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Beyond Food Aid: A “Kitchen Retreat” reimagines community in the Cape Flats

A space to exhale, listen and learn

by Nicole Paganini and Wangu Mwangi | 2021-12-14

Beyond Food Aid: A “Kitchen Retreat” reimagines community in the Cape Flats

Two years into the global Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a lot of discussion about the deeper psychological, social and economic impacts. Numerous analyses have pointed to the “powder keg” of health concerns, forced confinement at home, growing joblessness and financial uncertainty — particularly for women (Duncan and Claeys, 2020, CSM, 2020).

The community kitchens of Cape Town are as diverse as the neighbourhoods they serve. While some have been operational for years and are supported through communities and neighbourhood initiatives, or faith-based and philanthrophic organisations, others opened during the Covid-19 pandemic as community-led responses to increasing food insecurity. It is estimated that there are hundreds of neighbourhood soup kitchens in the Cape Flats and adjacent areas, serving an estimated 1.5 to 2 million residents.

As external support continues to dissipate, staff are digging even deeper to provide not only essential nourishment and shelter, but a space where their neighbours can feel “human again.” Yet, mirroring experiences in the health care sector, little attention has been paid to the cumulative impact on kitchen workers who put in long stretches of work — sometimes without pay — while also struggling to take care of their own families.

The Kitchen Retreat: A space to exhale, listen and learn

A three-day retreat in November provided a welcome space to breathe, vent, reflect, dream, and co-design a shared future. Co-facilitated by the Urban Food Futures programme at TMG Research and the Cape Town office of the Heinrich Boell Foundation, the retreat brought together 20 heads of community food hubs receiving support from four organisations:

  • FACT (Food Agency Cape Town), an organisation of community researchers who use food as an entry point to explore social justice questions.

  • The Callas Foundation, a community-based organisation that links community kitchens to safe spaces for victims of gender-based violence.

  • Ubuntu, a human rights organisation working in the neighbouring towns of Stellenbosch; and Klapmuts that aims to strengthen women’s voices by exploring linkages across gender, land, labour and environmental rights.

  • The Cape Town Action Network Gugulethu, a network of twenty kitchens from a high-density, low-income area.

The conversations highlighted the rich menu of services shared “alongside food”: from domestic violence support, nutrition advice, childcare or after-school care support, to engaging with gang members and urging them to desist from gang violence. Participants highlighted how offering an empathetic ear is helping community members to vent their anger and frustration about the “poverty-porn” they are subjected to in return for mere scraps of the cake. The kitchens are situated in the often-violent environment of the Cape Flats, the area outside Cape Town where the Apartheid regime created so-called townships to settle “People of Colour.” The ongoing spatial segregation along race lines perpetuates the historical separation of society, wealth, and power. These kitchens are spaces of shame for both their patrons who walk to distant kitchens to avoid their neighbours’ stares, as well as for the policy makers and local authorities who fail to offer protection and a predictable source of support.

Working from a retreat towards a summit. Four organisations discuss challenges and dreams of community kitchens. Photos: Sanelisiwe Nyaba

The retreat made it clear that the value derived from community kitchens transcends the immediate need for food, or, for those who run the kitchens, a source of income. Rather, community kitchens are becoming critical spaces where communities can seek and gain connection, exchange, and solidarity. Not unrelated to this, they are also places where norms are queried and transformation is spearheaded, where dialogues around food are happening, and where advocates’ voices for changing existing food systems are heard. In other words, community kitchens can foster social values and help (re)build the broken social fabric of communities.

A model for social transformation?

The assembled kitchen heads have embarked on a co-creation process to achieve their dream: repositioning community kitchens as multifaceted hubs where support for diverse needs can be aggregated, while also restoring dignity and social capital. The chosen path will include, among other tasks: conducting advocacy-driven research; visioning to uncover the communities’ unexpressed values; and finding practical entry points to amplify local voices and rebuild agency.

Community kitchen of the Callas Foundation in Bridgetown. Photo: Sanelisiwe Nyaba

For the organisers, envisioning the gathering as a kitchen retreat, rather than workshop, was intentional. It conveyed our need to focus on the unsung heroes of these important community initiatives. It was a moment for others to acknowledge that running community kitchens is largely unpaid, unseen, relentless, and unrecognised. As agents of change, kitchen staff were able to enjoy a shared moment of sisterhood, while also receiving practical and technical support, and an opportunity to share knowledge and build their networks. (This is the moment when one as a facilitator, wishes there would also be a funding line for “self-care” — counseling, a yoga session, or even a massage).

Perhaps the Kitchen Retreat approach can offer insights on how to reimagine community kitchens and urban food hubs — whatever their form — as spaces for strengthening community solidarity and resilience. The lessons are likely to be even more important as the recent travel ban on South Africa hits local economies even harder.

Cover picture caption: Reimagining Community — a session at the Kitchen Summit. Photo Credit: Sanelisiwe Nyaba

Written by Nicole Paganini and Wangu Mwangi

The research is part of the Urban Food Futures programme, by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ).

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