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The right to cook

Little girl eating roti, Bangladesh

Human rights ain’t what they used to be, it seems. When Denis O’Brien, the billionaire chairman of Digicel, was quoted recently in The Irish Times declaring that access to broadband was a ‘basic human right,’ his declaration was accompanied by a call for ‘the international community to facilitate private sector roll-out of high-tech infrastructure.’ So, basic human rights in the modern age come courtesy of profit-focused companies, allowing you to chat on Facebook with an Android system on your HTC smartphone via the Digicel network.

As with so many unexpected outcomes, I somehow doubt that this was how the original drafters of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights saw things panning out, when they finally completed their work after two years of deliberations, back in 1948.

But let’s try to be positive about this development, because I rather like the idea that we can declare a new human right. And so, following on from Mr O’Brien’s lead, I want to suggest the creation of a new one.

That human right is the right to cook.

If that seems somewhat obvious, the sad fact is that the right to cook is not a right recognised by the Irish Government, at least not under the strictures of its Direct Provision regulations, as they are applied to the few thousand asylum seekers who are housed in dozens of locations around Ireland, awaiting a decision of their application for refugee status.

Direct Provision is the system used by the government in the many former hotels, hostels and other units where asylum seekers are housed, and it is applied by private companies who administer the system.

Many people over recent years have commented on the unfairness and unsuitability of the system of Direct Provision. But it seems to me that whilst there have been complaints about the quality of food served to the residents – ‘A steady stream of chicken nuggets, white rice, ketchup, vegetables and chips daily, and a distinct lack of toddler appropriate foods,’ was how Ronit Lentin, of Trinity College, Dublin, described the fare back in 2012 – there is a bigger issue here than simply what is served three times a day to the residents as they wait for years to hear if they will be granted refugee status.

When NASC, the Irish Immigrant Support Centre, examined the food experiences of asylum seekers in Cork city in their paper ‘What’s Food Got To Do With It’, their first finding was that ‘Food provided in Direct Provision is not satisfactory.’ That’s what one would have expected, but it is the following conclusions that show the true depth of the problem:

‘Food does not represent the cultural and multi-faith religious needs of asylum seekers living in Direct Provision centres in Cork city; The food system in Direct Provision has a negative impact on families and children who are residents of direct provision centres; The food system in Direct Provision centres is negative for the health of asylum seekers.’

Food was discussed as being one part of a broken system that needs to be changed. Under the Direct Provision system, residents are served food three times daily, but they are not allowed to cook their own food. No chapattis for the family from Pakistan. No pounded yam for the Nigerians. No breakfast of tea and canjeero for the Somalis. Instead of these staple foods that people love and crave, the system gives them chicken nuggets, ketchup and lots of chips.

Why should they be granted the right to cook? Well, to put it quite simply, man is the cooking animal. No other species in our world cooks food. Cooking is what separates us from every other form of life. Cooking defines homo sapiens. Transforming the raw into the cooked lies at the centre of our development as a species. We are who we are, because we cook.

What’s more, cooking is one of the key ways in which we define ourselves, and recognise and celebrate the culture we were born into: the bread we eat is not just the staff of life, it is the staff of our personality and psyche, and it matters enormously if that bread is naan, or soda bread, or corn bread, or rye bread, or brioche.

Cooking the food we love to eat also comforts us and reassures us. We have all had that moment in our lives when we are down and distressed, and then someone hands us a bowl of something we love to eat. In an instant, we are made whole: the fabric of our being is stitched together once more. Even better, if we have suffered distress, having access to a kitchen, and to the ingredients that we know and love, is how we re-make our lives after they have been torn apart: the home begins again at the hearth.

Perhaps more importantly, it is cooking that shapes our health. The effects of the ‘Western diet’ on people who are used to traditional diets has been studied for the past century and, as Michael Pollan has written, ‘wherever in the world people gave up their traditional way of eating and adopted the Western diet, there soon followed a predictable series of Western diseases, including obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer.’

A baby’s health depends on what the mother eats when the child is in the womb, and a family’s microbiomes are shaped by what they are fed every day. If mothers and parents cannot choose what to eat for themselves and what to feed to their children, and if that food is ultra-processed, refined and packed with hidden salts, sugars and fats, then the microbiome of the person who has been reared on living grains, pulses, legumes and grass-fed meat will suffer at an astonishingly rapid rate. Research carried out at the American Gut Project has shown that the impact of even a single course of antibiotics can transform the health of the microbiome in not much longer than a week.

In this regard, we are all different and yet all the same. I live in Ireland and the Irish love of the potato, and our cooking of it as a daily staple, is equal to the Japanese reverence for rice, or the Mexican reverence for corn. Any Irish restaurateur will tell you that if a dish of potatoes doesn’t arrive with the main courses, then Irish diners will look around anxiously. Where are the spuds?

I think we need to take the system of Direct Provision, and what it does to people and their families who are waiting in the asylum process, very personally. Just think of how you would react, if every morning you were offered rice, miso and umeboshi pickles, instead of your favourite cereal or that beloved boiled egg and a hot cup of tea?

Imagine if every meal, instead of an opportunity for creative cooking and then communal sharing and sensory enjoyment, becomes yet another travail through poor quality food that you may never have eaten?

Treating people in this way doesn’t just harm their physical health. It has terrible consequences for their mental health as well. How would you feel after a month, a year, and then several years, of unrecognisable, unhealthy food, three times a day?

It would do your head in. It would do your health in. ‘Frankly, I feel like I am eating in Guantanamo,’ is how one asylum seeker described eating under the Direct Provision process.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, in Article 5, states that ‘No one shall be subjected to… cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.’ Forbidding people to cook their own food for themselves and their families, and then serving them highly processed, unnatural foods, much of which is wasted and thrown away, seems to me to be a veritable definition of ‘cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment.’ One asylum seeker summarised the situation perfectly: ‘They should put the money into food that people will eat rather than having all this waste. The waste is sinful… instead of wasting, just provide us with a kitchen we can use.’

In mid-2014, there are more than 50 million displaced refugees throughout the world, the greatest number since the second World War. Ireland in the past has had a proud history of supporting the oppressed. With the Direct Provision system, however, Ireland stands indicted of denying the most helpless people the most fundamental right: the right to cook.

The irony is that the system could be changed in an instant. The NASC report, whilst recommending a total overhaul of the Direct Provision system, makes two simple recommendations: expand self-catering options for asylum seekers as a matter of urgency, and create communal cooking areas at all Direct Provision centres.

The fact that it is this simple to right the wrong done to helpless people makes the cruelty of the system even more galling.

Feature image by S. Mojumder

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