Quality food, quality of life: the socioeconomic power of gastronomy
Written by Afton Halloran
As it turns out, there are many people who have this very issue on their minds. In 2013, Danish food entrepreneur Claus Meyer and the Melting Pot Foundation opened Gustu in La Paz. Their intention was to start a new Bolivian gastronomic movement. The restaurant has since become an independent company with a school inside its premises where of the culinary students become chefs, sommeliers and waiters at the restaurant.
“Gastronomy has an immense power in Bolivia. While we still have a long way to go to be as well-known as other countries in our region like Peru And Mexico, the influence of gastronomy on our economy is immense. Seven years ago, restaurants focused on international cuisine and imported as many products as possible. Today, Bolivia’s best restaurants are super proud of having their own vision of local cuisine. We now have tourists that come to Bolivia not just for its landscapes and culture, but for also the food scene. All of this has created a food culture where locals are also eating local products more often. Now, there are more opportunities for everyone in the food production chain – from the producers to cooks,” says Mauricio López, Co-Head Chef of Gustu.
In addition to establishing Gustu, the Melting Pot Foundation also launched the Movement of Bolivian Gastronomic Integration (MIGA). MIGA revalorises and promotes sustainable farming, biodiverse food systems, small-scale food production and a culture of healthier meals.
The work of Gustu, the Melting Pot Foundation and the Bolivian Gastronomic Integration Movement (MIGA) is a part of a major sea change in the way in which many Bolivian citizens view their culinary heritage and how the government create policies directed towards supporting healthy eating habits.
“Things have changed significantly. However, there are still people, on one hand, who are still begging for food, and then people who are eating in fine-dining restaurants like Gutsu. But the interesting thing is that Bolivians have gained pride in their traditional dishes and aware of their traditions. I think that this is why Bolivia is not full of Burger Kings or Pizza Huts,” remarks Arnoud Hameleers, Bolivia Programme Manager for the International Fund for Agricultural Development.
Through the Brownsville Community Culinary Academy in Brooklyn, the Melting Pot Foundation is increasing the quality of life and improving the future opportunities among vulnerable and marginalized population groups, including children and young people, persons with criminal background, refugees and immigrants.
“We centre our education around the culinary traditions of the program participants. This helps them see their culture, history and background as an asset, rather than a liability. People in marginalized communities are often faced with constant messaging that the reason for the marginalization is that their culture is flawed, which can have devastating psychological and practical effects. This is of extraordinary value in developing the psychological resilience necessary for students to move into environments where they will be in the minority and face discrimination,” says Lucas Denton, Co-Founder and Director of Content and Communication at the Brownsville Community Culinary Academy.
Through the Academy, participants come into a sense of their own agency, learning that they hold within themselves as individuals and in their culture as a community the solutions to the problems they face. This has broad and far-reaching impact in communities and prepares participants for successful lives, careers, and to function as engaged members of their communities and broader society.
Success stories are abundant. Participants who've faced enormous obstacles, some who have been incarcerated for the better part of a decade, or who began the program while living in homeless shelters, who've lost family members to gun violence while in the program, have succeed in the program and acquired the skills to build a successful career. None of the program participants who have completed it have been re-incarcerated.
In our own backyard
Back in the Nordic region, income inequality is on the rise. Increases in the Nordic countries start from relatively low levels but are been higher than the OECD average in Sweden, Finland and Denmark. At the same time, the Nordics are experiencing rapid demographic changes. Conflict and civil unrest have forced the migration of millions of people globally, many of whom find themselves seeking haven in the Nordic region. For this reason, more and more civil society organizations, local governments and the private sector are beginning to use the power of food and gastronomy as a means of minimizing inequality, unemployment and to support integration.
“The Nordic countries often struggle with integration of newcomers and there are still visible divides between immigrant populations and people who are born here. The lack of personal networks is one of the main reasons why it’s hard to get established in the Nordic labour market as an immigrant. Food is great way of creating new friendships - because no matter language, cooking and eating together, creates an open and sharing attitude. Social gastronomy can create important networks between people that lead to integration, work and equality,” says Lena Fribrick, Founder and Director of the Botildenborg Foundation in Sweden.
On the Botildenborg site, families with new and old roots in Sweden come together to take care of a small plot of land. The harvest is both carrots and friendship. In Botildenborg’s kitchen, women and men born outside Sweden gain knowledge and experience which leads to traineeships in restaurants around Malmö.
The Foundation also runs the Nordic region’s first incubator for urban farmers with goal to help farmers become economically sustainable. Thanks to incubator program, over 60 urban farms have started in cities across Sweden. The overall result is employment, changing both the lives of individuals as well as their families.
Numerous initiatives across the Nordics demonstrate how food can help to decrease unemployment in populations that are often distanced from the labour market. Successful examples – such as Yalla Trappan in Malmö, Vippa in Oslo and Send Flere Krydderier in Copenhagen – are providing immigrant women and men with the right entrepreneurial skills so that can use their knowledge and experience with cooking to find future employment.
We would like to thank Lucas Denton (Brownsville Community Culinary Academy), Lena Fribrick (Botildenborg Foundation), Arnoud Hameelers (IFAD) and Maurizio López (Gustu).
This story is part of a series about the future of New Nordic Food. Follow Afton Halloran, sustainable food systems expert, as she listens to different voices from around the Nordic region.