Food cuts through society on so many levels that perhaps focusing on how we feed ourselves is the best chance we have to achieve progressive social change. If an army marches on its stomach, perhaps social action starts at our kitchen table.
Have you seen our latest RSA Short: How Cooking Can Change your Life?
“Eat anything you like, as long as you cook it yourself?” Pretty intriguing advice, no? Did it make you want to get home and buy, unpack, wash, peel, chop and fry some potatoes?
Not quite? Well this reheated blog post full of hidden salt, sugar and fat from July 15th might help to convince you.
I wrote it after listening to the podcast, which gives a much fuller picture of the important argument, and which I would strongly recommend listening to, ideally in your kitchen with a good chopping board and a few willing vegetables.
More than half a year later, I am even more sure that the idea is worth heeding and reflecting on for its political implications. The basic idea sounds trivial (let’s all cook more, ha ha…) but it might just be the kind of small revolutionary act that could lead to significant systemic change if it really took hold.
The idea that we should (in the pragmatic and moral senses of the term) all cook more might even be relevant to the RSA’s emerging world view around the power to create; at its heart it’s about shifting the balance of power from big to small, and distributing a daily act of creativity much more widely. It’s also fun, good for your health and ecologically beneficial, but those arguments are small fries….
Potentially much more motivating is the Bachanalian carnival of aromatic delights that lies dormant within your very own unsuspecting kitchen.
Why not start tonight by adding some cumin to your beans on toast?
That title (Is Cooking a Subversive Act?) makes the content sound like a combination of self-help and how-to, but it’s much more political than that. The speaker, Michael Pollan, is a professor and activist who sees food in general, and cooking in particular, as a critical driver of the economic and social order.
That might sound a little bourgeois and worthy- Who has the time? Who has the kitchen space? But the evidential case is pretty strong. Processed food generally tends to be much less cheap and convenient than we imagine, for instance, and the relationship between cooking and health is apparently very robust.
He starts the talk with the example of the fries sold at a famous fast food restaurant having to be long to look right in the red boxes, which means a special kind of long potato has to be grown, and that that strain of potato has to free of blemishes, which means you need a certain kind of pesticide which is highly toxic…and this is one example of thousands- the food we see every day carries with it a huge range of generally hidden public health and environmental issues.
The familiar argument is that our reliance of processed foods is a huge public health problem, but the twist is that one of the main things that perpetuates the problem is the idea that cooking is a kind of problem or drudgery that the market should solve for us, rather than a creative and joyful act that we should do for ourselves and each other. In this sense cooking is the fulcrum around a much broader argument for an economy, promoted by nef amongst others i.e. an economy that properly values time and the costs of not having time, and allows us to be a bit less like time-starved consumers and a bit more like time-plenty producers (who, on balance, tend to be happier).
The familiar argument is that our reliance of processed foods is a huge public health problem, but the twist is that one of the main things that perpetuates the problem is the idea that cooking is a kind of problem or drudgery that the market should solve for us, rather than a creative and joyful act that we should do for ourselves and each other
A few ideas/quotes from scribbles on a train (check audio for verbatim quotes):
- Poor women who cook are healthier than rich women who don’t.
- The food industry don’t speak of fat, salt and sugar in terms of ‘addiction’. Instead they tend to use the words ‘cravability’ and ‘snackability’
- Food marketing tends to operate by creating anxiety and the providing a solution (at one point Pollan makes reference to feminism giving rise to a domestic redistribution of labour, in which women who work couldn’t possibly be expected to cook as much as they used to…However this change doesn’t happen without resistance, and the ensuing arguments are then placated by adverts that implicitly say – don’t fight about it, we’ll do it for you…)
- “Special occasion foods become every day foods when we let industry cook for us.”(One example Pollan gives is french fries or chips. They taste great when you cook them yourself, but the process is highly labour intensive(washing, peeling, cutting, pan, oil, splattering, oil, washing up etc) so left to our own devices we might eat them only every month or so as a treat, but many Americans now eat two batches of french fries a day because they have become so convenient.)
- The diet that would work for everybody is: eat anything you like, just cook it yourself.
- Michele Obama’s original speech about food and the subsequent ‘let’s move’ campaign was really powerful/radical, but its impact was lessened when she got into a conversation with the food industry about reformulating the ingredients of processed food. The speaker compared this to ‘low fat’ food being a mixed blessing, because it tends to mean other ‘bad things’ are put in to replace the fat.
- “Slightly improved processed food is a trap”
- “Health is a collective property of the human microbiotica”
- “The environment is not just ‘out there’, it’s passing right through you.
By Jonathan Rowson, Director, Social Brain Centre, Follow at @jonathan_rowson
This is a guest blog from Jennifer Fong FRSA. Jennifer is Founder and Co-Director of Cooking with Mama, a project which received Catalyst funding earlier this year.
Coconut biscuits, Sri Lankan pumpkin curry and Mexican chiles en nogada. These are a just a few of the many dishes that over 150 Londoners have learned to create at Cooking With Mama (CWM).
A RSA Catalyst-funded culinary school and social enterprise, CWM has had a productive first year, including cooking classes, secret supper clubs, catering, corporate events, market stalls, Mama training days, an expansion into Berlin, and kitchens filled with new friends learning to create authentic home cooked meals. Best of all – we have been able to empower women, our Mamas, with confidence and work-readiness skills through training and paid opportunities to lead cooking classes in communities across London.
CWM is taking shape at a critical time for women. A report from the Fawcett Society earlier this year showed that women’s unemployment has risen to a 25 year high, with almost three times as many women as men having become long-term unemployed since 2010. This is a context within which social enterprises like CWM can help fill a critical gap. As ‘conventional’ full-time jobs become increasingly rare, people are acquiring work experience in more creative ways. And, if you’re a great amateur cook, you can pass along your skills and knowledge to a curious and committed audience with CWM.
Beyond our cooking classes and supper clubs, CWM recently held a ‘Mama Training Day’ dedicated to our Mamas’ personal development, professional goals, and building a strong community of women with whom to learn and grow. A focal development area was the importance of storytelling and developing the skill of bringing cultural content to life during the classes.
For our official launch party, CWM also gathered a diverse mix of individuals from the foodie and social enterprise spheres to showcase our Mamas’ culinary talents and celebrate our achievements for the year. See a video highlighting the moments here:
How you can get involved
CWM is thankful for its supporters! As we continue to grow and develop, our goal is to serve our existing Mamas by providing them with access to opportunities to gain food industry experience and continue to support as many women as possible. Based on the feedback we have received in recent months, the encouragement and motivation provided by the RSA’s Catalyst Award, and our genuine love of yummy things of all kinds, we believe the future is bright. Our future is looking very tasty indeed!
If you think our idea sounds delicious, there are many simple ways to get involved!
- “Like” us on Facebook and “follow us” on Twitter
- Sign up for a Cooking Class or Supper club
- Let us plan your next group team building event with a Corporate Class
- Contact us to join our mailing list to learn about upcoming events and news
- Volunteer with us – we’re particularly looking for people with expertise in partnerships, recruitment, social media and websites. We are also looking for legal/tax advice. Please get in touch if you think you can help us!
Find out more about Cooking with Mama at www.cookingwithmama.org.
If you would like to support some of the fantastic projects run by RSA Fellows – such as Cooking with Mama – please sign up to RSA Skills bank and join a growing network of individuals inspired to share their knowledge, time and expertise to deliver social change and enhance human capability.
Fancy losing weight, looking younger, living longer, fending off Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and even cancer, whilst eating whatever you want? This is only some of what the 5:2 fasting diet claims to offer, and the only catch is that you have to fast twice a week. The ‘fast’ days do not require complete starvation, but instead involve heavily restricted calories – 500 for a woman and 600 for a man. It’s up to the individual how to make up the calories, but the suggestion is that you eat breakfast and one other meal, either lunch or dinner.
The evidence is strong that it’s a very effective way to lose weight. But there’s more to it than that – much has been made of the link between this pattern of eating and increased longevity. Research conducted by the Baltimore National Institute on Aging indicates that levels of the hormone insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) are lowered by twice-weekly fasting. Controlling levels of IGF-1 can promote longevity as well as offering protection against a range of diseases.
High levels of IGF-1 are thought to increase the cell divisions associated with cancer, hence the possibility that reducing it may offer defence against it. Although this evidence is encouraging, the sceptical scientific community still feel that more extensive research needs to be conducted before conclusions can be drawn. Some critics have suggested that the extremes involved might result in the development of eating disorder, although there is no hard evidence for this either.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze?
Since the BBC broadcast a documentary about it last year, the diet has grown hugely in popularity, with celebrity support coming from the likes of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Is there something different about this approach to reducing the amount we eat, or is it just another boom and bust fad diet like Atkins or Dukan? According to those who champion it, this approach to reducing calorific intake is much easier to sustain because of the fact that five days out of seven are unrestricted.
Could it be that eating hardly anything twice a week is doable because of the fact that, for the rest of the time, one is at liberty to enjoy whatever one fancies, be it cake, steak, or booze? However hungry you might get on the fast day, is the knowledge that you could have a full English breakfast the next day enough to get you through?
It seems to me that this particular approach to eating might not only be easier to stick to than others, but could also encourage deeper consideration of one’s relationship with food. Having not tried this diet myself, I can’t comment from first-hand experience, but I suspect that on fast days, you are more acutely aware of your body’s need for food than on days when you’re eating whatever you want. By deliberately depriving yourself of the ‘usual’ amount of food, you are choosing to make yourself somewhat uncomfortable which much have psychological and maybe spiritual effects as well as physical ones.
The Islamic month of Ramadan uses fasting as a way of teaching Muslims self-discipline, self-restraint and generosity, as well as encouraging reflection on the suffering of the poor, who may be forced to fast through poverty. Being hungry is used as a vehicle for nurturing the skills needed to maintain self-control – acting as a tool for sustaining mindfulness. Perhaps some of these benefits can be gained through regular intermittent fasting as well.
Advocates of the 5:2 diet talk about quite enjoying the feeling of hunger (knowing that it will be short-lived) and of feeling exhilarated on the fast days and liberated on the days when no restrictions are in place. From the various accounts I’ve read of doing the diet, I have not seen explicit mention of spiritual or psychological benefits, but I have a suspicion that impacts on these domains may go some way towards explaining its popularity.
Here we are – Connected Communities’ first foray into the blogosphere. As a virgin blogger, I’ve been getting advice from Matt Cain on content, style and readership development. ‘You need a mix of news and research comment, and analysis of some of the high level concepts you’re dealing with. But your project is essentially about understanding and generating change at the neighbourhood level, so you really need to talk about some examples of grassroots action. But you probably need to set out all of this upfront, and simply, so you can take people with you and so they understand what they might be coming back for. You also need to make it personal – give something of yourself’ I paraphrase him as saying. Helpful advice, so…
A couple of weeks ago, I got a flyer from Islington Council. It was entitled something like: ‘Introduce-yourself-to-a-neighbour day’ , the idea being that on some pre-defined day in the near future residents across the Borough would be calling round to the people next door and organically generating a more cohesive community. The idea of a direct call to social capital arms is interesting and raises many discussions about how policy and public sector actors can intervene (and whether they should) to build social relationships. More on this in future blogs.
I like to think of myself as an active citizen, and as a Fellow of the RSA as well as staff member, I want to live the values we espouse as an organisation. I also like to think of myself as a nice guy and given a new couple have just moved into a flat in our building, I decided to invite them round for a welcome-to-the-area-get-to-know-you drink.
They came round. In working our way awkwardly through a few glasses of wine, the inevitable question was put to me: ‘So, what do you do?’. I have never been particularly good at answering this question – having worked in niche areas of economic development and community regeneration, and with a propensity to adopt and use the jargon of these disciplines, my replies have tended to confuse rather than inform. But I’d spent most of the week trying to give an answer to this question to RSA colleagues with respect to the percolating Connected Communities project. I was fired up by the possibilities that were emerging. I let them have it.
‘It’s about how social networks can be better understood and utilised in addressing social problems’ I gushed. ‘It’s about reviewing the utility of social capital theory, turning it into practical tools for social change. It’s about tapping into and building civic capacity, our willingness to do good things collectively, voluntarily’.
I realised I was sounding like John Prescott. I took a breath and tried to calm down. ‘OK, look, simply put, social capital theory 101 says that the connections, or networks, between people have value and there is evidence to show that they impact on important issues like economic performance, educational attainment, health, and crime. But these networks are hard to see, hard to understand, hard to measure, and hard to mobilise strategically in addressing any particular problem. Social capital can also take different forms: it can bond across homogenous groups; it can bridge across diverse types of people, and it can link people to power and decision-makers. These different forms are relatively more or less important depending on what issue you’re dealing with and with whom. So if you were to try and generate social capital, you’d need a kind of multivitamin approach that got the right balance of ingredients according to what mineral deficiencies you were addressing. Or, if you like, a great recipe for a hearty, nourishing soup. You’d also need to think about at what level you might act: most consideration is given to social capital at the meso level – the between, community, level – but some people also talk about the importance of and blend with the micro (family, close friends) and macro (national) level.
‘What I’m interested in is the best recipe for meso soup. What ingredients do you need and how do you measure them out, how do you prepare and cook it, who should cook it, what skills and equipment do you need? I’m interested in understanding how you might create the conditions that support generating the right social capital, particularly if this is then done in the spirit of a new collectivism that is bottom up, networked, spontaneous, resourceful, and not only driven by public sector actors and the usual third sector suspects. I’m going to find new ways of mapping and visualising these networks, and of doing it in ways so that local people are encouraged to own, join, strengthen, enjoy and use these networks for social progress. The ideal communityscape I suppose.’
I looked up. Our guests had subtly, but certainly, recoiled. They were leaning back, chins into chests, peering over glasses, brows furrowed. It’s a reaction I’ve encountered before when I’ve embarked on equally enthusiastic accounts of other favourite topics – logistic regression, spreadsheet functionality, and the like. Usually, one of two reactions presents itself. The first is a mixture of fright and bewilderment; the other simple pity. I waited.
So, pity had won out. I accept that I should probably get out more, but the speed and accuracy of the diagnosis was discomforting.
‘Seriously, I think you should go. Our friend lives at the end of the terrace, his next door neighbour, an elderly man, recently moved in, tripped and fell into his front garden. My mate came out and took him to the Café for a cup of tea. Long story short, they now meet for tea each week or so, he helps him with his garden, he’s plugged into the lunchtime social specials they have there, the police safer neighbourhood lot meet there and now know him and look out for him. They have weekend reading sessions for kids. And the Café itself buys all its ingredients from the other local traders, and they’re completely into fresh healthy ingredients through a local network. It’s all probably much more effective than anything the Council could deliver by itself. You could start to see it and encourage it as the hub of a network for social good. But isn’t who goes there just opportunistic to an extent? If you could identify who uses places like this and why; how to make them more inclusive and understand and address local problems effectively; how to identify and use these kinds of resources in the first place, well…It’s kind of social enterprise through reconceived existing networks. And if you could encourage other positive spin-offs: what good stuff could people who meet their together do? That’s what you’re talking about isn’t it?’ They waited.
‘That’ I said, ‘is exactly what I’m talking about’.