Eat, Think and Share – and reverse

When I started organising my fieldwork in London, I contacted the Skip Garden and Kitchen and they agreed to be one of my case studies, writes Brigida Marovelli. I first found out about the Skip Garden when mapping food sharing for SHARECITY100, an online interactive database to showcase information for over 4000 initiatives in 100 cities around the world. This was the early stage of my involvement with SHARECITY research project, a five year research project led by Professor Anna Davies at Trinity College Dublin funded by the European Research Council. The project explores the practice and sustainability potential of city-based food sharing economies.

If I close my eyes and try to recall my first memory of the garden, it brings to mind the very tactile feeling of my hands kneading pizza dough on a cold December afternoon, next to a cheerful and energetic community chef, who is explaining to me what we are going to do during the winter family feast. It was the first time I had met Vero and I still struggle to find an adequate explanation of how she so talentedly managed to involve the kids so much that they were willing to try butternut squash puree, parsnips, seeds, and greens (I promise you, we did not pay the kids to do that, they were just very curious!). By the way, I am Italian and I can guarantee that our bizarre combo of butternut squash puree, stilton and walnuts pizza is definitely worth trying.

Researchers are supposed to be very serious people: asking complex questions and engaging with a variety of topics that the majority of the lay-persons find obscure. After the first month of fieldwork, in which I spent on average two days a week at the Skip Garden, I looked back at my fieldnotes and I came to the realisation that a disproportionate amount of words in my fieldnotes was in fact in celebration of a daily activity of the Skip Garden: the staff lunch.

Everywhere I’ve worked before, staff lunch or staff food was remarkably plain, sad and even painful at times. Those fluffy white bread slices with the monotonous lifeless fillings called sandwiches.  Not to mention the fact that often having the time to step away from the desk and from the computer is regarded as a luxury. In the hospitality sector, employees are often served cheap dishes that are not on the menu and they usually cannot afford to buy or try the food that they prepare or that they cook. 

Now when I think of staff lunches, I smile and I imagine a long dining table with people chatting, while appreciating a variety of vegetarian menus. The construction site and its noise look like a background painting behind the people who consume the foreground as they are enjoying sharing a meal together.

Mary Douglas, the imminent British anthropologist who first studied meal structure would be thrilled to hear that I couldn’t help myself and I observed patterns in what is served. She would also probably ask me: what makes a “Skip Garden’ staff lunch”? What characteristics define it? And my answer would need to include the following elements:

  1. Conviviality: staff, volunteers and guests sitting at the table
  2. The bright blue enamel dishes, jugs of tap water, glass tumblers and stainless steel cutlery (yes, no disposables to be found here)
  3. A vegetarian hot main in large quantities – could be a curry, a stew, a potato gratin, soup served with homemade bread – usually with a vegan option available, so cheese on the side. Dietary requirements are not a burden to the kitchen’s lively team: gluten free, vegan, lentil free, you name it and they accommodate it with a smile and no judgement.
  4. Freshly baked Irish-style brown bread (divine) or a little bit of grains – could be rice, barley or spelt.
  5. Some cooked side vegetables according to the season – roasted root veggies, cauliflower, broccoli.
  6. Some raw veggies – generally salad leaves from the garden

Recently, researchers at Oxford University analysed the data provided by “The Big Lunch” national survey, and concluded that “communal eating increases social bonding and feelings of wellbeing, and enhances one’s sense of contentedness and embedding within the community”.

At the Skip Garden, a meal is not only about eating together. It also means consuming and creating a shared idea of what a sustainable diet could be. Keeping in mind the need to be able to afford more sustainable diets, especially in cities, some of the qualities of the food served here are contributing to reflect on how to do that.

  • Vegetarian or vegan – and reducing consumption of meat and dairy is the first step towards sustainability.
  • Seasonal – there were no tomatoes on the menu in February, but cauliflower and other winter vegetables.
  • Organic – whenever possible.
  • Trendy over exploited crops such as avocado are off the menu.
  • Safeguarding Biodiversity – there is an attempt to use and introduce more variety and to use types of vegetables that grow well in the UK

And this quality is not reserved to customers. At the Skip Garden sharing a good quality meal enables staff, volunteers and lucky guests like me to appreciate the thoughts and care behind what here is everyday bread: a reflection on how to live in harmony with ourselves, with others and with the planet.

I would like to thank everyone at the Skip Garden for welcoming me and my questions. It was a pleasure and an honour to sit down at the table with all of you and… think.