come together and break bread ensures that there will be survivors although they will almost certainly operate differently than they did before.

“Any restaurant that wants to have a chance of surviving the coronavirus will have to completely reconsider what being a restaurant means,” writes Vaughn Tan for London’s Eater.com. That means pivoting to options that extend beyond basic takeaway and delivery. It means steakhouses operating as butcher shops; cafes selling the food they buy in bulk as groceries; fine dining establishments offering drive-through options; and high-end restaurants developing medium-priced, recession-friendly menu options. Restaurants that can let go of their old identities to adopt new, more fluid ones should stand the best chance of survival. 

Your good health

If an ability to transform on the fly isn’t enough of a challenge, restaurants that intend to pull through the pandemic will need to reassure customers that they are committed to health and safety. According to a poll from Morning Consult, a global data collection agency based in the US, 80% of those surveyed think they will still feel nervous about going to a restaurant in six months’ time. A YouGov poll of UK residents found that 60% of them would feel uncomfortable entering a pub in the near future, even if government health agencies gave the all-clear. 

To counteract this understandable anxiety, restaurants are already adjusting their marketing messages to focus on cleanliness and safety. The website of Creator, a San Francisco burger restaurant, boasts robot-assisted chefs, as well as “hermetically sealed, double-bagged meals” that can be delivered on a “self-sanitizing conveyor surface”. Not all restaurants will need to veer into deep science-fiction territory but, with major chains including KFC and Wendy’s advertising safety measures such as temperature checks, independent restaurants may need to adopt similar practices to compete. 

Survival of the smartest

Restaurant and hospitality real estate developers are already making plans for the years ahead. While smaller, independent restaurants are considering how to make their existing spaces as safe and hygienic as possible, McDonald’s, Starbucks and other behemoths are working with teams of designers to assess how the spaces they acquire in the next few years can reflect the new normal.

For restaurants that reopen, and new restaurants that open in the years to come, expect new design elements based on health and safety. Instead of cosy dining rooms packed with people, there will be fewer tables spaced farther apart, more outdoor space, and a focus on add-ons that provide flexibility in customer interactions, such as takeaway windows in urban areas and drive-through options in the suburbs. 

An industry-wide survey by QSR magazine highlighted another long-term trend: contactless everything, with restaurant groups that have the means investing in touch-free sensors on fixtures, bathroom facilities and eventually every step of the dining experience. 

Even before the pandemic, some establishments were beginning to use digital check-ins with apps that allowed customers to move more swiftly to their table. Merely convenient before, now they could become a critical safety measure. Looking ahead, full-service restaurant apps are likely to become a prominent feature, allowing customers to reserve, order and pay, all on their personal mobile devices. 

In this environment, open kitchens, once a prerequisite for every hipster establishment, may become a thing of the past. Some restaurants may choose to dispense with on-site kitchens altogether. Until now, dark kitchens have been the preserve of takeaway chains. Now forecasters suggest they may increasingly be used for in-house dining too. 

Those that continue to rely on traditional, connected kitchens are likely to install plexiglass barriers to separate workers and customers, sustaining some semblance of warmth and visibility while striving to keep everyone safe.

Share and share alike

The post-Covid-19 landscape is also likely to favour restaurants which are generous of spirit. Many restaurants in the UK, while closed to the general public, are donating hot meals to the NHS and homeless communities. In New York City, Eleven Madison Park – a Manhattan institution once deemed the finest dining experience in the world – began operating as a food commissary for healthcare workers and first responders. In other words, restaurants that once provided a sense of community through traditional food service are still doing it by providing essential services – staying connected to their original mission and the hearts of their customers in the process.

Giving back isn’t one-sided, though. In recent weeks, as restaurants have pivoted to help their communities, we have seen communities pivot to help their restaurants. Across the world, GoFundMes have been set up, with locals buying nights out at their favourite community spots now, to ensure they can enjoy them in the future. Again, no one moves to a great city to eat alone in their apartment, and such gestures should help ensure that we won’t – at least not forever. But in the meantime, as the owners of The Clove Club in Shoreditch wrote to customers before closing their doors: “Now is the time for us all to be the change we want to see in our lives. Let’s look after each other and remember to be kind.”

Paige Ferrari is a writer and documentary producer located in Los Angeles, California. She loves exploring the intersections of food, culture, business and technology. 

 

UK consumers are not used to seeing empty supermarket shelves – even at Christmas. But in March this year, a pint of milk became a luxury and buying a tin of anything was, for the most part, out of the question. It looked as though Covid-19 had laid bare the shortcomings of the UK’s food supply chain.

Typically, supermarkets don’t horde stock. They run just-in-time delivery models that replenish stores every night. But this model is not designed to withstand sudden peaks in demand and when Covid-19 hit, the shelves emptied.

Conditions have improved since then but certain items are impossible to find, limits are still imposed on some items, promotions have been reduced and home delivery slots remain elusive. 

One issue is logistics. Global supply chains rely on free-flowing trade and movement and the UK is particularly vulnerable, supplying just 53% of the food it consumed in 2018, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Some 28% of our food came from the European Union, with the rest travelling from even further afield.

Nor is it just a matter of what we import, as Dominic Goudie, head of international trade at the Food and Drink Federation, explains: “Exports and e-commerce in the food and drink sector will play a key role in the UK’s economic recovery.

“The crisis has also demonstrated the importance of the EU market for UK food security. In the run-up to Brexit, much will depend on the UK securing a comprehensive trade deal with the EU that avoids tariffs and damaging friction at borders,” he adds. 

Lurking problem

Such friction is already creating huge challenges worldwide. As Maximo Torero, chief economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, explains: “The coronavirus has focused the world’s attention on the woeful lack of ventilators, respiratory masks and intensive care unit beds available in many countries. Far less attention has been paid to another pandemic-driven shortage lurking over the horizon: food. As trade walls go up and governments panic about preserving their own food sources, the coronavirus threatens to disrupt global supply chains.

“Millions of migrant workers involved in agriculture and food production are now immobile because of border crackdowns. This has left produce unharvested and much-needed food left to rot in fields,” he adds.

In the UK, for example, 99% of our seasonal produce is picked by EU nationals, many of whom cannot travel. Some British farmers have even chartered flights from Romania so that pickers can help with the harvesting of seasonal produce. But the picture is not uniformly grim. 

Local matters

Martin MacKay of Ripple Farm in Canterbury supplies Growing Communities, an organisation that works with small-scale farmers to provide consumers with ethically sourced, locally grown food. MacKay makes an explicit commitment to employing local people and has experienced no labour issues during the Covid-19 pandemic. The farm’s crop diversity keeps work ticking over throughout the year, while selling produce via farmers’ markets and vegetable box schemes means the farm gets more money for its goods than as supermarket suppliers. 

The British vegetable box delivery company Riverford Organic Farmers has proved resilient too. “It’s actually been an abundant spring for UK-grown vegetables,” says managing director Rob Haward. Even the challenge of seasonal pickers has been met – the producer and retailer has been “inundated” with local applicants to fill the shortfall this year. It has also been inundated with demand but, like many similar delivery schemes, it is limiting new joiners to cope with existing customer orders.

Stories such as these make it tempting to think that the answer to food security is “buying local”. But experts caution against oversimplification. 

“We need most of what we buy to be local but for overall food security a strong, robust global supply chain is essential. Food security is about having an effective balance of supply, both from local sources and further afield,” says Shane Brennan, chief executive of the Cold Chain Federation, a specialist trade body for temperature-controlled food logistics.

Stronger and fairer

Natasha Soares, project leader at Better Food Traders, agrees. The organisation supports fair trade and sustainable farming in the UK and Soares explains: “Resilience lies in diversity. We want to keep ethical international trade going but we also want to prioritise sustainable sourcing as much as we can from as close to us as we possibly can.”

Soares also points out that buying local does not always equate to buying right. “There is no point buying UK produce if it comes via a very lengthy supply chain because that takes value away from farmers just like supermarket supply chains do.” 

If we want to create more resilient and fairer supply chains, cities will have a central role to play. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) predicts that 80% of all food will be consumed in cities by 2050. Its report, Cities and Circular Economy for Food, suggests that cities can use their influence to promote “regenerative agriculture” by working with producers in peri-urban and rural areas to foster a healthy ecosystem. The report notes that “local sourcing is not a silver bullet” and that cities cannot provide citizens with all the food they need. But, peri-urban farming – close to cities – can “increase the resilience of their food supply by relying on a more diverse range of suppliers (local and global)”.

For now, it seems, the supply chain is holding up and food is available in the UK – although ensuring people have the funds and means to access it remains hugely challenging. But those fortunate enough to be able to afford food and find a way to buy it have had a cold shock: it does not magically appear on shelves. Food is a valuable commodity and we currently rely on a complex global web to ensure we are fed. When lockdowns are lifted, consumers may see the value in shortening supply chains where possible. While it is too early to tell how behaviour patterns will shift, cities are well placed to lead that change both for the good of citizens and our planet.

Kate Hodge is a freelance journalist with a keen interest in smallholders and food.

 

We eat to live, we eat for pleasure, we eat for company. Sophie Streeting, head of hospitality and operations at U+I, discovered this when she joined a U+I team charity project, volunteering with foundation Movement On The Ground (MOTG) on the Greek island of Lesvos. As a result, she has co-authored a book on her experiences, Melting Pot: Cooking with Refugees and Locals on the Island of Lesvos.

Q: What made you choose to volunteer?

A: In 2018 U+I wanted to support the critical work of the foundation Movement On The Ground in helping the vast number of refugees arriving on Lesvos on a daily basis. I went out with a team of colleagues to take funds we had raised and to help practically. We wanted to see first-hand what everyone was seeing in the media and to try to help in any way we could. We were all so inspired by MOTG’s founders Charlie and Adil, who eventually came to London and spoke to all of us at our offices. I have a background in hospitality and for me hospitality is all about people. The work MOTG does in the camps is all about people so, personally, I was really inspired and it made the work all the more rewarding. 

Q: What inspired you to write a cookery book based on your experience?

A: In the camp, where residents speak dozens of different languages, they can be understandably cautious of others and protective of the little space they now call home. On my second visit to the island, I found that if you spoke to people about food – who taught them how to cook, what they were cooking and their favourite recipes – they would light up and open up. Food here is not only a life source but a way of communicating – finding common ground, sharing and making others feel comfortable. It’s a universal language. One day, while cooking with a resident and hearing his story, I realised that this previously reserved man was now smiling. I decided we needed to write this stuff down, try and capture his smile in a recipe and pass it on.

Q: You went to Lesvos three times. What were the key takeaways from your visits?

A: MOTG has made an enormous impact on thousands of refugees, transforming areas of the camp into places where residents can live in a dignified and safe manner. I am very proud to be working with the foundation. 

My last visit – in February of this year – coincided with a particularly difficult time for both locals and refugees. Lesvos seems to have been abandoned by the rest of Europe, many people are understandably fed up and tensions have reached breaking point. 

These frustrations led to some truly shocking scenes back in February. But these were sidelined for me by the overwhelming power of community, collaboration and care shown by both locals and refugees, which enabled us to make this book. It showed me that there is hope and beauty everywhere, if you are willing to look.

Q: What did your research bring home to you?

A: Food is such a vital part of people’s identity. Being able to cook in the camp is hugely important for the residents and, when I talked to them, they spoke of their dishes from home with real pride. It made me realise that the comfort of cooking and sharing your favourite food can give you a sense of belonging, even when you are far from what you know. As one Syrian mother told me: “It is all I have left from home.” We also found that people were so generous, wanting to share their food and this part of themselves even when they had so little.

Q: Do meals highlight cultural differences or do they reinforce similarities between communities?

A: Lesvos now has a uniquely diverse range of cuisines. Although the dishes may have very different ingredients or styles, the common factor between all the cultures in the camp and the local Greek people was hospitality. Every dish was made and served with love and openness. Our book showcases each culture and celebrates difference but also shines a light on the incredible sense of community among the people who live on this beautiful island. 

Q: Did any meals stand out for you and if so, why?

A: Two recipes in the book were made together and are variations of the same dish: one from a local Greek woman and one from an Iraqi woman living in the camp. Having never met before, they spent the day together, first shopping for ingredients, then preparing their dishes side by side. The day was filled with smiles, laughter and, of course, delicious food. The warmth and love that came from these two women sharing this experience was wonderful. And it really showed that we are not so different from our neighbours, even if we think we are. 

Q: What would you like people to feel after reading your book?

A: Our book is designed to highlight community and inclusivity, showing that food has a unique and wonderful power to unite because, no matter where we’re from, we can all break bread together. I would also like people to take inspiration from the kindness, hope and resilience shown by the refugees living on the island and their host community. The book will allow the individual voices and personalities of these people to be heard and seen, and all the money we raise will go towards MOTG’s mission of creating better lives for this community. Together towards dignity.  

Sophie Streeting is head of hospitality and operations at U+I. She is currently seeking a publisher for her book, Melting Pot: Cooking with Refugees and Locals on the Island of Lesvos. 

If you would like to be notified when the book is published, you can sign up to the mailing list here.

 

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