Food Cultures and Customs: Food for Good in Action

Food Cultures and Customs

The Rural Sociology Group coordinates a course called Food Cultures and Customs with the Philosophy Group.

The course is dedicated to examining the role that food plays in and across cultures. Food culture is understood to be the expression of how people value food and everything connected to food. As such, this course is an exploration into the ever changing social functions of food.

This means that we do not look at different cultures  and what they eat.  Instead, it entails an examination of the attitudes and assumptions that shape people’s lives; the rituals and beliefs that mark their identities; and the ways foods are grown, processed, sold and consumed in particular places. 

In this course we ask some big questions:

  • What are we allowed to eat and why?
  • Why do food taboos exist and how do they come to be?
  • What role does food play in constructions of identity?
  • How are foods and food choices valued in society?
  • What makes a specific food or dish authentic and where are the boundaries between authentic culinary heritage and invented traditions and new food cultures?
  • How are everyday concepts integrated in and across the food chain?
  • What impact do food choices have on the environment?
  • Can we trust our food?

As we move through the course we give students the tools to start answering these questions. The tools are theories developed by social scientists and they help us make sense of the complexity that marks our food systems.

BUT, after 5 weeks of theory, last Friday we boarded a bus and left a rainy Wageningen to Utrecht to put some of our theory back into practice.

Our first stop was Food for Good. Project Coordinator Mariken met us at the garden and gave us a tour.  Luckily the rain subsided long enough for us to be able to check out the garden. Food for Good is a food garden located in the Utrecht neighbourhood of Kanaleneiland. Given that it was the end of the season there was not a lot to see but we were impressed by how much they had managed to do in the first year of operation and learnt about future plans to develop a pond, house chickens and plant flowers.  

Students make their way to the garden

Students make their way to the garden

Given that it was cold and wet we decided to leave the garden and walked to the neighbouring children’s farm where we could sit indoors and talk. Mariken explained that the goal of the Food for Good garden is to engage diverse sectors of the local community in gardening. The hope is stronger social ties will be formed through the growing of food. We discussed the challenges of engaging different segments of society in gardening projects and students shared examples of similar initiatives from their countries. We also discussed the benefits and limitations of different organizational models such as plots versus a shared garden. Sustainability strategies for such projects were also considered. We discussed the challenges of getting low-income and socially isolated people engaged in the project and tried to imagine innovated strategies to get people engaged that did not reinforce economic hierarchies or inadvertently result in shame or challenges to dignity. We also considered how to attract people from different cultures into the project building on experiences students have had with other projects or based on examples from their countries. 

Importantly, we also learned Food for Good works to provide the community with healthy food while also providing a green space in the neighbourhood where people can meet, socialize and cooperate with each other. Volunteers work with garden experts and get to take home a share of the harvest. Remaining food is sent to the Food Bank and to the Resto van Harte, which was our next stop.

Resto van Harte Utrecht

Resto van Harte Utrecht

Resto Van Harte is  a social-interest organisation devoted to increasing quality of life and dynamic community spirit by bringing people together, regardless of background, age or religion.  Towards this goal, Resto VanHarte sets up community restaurants, known as Restos, to which everyone is welcome to come and share an affordable and healthy three-course meal.

We were welcomed at the Resto by the coordinator Jolanda and her volunteers who anticipated we would be cold and wet after our garden visit and had tea and coffee waiting for us. We were able to speak with Jolanada and learn more about the objectives of the restaurant, the activities they coordinate, and the bridges they build within and across the community. We then split up and all sat at different tables to get a chance to meet new people and enjoy a tasty three course meal.  We were in for a treat! One of the volunteers had agreed to cook a Korean meal for the evening. She explained a bit about the food and we all dug in! It was very tasty indeed but what was most striking, beyond questions of authenticity which we spent a great deal of time focusing on in class, was the way in which the restaurant was helping to build community through food.

Interested in Food Cultures? Join our Facebook group for updates and discussions about the role of food in culture, and vice versa: https://www.facebook.com/groups/rsofoodcultures/

Good Food for Good!

Good Food for Good!

Bees are hibernating

Bees are hibernating

Mariken, coordinator of Food for Good talks to the students

Mariken, coordinator of Food for Good talks to the students

Food Cultures and Customs
Waiting for the dinner to start!

Waiting for the dinner to start!

First course: Miso soup

Students had special spots reserved for them to ensure that they mingled

Students had special spots reserved for them to ensure that they mingled

Rice with vegetables

Rice with vegetables

Ice cream with fruit

Ice cream with fruit

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About foodgovernance

Jessica Duncan is Assistant Professor in the Rural Sociology Group at Wageningen University. Originally from Canada, she lived in France, Spain and the UK before coming to the Netherlands. She holds a PhD in Food Policy from City University London and is the author of the book Global Food Security Governance: Civil society engagement in the reformed Committee on World Food Security (Routledge, 2015, http://www.routledge.com/books/details/9781138802520/ ). Her research areas include: food policy; food security; global governance; environmental policy; participation; rural sociology. She is particularly interested in transitions towards environmentally sustainable food security governance.

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