NOW talk: Food for social change

Vegan meals – what started off as a bit of a shock to some of our participants, soon turned into a appreciated experience by many. In this NOW talk Johanna and Rahel discuss the reasons behind this choice and the potential of using food to foster social change.

Rahel: Johanna, you were our head of kitchen at the NOW Encounter. What was your biggest challenge?

Johanna: It was my very first time cooking for 40 people. So the preparation was a challenge: to choose affordable, vegan recipes that were reasonably easy to cook for that many people while also striving for variety and nutritional balance. But actually, the biggest challenge for me was to calculate amounts. It took me several days into the event until I had a “feel” for how much bread or salad we would consume in a day.

Rahel: True! I guess at the beginning you were afraid not to let people go hungry so we had a bit too much food sometimes. Luckily, you had already prepared recipes to reduce food waste.

Johanna: Yes, we were quite well prepared. We made pasta and rice salad and had lots of recipes for old bread. The Italian bread salad – Panzanella – for example was a great hit.

Rahel: I agree! Generally speaking, what kind of feedback did you get to the meals you prepared?

Johanna: I knew it was going to be hard to please 40 people. We have participants from all over Europe and surroundings and they are used to different diets. But I was really surprised by the positive feedback I got and how willing people were to engage in this “food learning experience”. Throughout the 10 days, participants would ask for recipes of the meals we ate which is why I’m working on a little NOW Encounter recipe book to share with them.
The idea of cooking vegan food was yours, Rahel, right? Looking back to the experiences we made at the Encounter and the feedback we got, would you choose to cook vegan food at the Encounter again?

Rahel: I totally would! Of course, there was resistance towards the lack of meat at our event but I had expected it. However, in my 3-4 years of being a vegan, I realized that as soon as people get an opportunity to try it out, they find out that it’s actually not as scary or boring as they imagined. So, having a 10 days mostly vegan event is a great opportunity to try. If we calculate all the meals we ate during the Encounter, our environmental impact is quite remarkable: According to this calculator, we saved approximately 166’000 liters of water 7000 kg of grains and 1000km2 of forest and 3500 kg of CO2 were avoided. And besides, reducing our environmental footprint, we also had an impact on our participants, right?

Johanna: Yes, and I am amazed by it! WOW! It is interesting how people really started thinking about their eating habits… We did not even talk a lot about vegan food and the impact of animal based nutrition on the environment. We ‘just’ cooked vegan food. Several participants who were very used to eating meat told me after the Encounter that they are starting to reduce the amount of meat they are eating. Other participants have become vegetarians or vegans. So the impact is really amazing. I did not expect that.
Rahel, you were not the only vegan at the Encounter. How did the other vegans react?

Rahel: I think for them it was a unique experience. Normally, when you attend an event as a vegan you will have trouble with the food. In the worst case, you will end up eating salad and white rice or something like that. So this was also a reason why we opted for vegan food: it is inclusive for people who would like to reduce their intake of animal products but doesn’t exclude anyone. Having several moslems at our event, we also cooked everything halal. We didn’t want anyone to feel like they had to constantly ask what was in the food. I think besides being able to eat all the food present, the vegan participants also simply appreciated that NOW walks the talk of being a sustainable organization that aims for social change. Do you think we managed to get the message across of why we offered vegan food?

Johanna: Yes and no. When I see how we impacted some people’s eating habits, I think we definitively managed to share our point of view. Then again, I feel that some of the feedback we received show, that we should have given more information on vegan food from a nutritional as well as environmental point of view from the start. I think for the next time we should find ways of talking more about the food and the reasons behind our choice.
For you, how does the food experience at the Encounter relate to the overall learning experience the NOW program offers?

Rahel: Personally, one of my core “messages” of NOW is that social change is in everything we do. It’s not enough for us to pick one cause that we dedicate ourselves to. It’s all connected. Let me give you an example: if we volunteer in an organization that works for human rights but at the same time live in a way that creates a lot of negative impact on our climate and environment, our impact on the world might be more negative than positive. Having a negative impact on the environment also means increasing injustice in the world since it is mainly the poorer countries in the world that are being affected most by climate change.
Johanna, can you think of other ways that we could use food within NOW to create social change?

Johanna: Food is the basis of human life. It is a huge and very interrelated subject. It is about sharing the resources we have and caring for each other, sharing a moment together but also thinking about health, social justice as well as environmental care. I think we are off to a good start including food as a tool for social change in NOW. But I think we can definitely do more and use food as an example for how challenges and solutions in the world are interconnected. As a small idea, I think I would really like to take the NOW recipe book further: include all the recipes from our events but also contributions from our participants and their regional cuisines. This recipe collection could inspire other organizations to cook vegetarian and vegan food for large groups too.

Rahel: I love that idea! Personally, I learned a lot about interconnectedness and how we should work and learn even more with other organizations at the Encounter. What was your biggest learning, Johanna?

Johanna: There are many many things I learned as the head of the kitchen, as a team member and most importantly from the participants.It was a process of finding my own role within NOW. At one point I felt like I was just peeling onions in the kitchen while everybody else was doing social change. But then thanks to my team members who reminded me of the impact our food had on the participants’ reflections about their eating habits, I realized that actually peeling onions can have a huge impact in making this world a tiny bit better. So, even if we have really big ideas of how we want to change this world, small actions can be just as important.
Well, and of course I also learnt that you do not need 10 times the amount of basil when cooking for 40 instead of 4 people! But I guess every time we use the leftover spices, we will travel back in time to the Encounter in Passugg.