Food & Restaurant

‘The Politics of Societal Digestion’ (Delfina Foundation) – Tomáš Uhnák’s fascinating tour of London’s alternative food world

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September 17, 2016

image1-2-1As part of Delfina Foundation’s program The Politics of Food: Markets and Movements, artist Tomáš Uhnák organised a day-long walk that showcased the city’s alternative ways of food distribution and consumption — all in different locations and involving various characters who joined us along the way. By the end of the day, the whole affair felt like the beginning of the Matrix movie: a world, whose existence hitherto was mostly ignored by me in my day-to-day routine, opened up and made me question things I’m not usually critical about.

For Tomáš, the idea behind the walk is linked to dérive, a 1970s’ concept developed by the Situationists. According to the theorist Guy Debord, it refers to an activity whereby ‘…one or more persons during a certain period drop their relations, their work and leisure activities, and all their other usual motives for movement and action, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there.’

The walk started at the cooperative farm Organiclea near Chingford. Having enjoyed a wonderful breakfast of farm vegetables, fresh bread, cheese, honey and tea, we were shown around the farm by two of its members, Roux and Theo, who then involved us in their daily work. The activities, which included building a fence for the compost area and weeding out some rhubarb beds, were therapeutic, allowing us to distance ourselves from the constraints of our daily occupations.

Theo spoke to us about the involvement of local residents in the farm’s daily activities, including a forest school, organised for the Orthodox Muslim kids from the area, and a box scheme allowing people to receive produce directly from the farm. Roux spoke to us of the farm’s volunteers – often vulnerable people – for whom such involvement can aid mental recovery.

image5-2-1The farm attempts to maintain a balance between being an outreach project and a commercial enterprise — one of the reasons why they don’t want to be represented at hip locations like Borough Market, and prefer instead coming to smaller East London markets, where they can really contribute to changing people’s attitudes.

Finally, the topic of the farm’s membership of the London-based ‘Community Food Growers Network’ was raised. Britain’s recent decision to leave the EU, in the eyes of Organiclea, may in fact present opportunities for like-minded initiatives nationwide. The post-Brexit environment could help attract attention towards smaller-scale, sustainable food production and distribution outlets which can benefit local communities, as opposed to supermarket chains, which often end up being the only winners.

Our walk continued. Other stops included a delicious lunch at the cooperative-run Bonnington Café in Vauxhall and an intriguing talk by Nafeez Ahmed, investigative journalist and academic researcher, whose interests lie in the links between food, climate change, energy and politics, including the current war in Syria. Later, Vicky Hird from War on Want spoke to us about the Food Sovereignty movement as one of solutions in fighting world poverty. Part of War on Want’s present campaign involves raising awareness on the CETA treaty, currently being signed between Europe and Canada, which may have similar consequences to the recently failed TTIP one. These consequences can be truly dramatic, ranging from fewer regulations for the banking industry to the penetration of European households with GM produce.

The next stop included a visit to the Fairshares cooperative shop in Elephant and Castle, and a talk by one of its volunteers, Celia Plender, a PhD student researching the history of the cooperative movement in Britain. We later found ourselves at the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, where associate professor Ben Richardson from University of Warwick spoke to us about sugar and class identity, with kinds of sugar-containing products consumed strongly dependent on lifestyle and job type.

image3-2-1The day finished at Delfina Foundation in Victoria. After a Skype conversation with professor Gerardo Otero from Simon Fraser University on the subject of ‘neoliberal diet’ and its effects on countries such as Mexico, Tomáš encouraged us to cook dinner together. The meal – not for the faint-hearted – was inspired by Vincent M. Holt’s 1885 manifesto Why Not Eat Insects? It included a beetroot carpaccio with mealworms and a locust curry with rice and vegetables. Whilst the insects were bought specifically for the occasion, they can, according to Tomáš, easily be cultivated at home. As such, they form part of a sustainable, short-transportation-channel variety of food that the contributors of this fascinating event proposed as an alternative to the supermarket-dominated scenario. It can benefit local communities worldwide and –  by contributing towards the fight against the inequality of food distribution – act as at least a partial solution to world hunger.

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Tomáš Uhnák’s The Politics of Societal Digestion was part of an ongoing programme of events at London’s Delfina Foundation. More information can be found by clicking on the image below.

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