'Solidarity kitchens’ may have different missions, but often coalesce in their quest to meet material needs, such as the fair distribution of food and offering moral support and visibility to communities and individuals.
Sometimes cooked in a single pot on the stove of a small house, sometimes prepared in large cauldrons that boil over a wood fire, food not only meets a basic human need, but plays an important part in the continuity of culture, identity and memory. Seasons, holidays, births and deaths are commemorated and identified with the meals cooked in these kitchens. Food is often the tangible and symbolic conveyor of individual and collective memories and commonalities, and the means to reproduce and share them. On one hand, the kitchen is where conversations and songs are enjoyed, and on the other, it is the place where memories, troubles and meals are shared, and solidarity emerges. This laden space opens a place for production and communication, providing a common ground for individuals in multicultural and multi-layered societies.
‘Solidarity kitchens’ may have different missions, but often coalesce in their quest to meet material needs, such as the fair distribution of food and offering moral support and visibility to communities and individuals. The rise in migration, economic obstacles to decent living conditions, deep social inequalities and poverty, the climate crisis and the pandemic have all increased the importance of solidarity kitchens in the times we live in. Meanwhile, those very forces pose a threat to the sustainability of these entities. For example, some solidarity kitchens, like many non-governmental organisations that were adversely affected by restrictions on social contact during the pandemic, had to suspend or terminate their activities or transform into different organisations. That is why we believe it is important to draw attention to collective and individual efforts to serve those in need and support all their efforts and labours.
Active in Istanbul since January 2017, Çorbada Tuzun Olsun (Add Your Own Salt to the Soup) embodies the soup kitchen tradition. This civil society organisation brings together volunteers of various ages, professions, educational backgrounds and religious and political views to raise awareness about homeless people, meet their basic needs and ensure their reintegration into society. The organisation, which has distributed food to the homeless every night since its founding, also tries to assist with employment, shelter and other necessities. With its motto, ‘Homelessness is not a housing problem, but an inability to shelter in a home’, the group doesn’t view food distribution as its sole aim, but as a means to bring homeless people who are often isolated back into society.
Hayata Sarıl Derneği (Embrace Life Association) is a social responsibility project centred around a restaurant that works to rehabilitate and reintegrate people living on the street and disregarded by society. Serving meals to paying customers during the day, the restaurant’s volunteers then provide free meals to the homeless and the needy in the evening. The restaurant uses a for-profit business model to pursue a non-profit goal: an example of a social-enterprise model that shuns a capitalist profit strategy and instead invests its returns in society. The initiative not only meets people’s immediate needs but provides support in several areas such as employment, psychological support and vocational training to break the vicious cycle that shackles vulnerable and marginalised individuals.
Supporting different food supply chains is among the alternative actions we can find at solidarity kitchens. Beyoğlu Gıda Topluluğu (Beyoğlu Food Community) is an example of such a movement. The community has continued its activities through two restaurant spaces, first Üçüncü Mevki (Third Seat), then Kuçe Yemek Kolektifi (Kuçe Food Collective). It procures its supplies from local cooperatives, market gardens and small producers in Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district. Kuçe was forced to close its restaurant due to economic and organisational difficulties during the pandemic. However, a desire to adapt and evolve is at the heart of being an alternative institution, and Kuçe continues to exist as a collective space. Under its new name, Beyoğlu Gıda Topluluğu is a local address where people in the neighbourhood have access to ecological food.
Another enterprise is Aylak Kitchen (Tramp Kitchen). This movement examines the cycle of food from seed to table and its long, multi-actor journey, viewing aylaklık, or tramping, as slowing down, stopping, contemplating the city, observing it and prioritising nourishment from the city. It initially set out with the goal of creating a mobile kitchen that draws attention to all kinds of waste, from food to plastic, and to provide a common ground to transform that waste. With the pandemic, it is working on the idea of a ‘movement for common, sustainable, equitable food’. Centred around İzmir and its surroundings, the movement brings together people from different disciplines who are working on the city’s culinary culture and food consumption. It aims to disseminate the accumulated information to a wider audience through collective efforts such as Aylak Sözlük (Tramp Dictionary), and experiences through conferences and talks.
Other countries have similar inquiries and problems and therefore similar entities. One is Food for Soul from Italy. Started by Michelin star chef Massimo Bottura and his restaurateur wife Lara Gilmore, Food for Soul promotes sustainability and zero food waste. Serving people with housing or food challenges, the organisation operates in cities and countries across the world, often appearing in unexpected places like church cellars or train stations. The project transforms food loss at markets into delicious meals prepared by different chefs, feeding those in need and touching their souls.
Gastromotiva was established in a household kitchen in São Paulo in 2006 and went on to work on social projects on the global scale, cooperating with organisations such as Food for Soul and the UN’s World Food Programme. A pioneer in the Social Gastronomy Movement, it cooperates with universities, companies and non-governmental organisations on the issues of hunger, food waste, inequality of opportunity, obesity and nutrition in countries including Brazil, Mexico, South Africa and El Salvador. Gastromotiva, which focuses on education and social transformation, continued its work during the pandemic, thanks to its resources and broad area of influence. In 2020, Gastromotiva solidarity kitchens began operating in student residences in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Curitiba and Mexico City and continue to deliver meals to city dwellers who are struggling financially.
Similarly, Robin Hood Army, which started in India and expanded globally with time, has been collecting food left over at restaurants and weddings and distributing it to the homeless and orphans since 2014. Volunteers working in 227 cities in 12 countries help thousands of people every week by convincing restaurant owners and wedding parties to donate. In addition, Robin Hood Army organises weekly educational sessions for children living and working on the streets so that they are not deprived of their right to an education.
Sometimes a single individual’s sense of responsibility can lead to the emergence of a collective enterprise and large social movement. A woman, not a chef and his team at a well-equipped kitchen, can roll up her sleeves to give back to society and support marginalised groups. Kirsten Adorian of Brooklyn, New York is one such example. Adorian, who loves to cook and is concerned about access to high quality, nutritious food, put out her first call in 2016, during the US presidential elections, announcing on Facebook that she wanted to deliver meals she had cooked to the homes of LGBTQ+ individuals living in her neighbourhood. The hundreds of comments, likes and requests in response to the post, coming at a time of great polarisation, is a striking example of how a meal transcends mere physical needs.
Another example of initiatives by individuals comes from Cambodia. A philanthropist from Turkey who moved to Cambodia calling herself Aynebilim opened a food pantry called Aynsoupkitchen in the capital Phnom Pehn to provide regular food assistance to people living in shanties on a donation-based model. Donations collected on a website are also used to supply material for the building needs of the village where she is located.
Each of these inspiring examples is a beacon of hope, showing it is possible to devise solutions to deep-seated problems. Unfortunately, these solidarity networks are struggling to remain economically viable with the impact of the pandemic. Some kitchens have either closed or have stopped updating their social media accounts. Solidarity kitchens tend to be formed by individuals or disadvantaged groups on a voluntary basis; their ability to continue is directly related to the circumstances of these people. For example, migrant kitchens or similar organisations set up by refugees are inevitably affected when these people are stuck in limbo and have to be on the move.
Despite all of the challenges, these kitchens, which have initiated many beneficial activities in their often short lifespans, play a major role in sustaining the different purposes, components, venues and organisations of the solidarity kitchen. Initiatives such as Bombalara Karşı Sofralar Derneği Istanbul (Food Not Bombs Association Istanbul) – part of an international movement of independent collectives that has been inactive for a few years yet would reunite people at its tables should suitable conditions return –, Komşu Kafe Kolektifi (Neighbouring Cafe Collective) or the Göçmen Dayanışma Mutfağı (Migrant Solidarity Kitchen) may be currently not active, but the effect of warm, delicious meals offered by all kinds of such kitchens, and the diversity and solidarity they nurtured, can still be traced in the lives of the people they touched.
Cafés and restaurants that have opened their kitchens to students free of charge, establishments that engage in the pay-it-forward practice of ‘hanging food’ for those in need and other initiatives that turn the existing system into a voluntary support mechanism in Turkey and across the world are too numerous for us to list here. We express our gratitude to the many pioneering teams and individuals whose efforts have shown us that a more just life is possible.
Translation by Ayla Jean Yackley