What does food waste and the refugee crisis have in common? Both are massive issues, indicative of our time. They test our values and prejudices and exemplify an inherent cognitive dissonance within our society. They are also both issues that are being addressed by passionate grassroots activists in the vacuum left by the inadequate action of governments.

Guerilla Kitchen Amsterdam is a food waste recycling community that not only fights food waste on its home turf but also became crucially involved in cooking nutritious food for thousands of refugees trapped on the border of Greece and Macedonia.

With a similar story in the UK, Bristol Skipchen has likewise been tackling these issues, using potential food waste as a supply source for their project, and extending their reach beyond the UK, to refugees in both Calais and Greece.

Organic beginnings

Two years ago in Amsterdam, an international group of friends, who took up a freegan lifestyle of ‘skipping’ (rescuing still edible food that has been thrown away), began a weekly free supermarket to share the huge surplus of edible waste that they found. As support for this supermarket grew and connections in the community were forged, they initiated a weekly Food Waste Feast, a pay-as-you-feel three course dinner held in an intimate ‘community’ kitchen, a restaurant space shared by local cooks in the west of Amsterdam.

With the name Guerilla Kitchen Amsterdam (GK) and the slogan ‘a peaceful fight against food waste’, the operation expanded. The development of official and unofficial agreements with supermarkets and wholesalers regarding their waste, meant the group quickly became the daily recipient of huge quantities of surplus food with the accompanying challenge of finding it a home – or a belly.

Over the course of summer 2015, the Food Waste Feast became a huge hit. They consistently sold out of whatever delicious and inventive dinner the team of volunteer cooks put together – courgette and avocado soup, home-made garlic bread, mango lassi and goulash are just some of the dishes that featured on the menu. Each week, satisfied customers, impressed with the meaning behind the meal and the fun and friendly community atmosphere the GK team created, asked how to get involved. Today, they are getting around five new volunteer requests a week on their Facebook group.

One of the volunteers is 25 year old Ana Requenas, originally from La Mancha, Spain. She believes that as well as delicious meals, GK offers “a good community to bring people together and start things”, a theory backed up by the action she has taken over the past year.

In September 2015, Ana and GK founding member Gerda Van Den Dool were motivated and moved by the refugee crisis taking place along the Balkan route taken by refugees arriving in Greece through Macedonia, Serbia and then into the Schengen zone that begins with Hungary. The two women wanted to understand the situation for themselves and decided they would go to the Balkans and see if their ethos of sharing and cooking food could help. They formed a Guerilla Kitchen spin-off called Bellies Beyond Borders, raising €5,000 in a month from food waste catering and crowdfunding before they went to work finding a vehicle to become their mobile kitchen.

In the community, ADM, based at a squatted shipyard 10 kilometres west of Amsterdam, the two renovated a Mercedes 508 bus that they had bought. “As we explained to the residents of ADM, our plans were to head to Greece. One by one more people wanted to come with us,” says Ana. “A woman we met cooking at COP21 helped us raise €16,000 and so we had to go.” The convoy set off towards Greece in mid-January with expanded capacity and a new name, Aid Delivery Mission (ADM), a nod to the community in which the concept and reality of the project had evolved.

Parallel stories

Across the Channel in the UK, a similar story was unfolding. The Bristol Skipchen was a pop-up cafe that ran for eight months from the end of 2014. It was part of the Real Junk Food Project, a network of pay-as-you-feel community cafes that strive to use 100% food surplus in their meals, to ultimately “put itself out of existence by abolishing avoidable food waste.”

According to Catie Jarman from the Bristol Skipchen, after the success they were having with the cafe, growing awareness of the issue of food waste, their focus began to be pulled towards the refugee crisis in Greece and closer to home in Calais.

As Catie explains, “One day, we received surplus millet from Ethiopia, rosemary from Sudan, oranges from Egypt and melons from Turkey […] we saw that the food that is being wasted is coming from some of these countries where refugees are coming from. They may have been the ones growing this food.”

Questioning the source of the problem, she continues, “And what do some countries also have where the refugees are coming from? Oil. And where are the oil companies based? And what powers this industrialised food system?” Catie’s comment explains the intrinsic link between these two projects and the refugees that they feed. “[W]e are connected in this basic human need, through food that we buy, eat or waste, to these people.”

It wasn’t without an appreciation of the irony, that the Skipchen crew drove two vans full of edible food waste to Calais to feed the residents there in April and October 2015. Then, in November 2015 they headed to Lesbos where they established a kitchen feeding the refugees arriving from Turkey, until the arrival of boats slowed and they relocated to Athens in March 2016.

The Aid Delivery Mission

In mid-January, the ADM convoy arrived in Northern Greece and set up their cooking operation in the backyard of a house in a small village, 20 kilometres from the border crossing and transition camp, Idomeni. They quickly came to terms with the “ever changing and chaotic” situation in and around the border camp. They were the only provider of hot meals to the refugees arriving daily from Athens, often confused and freezing cold. Their operation rapidly expanded as independent volunteers from all over Europe, including many from the ranks of Guerilla Kitchen, came to join ADM. More than fifty volunteers would stay in the small house at any one time for the next five months.

After the ‘EU-Turkey deal’ that took effect on 20 March, 2016, the Greece-Macedonian border crossing at Idomeni – which had opened and closed temperamentally for months to the confusion and suffering of those desperate to cross – resolutely shut. By this time the transition camp had swollen to around 10,000 residents, with many more thousands living in smaller, unofficial camps at nearby gas stations or in the forest. ADM was now being financially supported by Médecins Sans Frontières, to cook food for the refugees in the area.

With huge custom-built pots and burners, they cooked over 8000 nutritious meals of Shorba (soup) each day, for months on end. Daily cries of “delivery!” would punctuate the calm of the Greek village, prompting the formation of a chain of people who would move tonnes of fresh vegetables from a pick-up truck on the street to the back-yard kitchen. With this local produce that was bought with the donations ADM received, as well as food that was donated from charities, the cooks jam-packed as many nutrients and calories as possible into this varied and vital soup. Lentils, chick peas, rice, potatoes, tomatoes and plenty of garlic, onions and spices were key ingredients. In the camps, the atmosphere around the serving area when ADM arrived each day was one of excitement, like friends reuniting.

Learning how to change the world

The benefit of projects such as ADM, Guerilla Kitchen and Bristol Skipchen go beyond the vital provision of hot food, blankets and information the cooks and volunteers provide, and the humane and caring relationships formed with the refugees. The people who are part of these passionate and life saving projects gain the experience and inspiration necessary to create their own initiatives, with real human impact and potential to change the world we live in.

Whether it’s fighting food waste, providing humanitarian care during this refugee crisis or battling some other global injustice or complacency, the experience of contributing to these vital grassroots operations has taught many that we can, as Ana says, “start a project from zero and make it amazing, independently from the government or anyone else.” The results speak for themselves.

Photograph: Julian Buijzen. Creative Commons 2.0.