Mapping food sharing landscapes in the European Union: CULTIVATE’s hub city fieldwork kicks off

Less than 10-minutes’ walk from Milano Centrale Train Station lies Bella Dentro, the “beautiful inside” store that works with Italian farmers and food producers to prevent edible vegetables and fruit from being wasted in a deeply flawed food system.

Article by Dean Phelan, Trinity College Dublin

Less than 10-minutes’ walk from Milano Centrale Train Station lies Bella Dentro, the “beautiful inside” store that works with Italian farmers and food producers to prevent edible vegetables and fruit from being wasted in a deeply flawed food system. The reason for this waste of food before it has even been placed on store shelves? These “ugly” crops don’t meet the arbitrary aesthetic and size requirements of large-scale retailers, a loss of food that has significant environmental and social implications globally. Working directly with food producers to offer them a fair price for their otherwise wasted produce, Bella Dentro redistributes food through selling it in their store, giving some to local social enterprises who transform it into processed foods, and using it in the Bella Dentro Kitchen restaurant. Although Bella Dentro is offering an innovative localised approach to a flawed food system, it is not alone in its mission to transform these wasteful systems through practices that we in CULTIVATE consider to be food sharing.

Food sharing is a fundamental human practice, involving collective actions around food and food-related items, spaces, skills and knowledge. It can take place between friends, families, neighbours, communities, and strangers across the food system from growing, cooking, and eating, to surplus food redistribution. In CULTIVATE we focus on initiatives explicitly set up to share food collaboratively in urban and peri-urban (UPU) settings. We call these food sharing initiatives, or FSIs for short. Food sharing initiatives (FSIs) adopt different organisational forms, including co-operatives and social enterprises, charities and for-profits, and can be community, private sector or state-led. Examples of these include seed libraries, community gardens, food related co-operatives, community kitchens, and surplus food redistribution organisations.

In 2016, a team of researchers from Trinity College Dublin, led by Professor Anna Davies, manually mapped more than 4,000 FSIs across 100 urban areas globally, creating the SHARECITY100 Database (Davies et al., 2017). Despite the diffuse and diverse nature of FSIs globally, and their potential for creating more sustainable urban and peri-urban food systems, we know relatively little about them, their work, their challenges, and how we can better support them to expand their contributions to sustainable UPU food systems. As such, it is more important than ever that we make visible the work of FSIs so that their beneficial environmental and social impacts can be taken seriously by policymakers and society.

The aim of CULTIVATE is to strengthen and expand sustainable food sharing across Europe. A first step in this process is to improve understanding of the current European landscape of FSIs. To do this, Professor Davies and I (both from Trinity College Dublin) are working closely with our Dublin College University partners to develop automation tools to help with the mapping, tracking and monitoring of FSIs. The goal of our collaborative effort is to create the SHARECITY200 Database, an online database mapping FSIs in 200 UPU locations globally; the first of 5 tools that will form CULTIVATE’s Food Sharing Compass.

A key step in the development of an automated search and categorisation functionality of the database is the manual mapping of the three hub locations in the CULTIVATE project: Barcelona, Milan and Utrecht. To do this, I conducted fieldwork in each of our hub locations during October 2023 to provide training to our research team who will be mapping our hub locations, to meet with our consortium partners, and to visit local FSIs to learn more about the food sharing landscapes in each hub location. Our manual mapping research team consists of three researchers, with each researcher being tasked with manually mapping one hub location each: Ana-Maria Gatejel will map Utrecht; Robert Martinez Varderi will map Barcelona; and Marco Vedoa will map Barcelona.

Beginning on October 1st, 2023, I spent a week in each hub location. I first visited Utrecht  and along with my colleagues Ana-Maria and Mirjam Scholtens (Gemeente Utrecht), we visited some inspiring and impactful FSIs throughout the city including Stadstuin Kanaalweg, a community garden run by Utrecht Natuurlijk. This FSI hosts a range of nature-based educational programmes for children, young people and adults centring on growing food together. It also provides space to local volunteers and refugees to grow food, allow beekeepers to house their beehives, and it has established a food forest. Amazingly, the volunteers of this community garden not only grow food together, but they also prepare and eat meals together weekly in the garden, and redistribute surplus harvests to the local community.

Michelin (Utrecht Natuurlijk) with Ana-Maria and Mirjam (CULTIVATE partners) at Stadstuin Kanaalweg

I then spent a week conducting fieldwork in our Milan hub where I again visited a range of FSIs, this time with Marco and our colleague Matteo Matteini (Comune di Milano). Of the range of FSIs that we visited, I was particularly impressed with the centrality of redistributing surplus and rescued food among so many FSIs. An excellent example of this is the IBVA Foundation’s central hub, one of the neighbourhood hubs against food waste in a growing network supported by the Comune di Milano’s Food Policy. This centre hosts a Solidando market, a social supermarket serving families in need with dignity by operating a means-tested credit-based supermarket that offers food sourced via redistribution channels and other donations. The centre also runs Panificando, an onsite bakery where volunteers bake goods for both the Solidando market, and for external sales to generate funds for the centre’s other activities.

Matteo (CULTIVATE partner), Gerolamo (President of IBVA Foundation), Marco and Dean (CULTIVATE partners) and Davide (Manager of Solidando) outside the Solidando market at IBVA Foundation’s central hub

I spent the last week of my fieldwork in Barcelona, where Robert and I got the chance to explore Barcelona’s diverse and vast food sharing landscape. This included a cooperative group cooking community meals with rescued food, food redistribution centres, cooperative food retailers, community gardens, and our CULTIVATE partner Espigoladors, where our colleague Raquel Diaz Ruiz showed us their inspiring work. Working with the agrarian community of Catalunya and a network of over 3,000 volunteers, Espigoladors are dedicated to gleaning food that is otherwise wasted by commercial farming, which they then redistribute via food banks and social kitchens. Operating from an adjoining commercial kitchen, Es Im-Perfect, Espigoladors’ sister organisation, focuses on enabling access to the labour market for local residents and food system transformation by using these gleaned harvests to create plant-based jams, pâtés and sauces; an impactful (and delicious) solution to a flawed food system.

Fresh produce in El Cau Coop

Since returning from my fieldwork in our hub locations, our team has been engaging with hundreds of FSIs online in the process of manually mapping our hub locations. Having had the opportunity to visit so many wonderful FSIs across our three hub locations, and witnessing the inspiring, innovative and impactful work being done by people to revolutionise Europe’s urban and peri-urban food systems, I have more faith than ever in the transformative potential of food sharing for bringing about a more equitable and sustainable future.

Photo credit: Dean Phelan