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“From the kitchen to the table to the streets”. The meal as a tool for social justice.





Food serves many purposes beyond mere sustenance and survival. Sharing a meal with others is a means to consolidate existing relationships, build connections between social groups and foreground a sense of identity. It is a simple everyday act that invites those around the table to negotiate an evolving community: to be a citizen among peers or an ally among foreigners. As a symbol of shared community the familiarity of eating with others can hide its potential to be a tool for political agency. As well as lining our stomachs; cooking, sharing, and consuming food has a power and meaning beyond basic nutrition. The connected yet notably different social practices of The People’s Kitchen Collective (Oakland California) and Our Table project (Dublin, Ireland) utilise the everyday act of sharing a meal as a tool for social and political commentary.

Working within the fields of visual art, hospitality and community engagement The People’s Kitchen Collective develop a range of projects around food and social justice. The project mainly referenced in this essay, The Free Breakfast Programme, is a direct intervention into food provision. Founded by Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik, Jocelyn Jackson and Saqib Keval the group refer to themselves as a food for social justice organization. Their website homepage states,3

Food is where we meet, where we build, where we struggle, and where we survive.

The collective create community dining experiences that weave together food, memory and politics in an effort to bring a diversity of voices into dominant discourses around food. As Saqib explains,4

Our work is always around centering experiences of underrepresented communities, poor, working class, black and brown, queer folks, underemployed folks, who ordinarily couldn’t afford to go out to eat and whose voices aren’t reflected in dominant food discourse or art or cultural discourse.

Inspired by a history of food for social justice movements, the collective orchestrate events that encourage members of a community to share a meal together. In so doing, individuals around the table share resources, discuss ideas and build or consolidate social support structures that serve to empower those participating to undertake their own food action

We’re not farm to table, we say we’re from the farm to the kitchen to the table to the streets.



For the past 5 years the trio have revived the Black Panthers Free Breakfast Programme, regularly giving free hot healthy and nutritious breakfasts to school aged children across the city of Oakland. Started by The Black Panther Party in January 1968 at St. Augustine's Church in Oakland, California The Free Breakfast Programme was a commitment to feed black and brown children on their way to school. One of the most successful survival programs launched by the BPP, the initiative grew to feed over 100,000 children breakfast in cities across the country every single day. For the Black Panther’s, free breakfasts were not simply an act of community but part of their drive to increase the party’s support marking their ambitions for an alternative political system. In historian Donna Murch’s book More than Just Food the academic and activist Garrett Broad argues that food is a powerful tool, but that the food movement has mostly benefited well off white people. He states,6

impoverished communities need food movements that rise up from within and champion their own priorities.



The Free Breakfast programme was just that, and consequently it was perceived as a political threat. The Panthers were providing an alternative vision of social welfare and in feeding children who were in need they demonstrated very clearly where the current government was failing. Indeed, in 1968 J Edgar Hoover declared the Black Panthers the greatest threat to the internal security of the United States. The seemingly innocent feeding of hungry children became a pertinent tool in the Black Panther’s fight for social justice. Inspired by the work of the Black Panther Party and the need for food movements to develop from within a community, the People's Kitchen Collective serve hundreds of free breakfasts across Oakland as both a celebration of the historical programme and a vital reminder of the importance food can play in contemporary political and cultural struggles.

With the proliferation of food banks in the UK and an increased awareness around food poverty8 we are becoming familiar with alternative food initiatives such as The Real Junk Food Project, where unused supermarket food is cooked and sold to the public in pay what you can cafes and the growth of alternative grocers selling out of date or damaged stock back to the public.9 Yet these initiatives are focused on helping individuals rather than considering the wider community who use and benefit from the prescribed services. 10

The work of Peoples Kitchen Collective looks to develop projects that have a direct impact upon a given community. The gargantuan effort of organising, cooking and serving the Free Breakfast events necessitates a communal collaboration. People work side by side to prepare the hot food, bringing individuals together to take action over the pressing need for access to regular nutritious meals, empowering the deprived communities of Oakland by giving them ownership over the project. This ownership is part of the People’s Kitchen Collective’s drive to embed food movements within the communities who need them most.





The work of Dublin based group Our Table similarly uses the meal as a means to both highlight concerns around access to nutritious food as well as to more directly comment on wider issues of social justice. While their tactics differ, some common observations can be drawn from the two projects about the power of sharing food to build community and common understanding.  Our Table is run by Dublin café owner Michelle Darmody and Malawi activist Ellie Kisyombe. Direct Provision is the status given to individuals waiting to claim asylum in the Republic of Ireland. As in many other EU countries asylum seekers wait in centres and are not afforded the legal status required to work or claim the same benefits as citizens of the state they are in. In Ireland Direct Provision centres, many of which are privately run, are located across the country housing people awaiting the processing of their claims. Receiving €19.10 per week, plus essential services, medical care, accommodation and meals, asylum seekers await a decision on their case.  The majority of asylum seekers spend over 4 years in Direct Provision. Kisyombe was in this position when she started to work with Darmody on a campaign to end the current system. At the core of their project is an understanding of the importance of food to identity, independence and dignity.

Taking the importance of making and preparing a meal to an individual’s sense of self as a foundation, Our Table foregrounds access to food as a central component of our humanity. The pair noted that within the Direct Provision centres meals were served at rigidly regular times in canteen like arrangements, and prepared by contracted catering companies. In the majority, residents were denied access to kitchens to cook for themselves. For Darmody and Kisyombe being denied the right to cook and feed themselves and their families added an additional layer of disempowerment to those in Direct Provision. As Kisyombe says;13

it is very difficult – as a woman or a man you are supposed to cook for your family, you are supposed to cook for your children. Some of these children who are born here in Ireland, they are ten years, twelve years old, they have never seen their parents cooking. Their parents are not able to pass on their cooking skills to their own children.

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Waiting to start a new life the residents are denied the basic freedom to manage their own diets and cook the food of their homelands that would help them hold on to some sense of their identity in the face of the bureaucratic system. Michelle spells it out further, highlighting how central cooking and eating are to human experience;15

It’s one aspect that’s universal –  most people enjoy eating, enjoy cooking with their family or for their family, and when you come to a new country, it’s home, food reminds you of home.

Our Table’s overarching aim is to put an end to this unjust system, but they started with some very simple activities: bringing people in Direct Provision together to cook their own food, foods from their home countries that they were sorely missing. Throughout 2015 Ellie and Michelle ran a number of mostly private pop-up events focused on allowing these migrants to cook for themselves. The events culminated in a public café at the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar at the end of 2016.

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For two months Darmody and Kisyombe ran a café staffed by individuals who had recently left Direct Provision. They set up internships training up ex-asylum seekers with catering, barrister and service skills, enabling them to get the experience they needed to find work.  With the current humanitarian refugee crisis the worst since the second World War, Europe has committed to taking in refugees and asylum seekers, but as we’ve seen from recent news the implementation of this has been chaotic, fraught and in instances tragic. Our Table demonstrates the benefits that creative thinking around ways to work with migration in Dublin can be beneficial to the wider community, empowering asylum seekers, teaching skills and training, celebrating their heritage, and fostering positive relationships between those currently resident in the city and those waiting for a home. Plans are afoot to find a permanent home for an Our Table Cafe enabling the project to continue to aid asylum seekers arriving in the city.

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Our Table has at its heart the highly political ambition to end the
unjust system of Direct Provision, but it takes as its starting point
the everyday activity of cooking and sharing a meal. By serving the
traditional foods of asylum seekers, cooked by people who’ve experienced. Direct Provision, in a café setting, the project makes a statement about the political importance of being able to prepare food, and its connection to identity, community and self-definition.  The café gave workers skills and experience, but it was also an opportunity to raise awareness and share food stories, as Saqib Keval of PKC says of his own work, it is about integrating, celebrating and valuing individuals and whole communities who have been placed outside of mainstream discourse. In enjoying the food provided by Our Table’s pop up café customers interacted with people who had experienced the Direct Provision system, learning about their journeys to Ireland and understanding the impact of this abstract system on individuals and families. The café staff built solidarity with their customers, gaining their support to assist in campaigning for a change to the current system.

The power of sharing food to break down barriers is a universal phenomenon, and one that is understood by both the PKC and Our Table. Sitting down to eat with others can help ameliorate some of the anxieties around different cultures and the figure of the "immigrant". As Darmody explains;18

it’s very hard to be annoyed with someone that cooks dinner for you. On a human level, it absolutely breaks down barriers. Even if you don’t share the same language, there’s a tactic language about eating and sharing, and you know passing the bread across the table or passing the salt. There’s a way of communicating over food that doesn’t need language, and if you don’t have a language in common you can definitely still share a meal together.

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Through the act of passing food across a table you form relationships, and not just relationships but solidarities. The table is a particular environment that enhances, encourages and informs how those relationships are made and sustained. As Saqib Keval describes in relation to the People’s Kitchen Collective;20

Our dinners are very specific around different political movements, and that means we have someone’s attention for 2-3 hours as they sit and have a 6, maybe sometimes 15 course dinner – and that’s a long time to be able to talk to someone, to engage with them and politicise someone.

In both Our Table and the work of People’s Kitchen Collective the meal is a means to break down barriers. It is a diplomatic opener that allows a new conversation, dialogue and engagement. Food here is central to building relationships between individuals to empower and educate communities. Both groups have directly practical elements, PKC in providing breakfasts to those who need them, and Our Table in giving skills and experience to asylum seekers, but both also act as strong cultural interventions - PKC in creating conversations around food poverty and food histories and Our Table in awareness raising around asylum seeker injustice. Using food in as a tool for agency shines a light on inequality and injustice. Because of the ubiquity and accessibility of the idea of the meal, as something that’s understood by everybody regardless of background, the work is quietly powerful. Food is a reminder of who we are and how we have arrived at this point: our connection to wider political histories and oppressive realities. It is what makes us unique but also marks how much we have in common.

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People's Kitchen Collective - Saqib Keval, Sita Kuratomi Bhaumik and Jocelyn.

End Notes

Go to footnote reference 1.

People’s Kitchen Collective Free Breakfast Programme. Photograph by Sana Javeri Kadri, 2016. Image courtesy of People’s Kitchen Collective.

Go to footnote reference 2.

People’s Kitchen Collective Free Breakfast Programme. Photograph by
Sana Javeri Kadri, 2016. Image courtesy of People’s Kitchen Collective.

Go to footnote reference 3.

See http://peopleskitchencollectiv...

Go to footnote reference 4.

Saqib Keval interviewed by Caitriona Devery and Laura Mansfield ‘Food on The Edge’ Sympoisium, Galway, October 2016.

Go to footnote reference 5.

People’s Kitchen Collective Free Breakfast Programme. Photograph by

Sana Javeri Kadri, 2016. Image courtesy of People’s Kitchen Collective.

Go to footnote reference 6.

Garrett Broad More Than Just Food Food Justice and Community Change California: Univeristy of California Press 2016.

Go to footnote reference 7.

People’s Kitchen Collective Free Breakfast Programme. Photograph by
Sana Javeri Kadri, 2016. Image courtesy of People’s Kitchen Collective.

Go to footnote reference 8.

The Trussell Trust, a charity that runs a network of 424 of foodbanks in the UK gave out over one million three-day emergency food supplies to people in crisis in 2015/16.

Go to footnote reference 9.

see https://realjunkfoodsheffield....

Go to footnote reference 10.

Despite common rhetoric, an article by Martin Caraher Paul Dixon Tim Lang Roy Carr-Hill titled ‘Access to healthy foods: part I. Barriers to accessing healthy foods: differentials by gender, social class, income and mode of transport’ in the Health Education Journal, Sept 1998, the group discussed the influences on diet and low income, concluding that people who are experiencing food poverty are not ignorant of what they should eat as part of a healthy diet, rather the key issue is access to affordable healthy food. Caraher, Dixon, Lang and Carr-Hill note money for food is the key flexible item in the budget of low income households. This means that the quantity and quality of food purchased and consumed by families is the first to suffer at times of financial hardship such as an unexpected bill or cut in work. Researcher Lynne Kennedy further notes; “Families on a low income are not able to afford enough fresh food, such as fruit and vegetables, which are required as part of a healthy diet. Families with limited incomes are more concerned about hunger and are likely to choose food that is filling over what is high in nutrients. Historical studies of household food purchasing patterns suggest that parents with restricted food budgets would choose food with higher satiety value such as a packet of biscuits at less than 50p, compared to a bag of apples at around £1, as a snack for their children. In the long term this kind of decision may contribute to higher risk of malnutrition among socially deprived households" See ‘Poor diet is the result of poverty not lack of education' The Conversation May 6, 2014 accessed online January 2017

Go to footnote reference 11.

People’s Kitchen Collective Free Breakfast Programme. Photograph by
Sana Javeri Kadri, 2016. Image courtesy of People’s Kitchen Collective.

Go to footnote reference 12.

People’s Kitchen Collective Free Breakfast Programme. Photograph by
Sana Javeri Kadri, 2016. Image courtesy of People’s Kitchen Collective.

Go to footnote reference 13.

Michelle Darmody and Ellie Kisyombe interviewed by Caitriona Devery, Dublin, January 2017.

Go to footnote reference 14.

Our Table 2016, image courtesy of Michelle Darmody.

Go to footnote reference 15.

Michelle Darmody and Ellie Kisyombe interviewed by Caitriona Devery, Dublin, January 2017.

Go to footnote reference 16.

Our Table pop-up cafe 2016. Photograph by Allen Kiely, images courtesy of Michelle Darmody and Ellie Kisymbe.

Go to footnote reference 17.

Our Table pop-up cafe 2016. Photograph by Allen Kiely, images courtesy of Michelle Darmody and Ellie Kisymbe.

Go to footnote reference 18.

Michelle Darmody and Ellie Kisyombe interviewed by Caitriona Devery, Dublin, January 2017.

Go to footnote reference 19.

Our Table pop up restaurant 2016. Image courtesy of Michelle Darmody.

Go to footnote reference 20.

OP CIT. Saqib Keval interviewed by Devery and Mansfield.

Caitriona Devery & Laura Mansfield

Caitriona Devery is an associate editor of FEAST. Based in Dublin but originally from the Irish midlands, Caitriona currently works at University College Dublin. Caitriona writes mainly about food and the arts, and has written for a number of publications including Corridor8, Manchester Wire, and Rabble. Most recently, she managed a heritage project on the social history of the peat industry in Turraun, Co. Offaly.

Laura Mansfield is an editor of FEAST.