When Food Waste Goes to Work

A New Flavour for the EU's Circular Economy1

in Social Anthropology/Anthropologie sociale
Author:
Kelly AlexanderUniversity of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, USA kelly.alexander@unc.edu

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Abstract

Food waste is embroiled in a wide array of social efforts and actions in the contemporary EU. This article considers one site in the EU's capital where surplus supermarket food that is no longer sellable but is still edible is being used to fuel a job training programme. It argues that, rather than understanding the state's role in this process as a purely neoliberal tactic or as a capitalist profit-driven action, the repurposing of discarded food in order to create job opportunities and feed new populations has moral contours and enables specific forms of care.

Bel Mundo is a Brussels restaurant that looks like many hipster eating places in most European cities. There's IKEA-esque furniture, an open floorplan and exposed ductwork (Figure 1). But closer examination reveals key differences: a framed statement proclaiming this a ‘zero food-waste’ restaurant; waiters accompanied by trainers who help them converse with customers; and prices that are about 40% less than at most local bistros. Bel Mundo happens to be the latest iteration of a 30-year-old vision among locals in the commune of Molenbeek aimed at social integration and the assimilation of the area's significant (and growing) immigrant populations. Despite its trendy minimalist vibe, this place is redefining the way in which a social welfare state can put capitalism to use for both feeding people and invigorating a labour market.

Context, of course, is key. Brussels is a city with an impressively complex governmental structure. Since Belgium became a nation in 1833, Brussels has been the capital of a social welfare state. This distinctly European form of government sprung up in the wake of the great world wars and was designed to mitigate the ‘profound uncertainties’ of the era by protecting the social and economic wellbeing of citizens (Gosseye and Heynen 2013). In the case of Brussels, this has meant helping citizens ‘cope with the problems’ that people face in everyday life – such as educating children, accessing healthcare and mitigating social injustices – in a particularly decentralised and yet highly governmental way (Goody 1982). That is because Brussels is a capital city four times over. It is also the capital of the Flanders region; of the 19 communes that constitute the regional government; and, de facto, of the EU. In addition, it is the headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the principal seat of the European Parliament.

FIGURE 1.
FIGURE 1.

The furniture and fixtures in Bel Mundo's dining room were built in the on-site workshop. Interns there are paid by government contracts that allow them to learn woodworking skills.

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

When it comes to Belgium, anthropologists and other scholars have almost exclusively been interested in the flow of people in and out of the country, considering Belgium's role as the (often brutal) coloniser of the Congo (Young 1965; Cooper and Stoler 1997; Hochschild 1999; Couttenier 2005; Englebert 2009). Few anthropological studies have been written about everyday life in Belgium, with three notable exceptions: Fox's functionalist perspective on what separations of language, class and sociality mean to life there (1978) as well her memoir In the Belgian Chateau (1994); Gross's (2001) ethnography of Walloon puppet theatres, in which she expertly historises traditions of rod puppetry in Liège and argues that these theatrical productions link language usage with structures of social power and reveal local identity struggles; and finally, Blainey's (2016) work describing an experience in a Belgian library while researching indigenous American societies, in which he realizes a need for more ethnographic research to be conduced … on Belgians. Little attention has been paid to the capital Brussels, which over the last 30 years has experienced a dizzying shift from having one of the highest standards of living in the world to having one of the highest rates of first-world unemployment. The city is overflowing with tensions over the sorts of issues anthropologists care about, especially having to do with equity, labour and belonging. And as Blainey (2016) argues, there is simply a lot of government operating in a place where government intervention in everyday life is already constitutionally guaranteed.

Government intervention in Brussels has been most beneficial to the restaurant Bel Mundo. This is because since 2014 all of the institutions that call Brussels capital – the EU, the nation, the Flemish region and the 19 communes – have established food waste-reduction goals, and all of them offer and award significant funding to organisations with food waste-reduction platforms.

Before 2014, Bel Mundo got its food from donations, or from the ingredients it could afford with a small budget funded by grants. It was a much smaller, more modest restaurant that was only open for lunch five days a week. In the wake of the EU's new policy, it found a consistent supply of free ingredients thanks to the compulsory recirculation of surplus supermarket food. This allowed its administrators to spend the money the café took in on a major upgrade, which included enlarging the dining room, enhancing the décor and, most importantly, fuelling an on-site labour force. It now has a designated special event room and off-site catering operations. It is open three nights a week for dinner, and also for Sunday brunch.

To understand how Bel Mundo works and how it grew, it must be situated in terms of Brussels’ so-called ‘social restaurants’. Such local institutions – 40 are scattered among the 19 communes – have been operational for hundreds of years and are rooted in the soup kitchens of Catholic churches (Myaux 2019). Though open to the public, all were designed as state-subsidised eating places for people who receive social assistance – for example, elderly pensioners and single working mothers. They offer clientele the chance to dine out for a fee that welfare administrators characterise as ‘low enough to defy all competition’ (Myaux 2019). Often this translates to about €3.50 for a generous plat du jour, although there is a sliding scale; to pay less, diners must provide proof of state benefit to a cashier.

Social restaurants are funded by communes with assistance from the federal government. Most have a limited menu that includes a single set of options: a starter (almost always soup), a main dish (reliably fish on Fridays) and a small dessert (often a pudding). Other options are available at additional cost: coffee and tea are usually €1 each and local beers €3.2 For these reasons social restaurants are associated with poor people, old people and immigrants, and eating in them has a social stigma (Myaux 2019).

While the vision of social welfare states like Belgium has always included provisioning food for citizens in need, the climate of European political life is always changing, and presently is in a moment that many scholars term a ‘crisis’. This crisis is characterised by demographic and economic displacements across the continent (Alexander 2019). Aspects of heightened senses of nationalism and general unrest have been theorised in terms of global supply chains of ‘fast fashion’ that affect employment throughout Italy (Krause 2019); the effects of a new cashless banking system on rural inhabitants, retirees and immigrant populations in Sweden (Peebles 2019); and drone usage and the regulation of airspace in everyday European life vis-à-vis the Single European Sky initiative (Mentes 2019). The link between these studies is not only the idea that modern European social life is unstable, but also evidence of new arrangements of working and living conditions that reveal Europeans’ aspirations and goals for their futures. The events at Bel Mundo offer a glimpse into a kind of sociality that aggregates two aspects of social justice concerns: food waste and disenfranchised labour. This double activation suggests a novel approach not only to European food politics but also to the operation of the social welfare state, linking distinctly capitalist efforts to make a profit to the value of waste and specific forms of care. The forms of care to which I refer are material as well as social. Bel Mundo is an example of the welfare state's support and extension of social benefits beyond the availability of low-cost housing and universal healthcare. Investing in Bel Mundo means supporting access not only to fresh food for people who otherwise could not afford it, but also to the chance for poor citizens and even undocumented newcomers to participate in the social weft and weave of city life by working in and/or patronising a restaurant. The interns get access to the local job market they would not otherwise have, and the diners get access to a low-cost meal that is a step (far) above a fast-food outlet.

This an evolution more than an innovation. ‘Thirty years ago, Bel Mundo was a little like a soup kitchen; once a week, a group of neighbours got together here and made dinner for foreigners and immigrants who were moving in and had nothing’, Nena Cornellis explains. ‘Chef Nena’, as she is known among her kitchen interns, is a lifelong Bruxelloise and the head trainer of the kitchen interns at Bel Mundo. She notes that the ‘group of neighbours’ had reason for concern. Just west of Brussels’ city centre, Bel Mundo's commune of Molenbeek is familiar to consumers of international news for all the wrong reasons. Fourteen of the people tied to the 2016 and 2017 bombings of Brussels and Paris airports lived in Molenbeek, all of them Muslim – as are 41% of the nearly 95,000 people who live in this commune. Molenbeek is also the second poorest of the city's communes, with 36% of people younger than 25 unemployed (Cohen 2016). It, too, is an evolution: When Bel Mundo was founded, the commune was a mostly Flemish and staunchly Socialist paradigm of heterogeneous working-class Brussels.

In fact, Molenbeek was settled at the end of the eighteenth century by migrants from rural Flanders, who named it from the fusion of molen (‘mill’) and beek (‘brook’). Attracted by the promise of new industrial jobs, so many workers from both Flanders and France settled here that by the nineteenth century the area was referred to as ‘Little Manchester’ (Cendrowicz 2015). In the wake of local labour shortages after the Second World War, Molenbeek became the commune most frequented by immigrants from Turkey and North Africa, arriving at the invitation of the Belgian government in order to build the national railway and work in the coal mines (Reniers 2000). Over time, those workers became so valuable to the economy that the state naturalised them as citizens in order to ensure their continued labour (Dupont et al 2017). Most of the émigrés were men, but two additional waves of immigration allowed for family reunification and soon there were spouses and children of the new workers in Molenbeek, too.

However, as the number of Muslims moving into the commune grew, so did ‘white flight’ among the Flemish (Conway 2015). It was the grandparents of the Muslim youth of Molenbeek today that Bel Mundo's initial ‘group of neighbours’ – ones who didn't flee for the Flemish suburbs – pitched in to help. Their original soup kitchen was a place for neighbours to share food and resources. It was so well loved and frequented – perhaps because there were no other attempts at community integration – that eventually the ‘group of neighbours’ incorporated as a non-profit called Atelier Groot Eiland (‘The Big Island Workshop’). As they won funding grants, they focused on two key efforts: a woodshop to teach newcomers with no marketable job skills how to make furniture and turning the soup kitchen into a café.

In developing both, the administrators acquired funding from the Brussels-Capital Region; the Flemish Community Commission; the commune of Molenbeek; and Davisfonds, a Flanders-based Catholic charity that supports the preservation of Flemish culture. From the commune, they were gifted rights to an abandoned office building. By the early 2000s, Atelier Groot Eiland had become one of Brussels’ largest social welfare initiatives, so big that in 2010 its board hired a CEO named Tom Dedeurwaerder, a private sector executive looking to transition to the social welfare world.

Dedeurwaerder had an even bigger vision for the space. In a multi-year process he spearheaded an effort to expand the dining room and acquire such equipment as a high-end Italian coffeemaker and an industrial ice cream maker (both donated), plus turn a large plot of unusued land between the space and some old neighborhood tenements into a vegetable garden. Dedeurwaerder was subsequently blessed with the new EU policy as of 2014 that mandated the donation of all unsold but edible supermarket food. Now he needed to figure out how to retain staff on a shoestring. Another state solution appeared: the Article 60 programme, a local expression of the EU's broad ‘social economy’ agenda. This policy stipulates funding for businesses ‘intended to make profits for people other than investors or owners’ across member states and includes ‘cooperatives, mutual aid societies, non-profit associations, foundations, and social enterprises’ that ‘operate a very broad number of commercial activities, provide a wide range of products and services across the European single market, and generate millions of jobs’ (‘Social Economy in the EU’, 2015). As of 2016, there were two million such businesses across the EU (representing about 10% of all businesses), employing more than 11 million people, all with the objective ‘to have a social, societal or environmental impact for the general interest’ rather than to retain profit (‘Social Economy in the EU’, 2015). Article 60 provides nine to eighteen-month work contracts to people living in Belgium who don't have the skills to access the job market but are fit to work; it gives them the chance acquire experience to put on a résumé and learn a service trade. Dedeurwaerder is currently entitled to 20 people, but is constantly working to acquire more.

FIGURE 2.
FIGURE 2.

AgteliAAtelier Groot Eiland leases a plot from the commune to grow vegetables. Those who do not qualify to work in the restaurant can get a place in the garden crew (at a lower salary).

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

However, getting an Article 60 contract for people who are not citizens is tricky. The contracts are meant to be reserved for people who already have citizenship, but in practice and because the system is diffuse and has many bureaucratic layers and points of entry, it can and has been a path to citizenship for immigrants. What it requires is the ability of a potential worker to pass a screening for the programme with a communal social worker. Who can pass the test? ‘People who lack training but have potential to learn, people who want to learn to work, that's what they look for’, according to Dedeurwaerder (2018).

Because it is a job training facility, too, Dedeurwaerder blanches at characterising it as a social restaurant. ‘We are a real restaurant here, for customers who pay a competitive price, and we make money. And we have to do a good job. We are not just a place to sit and have a coffee and stay out of the rain. We train cooks and servers. I am a job-training facility’, he says.

As I will show in two ethnographic snapshots that follow, the activities among the staff and the interns at Bel Mundo combine labour training and food waste with social welfare rights and state responsibilities. It is in this amalgam of business objectives and care – of matching cast-off food with cast-off people – that I locate a unique form of morality that connects citizens’ efforts to improve access to food, reduce food waste and provide access to the labour market within the capitalist workings and machinations of the social welfare state. The moral contours to which I refer reveal the state's investment in caring for people who otherwise lack access to benefits provided to the workforce, and to some social activities limited to those who can afford them. In funding Bel Mundo, the state supports a programme that stimulates the economic life of the city specifically by reusing surplus edible but unsellable supermarket food. Working at Bel Mundo allows welfare recipients and immigrants access to state-funded benefits. For Dedeurwaerder and his staff, these effects constitute doing the most good for the people in Brussels who most need it.

Steak Night

One afternoon in late November I arrived at Bel Mundo to find my boss Nena Cornelis, chief trainer and kitchen manager, dancing in the kitchen to the song ‘Fire’ by The Pointer Sisters. ‘Romeo and Juliet … Samson and Delilah’, she belted out. She saw me and shrieked: ‘I have steaks, can you believe?’

Steaks? Here? I could not believe. Brussels’ social restaurants typically serve the cheapest foods cooked by means of the least sophisticated techniques: vegetable curries, spaghetti with meatless sauces, roasted chicken thighs (the least expensive cut of the bird). Beef, on the other hand, is popular, expensive and requires skill to prepare well. ‘The steaks came from Delhaize!’, Nena enthused, referring to a supermarket chain's outpost down the block, a store that sends food parcels to Bel Mundo twice a week. Usually these parcels contain a large array of fresh vegetables on the verge of expiring (and a fair number of them that already have), plus packets of frozen chicken, sausages and other meats that have been marked down (sometimes two and three times) but never sold and now are a day or two away from their expiration dates. When the food arrives, the staff immediately get to work: Vegetables are pureed into soups and sauces; fruits are cooked into crumbles and cobblers or transformed into ice cream. Bel Mundo has four freezers, and they are entirely full. So full that Nena said she cannot afford to take food from any more groceries.

But there had never been steaks, and here were 18 New York strips defrosting on the counter, each about 10 ounces (Figure 3). ‘Why didn't they sell?’, I asked.3 Nena shrugged – she didn't care: these frozen expiring steaks were the best ingredients she'd ever received from any grocery.

Now Nena had to figure what to charge for them. This was tricky, because for most of her clientele paying for dinner was already a luxury.

According to stickers on the packages, one of these steaks in its prime was about €10; however, it had fallen to €2 by the time it landed here. ‘I will sell them for €19, all inclusive’, Nena decided. This meant that diners would get a bowl of soup, a pan-fried steak with roasted potatoes and sautéed green beans, and a scoop of homemade ice cream for dessert, all for €19 (Figure 4). Of course since Bel Mundo paid nothing for the steaks and nothing for the salaries of the interns, it would make a profit – and in accordance with the EU policy for social economy, all the profits would go toward utilities and salaries for the 24 permanent employees.

FIGURE 3.
FIGURE 3.

It delighted not only Bel Mundo's customers but its cooks and interns when one supermarket sent over steaks it could no longer sell but that were still safe to eat.

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

FIGURE 4.
FIGURE 4.

Steak dinner at Bel Mundo. Pan-seared steak, with mushroom cream, roasted potatoes, garlic green beans, plus a soup course to start and dessert course to finish, was offered for €19 on Bel Mundo's inaugural ‘Steak Night’

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

Next Nena said: ‘Gather round, I will show you how to cook a steak!’ Her cheeks were pink, her voice was high and her smile was huge (Figure 5). The steaks were no longer frozen but were still cold; most chefs let steaks come to room temperature before cooking, so I queried.4 ‘It does not have to be perfect. We teach our cooks to make a good steak, that is what matters’, Nena said.

First step: ‘You season it well – well! – on both sides, plenty of salt and pepper’, she demonstrated. ‘Then you get the pan very hot’, she turned the flame under her pan until it licked the sides. ‘In goes a good knob of butter, and you let it sizzle and just begin, just begin to brown. And then, in we go with the steak’. Nena used tongs to transfer the meat into the pan.

A loud sizzle. The gamy scent of meat searing. ‘Never, ever, flip a steak with a fork. Why? Because the juices will escape. And you want to save all the juices!’ We could hear the scuttling of customers arriving in the dining room. ‘Touch to see if the steak is done’, she said, explaining an old method for testing doneness that can be done without a fancy digital meat thermometer, which she didn't have. Nena slid the steak onto a plate – ‘rest it five minutes while you get the rest of the plate together!’, she ordered, then demonstrated how to make pan sauce. When that was done, she poured it over the steak. ‘Voila!’

FIGURE 5.
FIGURE 5.

Bel Mundo's chef Nena and Mamadou show the staff's excitement as ‘Steak Night’ commenced.

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

We took turns sampling. The meat had a lovely golden-brown sear on the outside and an admirably hot-pink centre – signs that it had been cooked with expertise – but it lacked the rich flavour and toothsome texture of meat that had never been frozen. Yet it remains one of the most memorable steaks I've ever eaten. In the first hour of dinner service, all 18 steaks sold out.

The Benefits of Being the Boss

Pinning down Tom Dedeurwaerder is tough. I scheduled many interviews with him only to be left waiting – once he had to run to the hospital to check on an intern who had overdosed; another time he double-booked me with the Mayor of Molenbeek. Yet despite often being late and disorganised, Dedeurwaerder is incredibly popular among his employees (Figure 7). When you finally get his attention, he holds a gaze, asks thoughtful questions and really listens. In order to learn what made him transition from work in a Fortune 500 boat-building company to running a social services organisation, I proposed to ‘trail’ him for one workday from beginning to end. It took three years of persistent asking plus a gift of a Duke University Basketball t-shirt, but he relented. He had one condition: I had to agree not to let anyone pivot from speaking Flemish to speaking English with me. As a term of Bel Mundo's generous funding from the Flemish government, Flemish must be spoken whenever possible. Dedeurwaerder did not want my presence to disrupt the language learning of the interns, very few of whom speak Flemish and most of whom get daily lessons in it for free on the premises.

FIGURE 6.
FIGURE 6.

Interns Tristan and Behia learn ‘front of house’ restaurant skills like waiting tables and managing the bar, which they use to build their resumes.

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

FIGURE 7.
FIGURE 7.

The executive director of Atelier Groot Eiland, Dedeurwaerder's staff call him ‘the mayor’.

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

On the appointed day I showed up at 9 am, as planned. Dedeurwaerder did not. While waiting, I snooped around his office. There was a well-worn biography of Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian diplomat who served as the seventh secretary general of the UN and won the Nobel Peace Prize. I recalled that Dedeurwaerder signs his emails with this Annan quote: ‘Het beste middel tegen armoede is waardig werk’ (‘The best means against poverty is decent work’). This motto could stand in for Atelier Groot Eiland's; if ever an organisation is motivated by the promise of work – even washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen – it is this one.

That food waste is on his mind was also reflected. I found a Dutch cookbook called Meer Dan de Rest: Eet Beter, Verspil Minder (More than the Rest: Eat Better, Waste Less), by the founders of an urban farming collective called Eatmosphere. ‘A third of food production worldwide is wasted. Meanwhile, 15% of Belgians live in famine’, it began, before offering a selection of vegetarian recipes (Desair 2018). For Dedeurwaerder, food waste connects to Annan and to that idea of the saving grace of work.

Dedeurwaerder finally arrived. He explained that he sought his current job after being ‘very tired of only working to make money’. He took pains to explain that he is not motivated strictly by philanthropy: ‘I wanted to make a difference, and I looked for ways to do that in the social sector, to work in the social economy. Atelier Groot Eiland is not a charity; we are about finding work for people’, he said – once again echoing Annan's sentiments. Where did his desire to ‘make a difference’ come from? ‘I suppose from my parents’, he answered. ‘They were very active in their church. They had money, they were comfortable and they were invested in helping people. This is my way.’ Dedeurwaerder views himself as a 2.0 version of a charitable Catholic, one for whom ‘charity’ is redefined as job training.

I accompanied the boss to the weekly meeting of the organisation's 24 full-time employees, which includes kitchen trainers at Bel Mundo, social workers and carpentry shop managers. Dedeurwaerder said he knew that all were anxious to talk about the fact that the board had approved a special new benefit: employees could choose between topping up their pension contributions with an additional €250 for each employee annually and receiving €250 in annual discretionary funds expressly to pay for continuing education classes. The catch: all employees had to agree on the same benefit.

A contentious vote unfolded; the 13 who voted for the pension edged out the 11 who chose the classes. Members of the losing faction began to blame Chef Nena for swaying votes. ‘If I want to take photography classes, if I want to take Italian lessons, that is for me to pay; our pensions do not cover everything we need, and I should not have to cover the rest myself’, she said, her cheeks growing red. Fanchon Grossen, a long-time Atelier Groot Eiland social worker, fired back: ‘But you cannot intimidate other people to vote as you do. I would like classes, thank you’, she said. Dedeurwaerder jumped in, saying the matter was decided but that they could take it up again in three years. Chantal, an older woman who works as a kitchen trainer, had been with Atelier Groot Eiland since day one; she did in fact take Italian lessons, and shook her head. Stijn, a young man who is Bel Mundo's restaurant manager, had voted to support the pension top-up; he grinned.

After the meeting, Dedeurwaerder sighed. ‘What would you have chosen?’, he asked me. I admitted that, coming from a country where pensions for workers are not guaranteed, I would have chosen the top-up. ‘That's just it! We are not American! We have a guaranteed pension, and if you want more – for example, long-term hospital stays, which are not part of our benefits – it is inexpensive and typical for workers to top it up themselves’, he said. ‘That's why I voted for the courses.’ Those who chose the pension were ‘old-fashioned’, according to him. ‘It is a modern idea for some people that job satisfaction does not need to be measured in dollars’, he added.

There was another logic at play here for Dedeurwaerder: ‘We are about helping people who are far from the job market to find meaningful work. We want to increase the chances for poor people to find jobs. Should we not take trainings ourselves?’, he asked. At Bel Mundo it seems every effort is directed at maximising training. But whether it is interns learning to cook steaks in the dining room or social workers trying to develop photography hobbies, no possibilities would exist without the access to both untapped labour potential and food waste.

Conclusion: The Taste of a Moral Economy

For the nine months that the kitchen trainees work at Bel Mundo, they are in a liminal state: officially unemployable, yet part of the city's contracted workforce. Whether they are citizens, holders of visas that allow them to be in the country or obtainers of temporary resident permits, they exist in a ‘moment in and out of time’ in which they participate in activities for the labouring class but are not (yet) members of it (Turner 1974). In this way, kitchen trainees mirror the ingredients here. This food has been discarded by one set of consumers as waste but is now recirculated in a new context for a new population as food. As liminal entities, both the edible material as well as the people working to prepare and serve it are ‘neither here nor there; they are betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial’ (Turner 1974).

Tensions over what it's like to live in liminality were observable on Steak Night. Mamadou is from Dakar, Senegal, where he worked in construction, then met and married a Belgian missionary and moved to Brussels with her. ‘I dreamed of Europe’, he said, but the dream was short-lived. When he couldn't find a job right way, Mamadou said the free-spirited missionary he fell in love with grew angry. ‘But I don't have a college degree! I don't speak Dutch!’ he said. After a year, Mamadou left his wife and moved in with four other Senegalese men; his wife had their marriage annulled, then reported him for deportation. However, a social worker assigned to his case helped Mamadou fight extradition by applying for Article 60, buying him nine months to find a path to employment. According to Belgian law, if he could somehow get a job and work in it for five years, he could qualify for citizenship (Dedeurwaerder 2017). Mamadou landed at Bel Mundo having never cooked a meal. ‘In Senegal, my mother and sisters cooked. I didn't even know how to make rice’, he said. ‘But I thought, “I like to eat, and I need a job, so know what? I'll try it”.’ Nena said that Mamadou impressed her: ‘He had a gleam in his eye, he wanted to work.’ Unlike some interns, Mamadou attended his Dutch lessons without complaint. Eager for cash, he often volunteered for extra shifts. As the end of his contract approached, Nena took the step of advocating to Dedeurwaerder and the board to hire him onto the permanent training staff. ‘I got lucky; they found money to pay Mamadou’, she said. When I began working at Bel Mundo, Mamadou was in the process of transitioning into a trainer. ‘I will become a citizen of Belgium one day, you will see!’, he told me.

At 53, Abdul Rahim was the oldest kitchen intern, but he looked older – he was missing some teeth and walked with a pronounced limp. The son of Moroccans who came to Belgium to do railway construction, he was a citizen. Abdul Rahim had even grown up in Molenbeek but had dropped out of school at 16 to help run his uncle's convenience store. When his uncle sold the shop a few years ago, Abdul-Rahim was entitled to collect unemployment and receive healthcare benefits. However, Abdul-Rahim's state-funded benefits include medical but not dental care. When his social worker offered him a contract at Bel Mundo, he didn't want it but he took it: ‘I needed a dentist’, he shrugged, ‘but now I like some of the work, especially the dessert station.’ He also has temporary dental insurance: ‘The social worker here gave me a voucher so the state will pay the dentist; I'll go next week’, he said. ‘I can go for treatment to get my mouth healthy, but they will not give me new teeth – that you have to pay for yourself’, he explained.5 Still, Abdul Rahim was excited. ‘I can take care of my teeth as long as I work here’, he said brightly.

Leopold held dual citizenship in Belgium and Togo thanks to family in both places, some of whom had worked in the Brussels government and others of whom reside in Hédzranawoé, where they make textiles. Leopold spoke perfect French but lacked other qualifications: ‘I don't have a university diploma and I don't speak Dutch, so I got sent here for training’, he said. However, another intern told me that Leopold had been arrested twice for shoplifting before being required by his caseworker to take a work contract before he could apply for welfare benefits. ‘He smiles always, he is pleasant, but he thinks he knows what to do already; meanwhile, he skips steps and is not careful in the kitchen’, Nena said. ‘What will he do when his internship is finished?’, I asked Nena, who seemed disinclined to give him a good recommendation. ‘He will be allowed to collect unemployment for four years before the government will require him to look for work again. He will take advantage of that’, she supposed. Leopold described his future to me in different terms: ‘I don't want to work in a restaurant, of course’, he said. ‘I want to have a business selling designer sunglasses.’ From his pocket he took a slim black case that held a pair of aviator-style men's sunglasses with a Gucci logo. Whether they were authentic, only he knew. ‘I have a supplier, I just need to set up a store’, he said. This internship would allow him to save to do that.

Finally, there was Chef Nena. Before she came to Bel Mundo five years ago, she had operated her own catering business. The work was inconsistent, and she wanted a more stable income. Her spouse worked in IT and they had two teenagers. One night in the kitchen we happened to catch a public radio report called ‘Europe in Crisis’. Nena began cursing as the reporter zeroed in on an analysis of the rising costs of college in the EU. Even though she is a full-time government employee and receives top-notch state-funded benefits, she said that college in Belgium had doubled in cost since she attended – and her son was headed to university in two years. ‘For my parents, university cost about €3,000, total, for four years, everything included’, Nena said. ‘It will be double for my son, and what's next? We should be rioting in the streets, but we are not!’ Although €6,000 for four years of college might seem modest when compared with American college costs, it represents the major way in which Nena values her own work. It was for the stable salary – to pay for college and other expenses – that she abandoned her own business. As a member of Brussels’ birth-right citizenry, she perceives the rise in college tuition as a shrinking of her rights – the same rights she is trying to help Mamadou access.

These motivations of the individuals working in Bel Mundo's kitchen reveal connections between food waste, labour and morality. In not taking in profit and yet offering services ‘complementary to social security regimes’, Bel Mundo fits into the categories of a Brussels social restaurant as well as of the EU social economy (Dedeurwaerder 2018). Because of the way in which it combines a business objective with a social purpose, Bel Mundo is governed by internal ethics that combine sociality and belonging with capitalism – because that belonging is only achieved through labour. The people who do the work of transforming food waste into low-cost meals here – from full-timers like Dedeurwaerder and Chef Nena, to displaced refugees who want to become citizens like Mamadou, to citizens who lack full membership like Abdul-Rahim, to dreamers like Leopold who want to fund entrepreneurial visions – are part of the ‘social economy’ in which jobs are oriented toward both profit and social inclusion (Figure 8). In this way, their jobs represent a distinct form of care.

By care, I refer to processes of providing for the wellbeing of others in the polysemic sense advanced by anthropologists such as by Julie Livingston (2012), Elana Buch (2018) and Janelle S. Taylor (2003, 2008). Although these ethnographers conduct fieldwork in clinical settings, I argue that their conception of care pertains to this study on a zero-food waste restaurant in Brussels. Here, too, the provisioning of care is ‘a moral endeavor’ as well as ‘an intensely political act’ (Muehlebach 2012: 96). Waste connects to care here if we follow scientists who have sought to understand it as a material capable of remapping the social, relationships of belonging and place itself (Douglas 1966; Reno 2009).

FIGURE 8.
FIGURE 8.

Leopold and Mamadou both qualified for contracts to work at Bel Mundo based on screenings with social workers. Leopold wants to fulfil his obligation to the state; Mamadou wants a path to citizenship.

Citation: Social Anthropology/Anthropologie Sociale 30, 3; 10.3167/saas.2022.050401

I argue here that the analytic of care applies to the way in which food waste is deployed by the Brussels government to both feed and employ the city's immigrant and fragile populations. Care comes from the state, which subsidises job training contracts for those it deems capable of working but who are not (yet) capable of landing jobs on the open market. Care comes from the interns, who recuperate, prepare and serve low-cost meals made from discarded food for people who cannot otherwise afford to dine out. Care comes from the staff, who advocate hiring and benefits for the good of the business, the interns and each other – as when Nena advocated that the board hire Mamadou, crafting an argument that helping him would help Bel Mundo improve its efficiency.

In The Moral Neoliberal and in the context of the Italian government, Andrea Muehlebach argues that such self-interested expressions of care reveal a form morality inlaid into what is essentially a capitalist economy. In her investigation of a range of publics in the Lombardy region whose volunteer extra-state efforts express care and love for precarious immigrant populations, she finds that her interlocutors consider it morally good to try to make a profit, just as Dedeurwaerder and his team feel that Bel Mundo should (2012: 26). As Dedeurwaerder says: ‘We must be a restaurant that makes money, otherwise we will have to rely on government grants that might go away at any time, and then we have done no good at all.’ As Muehlebach focuses on the role of contracts in processes of enabling care, Dedeurwaerder's efforts, too, highlight the value of the government's Article 60 contracts in enabling Bel Mundo's kitchen interns – would-be citizens – to gain temporary paid employment experience as well as to allow the restaurant to operate with a very low payroll cost (2012: 149).

Is Bel Mundo just another neoliberal enterprise, then? I argue that what separates it from this paradigm is the food waste. Extending the life of surplus discarded food in a way that generates profit is a key goal, and yet using up surplus food that would otherwise be discarded both benefits the environment and feeds people who have limited access to fresh food. While Muehlebach critiques such arrangements as ‘tit-for-tat scenarios’ in which ‘the dispossessed … [scramble] to achieve some sort of place in society … because ethical citizenship appears to translate the crisis of work into social opportunity’, the arrangements between work, food and care at Bel Mundo reveal something different and perhaps less advantageous to the state (2012: 159). Nena, Mamadou, Abdul-Rahim and Leopold represent a range of publics intersecting in Brussels, from a full citizen to a person who was on the edge of deportation; working here allows all to access a range of desirable social programmes in addition to their salaries. I argue that this arrangement is possible because this particular restaurant is exploiting a resource besides labour, besides the surplus value of workers it doesn't have to pay. And that resource is food waste. Because its ingredient costs are next to nothing, Bel Mundo can afford to offer things like free Dutch lessons, free dental care and extra employee benefits. These are vestiges of the social welfare state's benefits for the public good and also of a capitalist system's drive toward profit – and this combination of profit-making and care-providing is enabled by the readily accessible supply of food that would otherwise have been discarded.

I extend Muehlebach's theory that capitalism is embedded in the weft and weave of social welfare states by adding to it the fact that food waste has value. Those who run Bel Mundo are moral neoliberal subjects engaging in care work (the desire to ‘help’ others, as Dedeurwaerder states) by using discarded but edible food. Thus, they connect helping others to finding utility in abandoned consumer goods that are sold for a profit. In this way, Bel Mundo's operations are all about finding ways to make good out of what was trash; it is a capitalism made of salvage and called ‘social economy’, and in the end it tastes pretty good.

Notes

1

This article won the SAE graduate student paper prize for 2019–2020, a condition of which is publication in Social Anthropology. It is based on ethnographic research I did while a graduate student at Duke University from September 2014 to April 2020, when I successfully defended my dissertation. I am now an assistant professor in the American Studies Department at UNC-Chapel Hill. The SAE paired me with Lissa Caldwell to work with Social Anthropology's recommendations for publication, who provided great guidance. The photographs in this article were all taken by me and were taken during my fieldwork, onsite at Bel Mundo restaurant at various times between 2016 and 2018. They are included here with express permission of the organisation and of the people depicted.

2

A step below social restaurants are ‘social soup bars’, where clients can purchase a bowl of homemade soup for €1. Such places are designed to allow people who have difficulty socialising with other people a welcoming atmosphere, and as such are often inside community civic centres (Myaux 2019). There are also institutions called ‘coffee receptions’, which are food carts on street corners that offer only coffee and rolls for a very low price; they do not offer a place for customers to sit, but people often congregate and chat around them.

3

In the height of Western Europe's summer vacation season, even charitable food distribution decreases – so it makes sense that foods which would otherwise be sold are not. Even the very poor might be able to afford a city subway ticket, which could get a person to the North Sea coastal town of Ostend for cheap camping on the beach.

4

An ideal pan-seared steak should have a brown crust and a medium-rare centre. To achieve this, cooks must trigger the series of chemical reactions that cause meat to brown quickly; the faster the surface browns, the less likely it is that the interior will overcook. Allowing a steak to come to room temp before it hits the pan is best practice.

5

As I discovered from a volunteer at the Food Bank who ‘splurged’ on dental implants, even citizens entitled to nearly free dental care are required to pay for procedures deemed cosmetic.

References

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  • Blainey, M. G. 2016. ‘Groundwork for the anthropology of Belgium: an overlooked microcosm of Europe’, Ethos 81: 478507.

  • Buch, Elana. 2018. Inequalities of aging: paradoxes of independence in American home care. New York: New York University Press.

  • Buyck, C., L. Cerullus and C. Kroet 2016. ‘A year after Brussels attacks: what's fixed and what's still broken’, Politico 29 March.

  • Cendrowicz, L. 2015. ‘Paris attacks: deprived east Brussels suburb where anti-terror officers made arrests has long been connected with jihadists’, The Brussels Times 15 November.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, Roger. 2016. “The Islamic State of Molenbeek.” The New York Times, 11 April 2016.

  • Conway, M. 2015. ‘What is it about Molenbeek?The Conversation 20 November.

  • Cooper, F. and A. L. Stoler 1997. Tensions of empire: colonial culture in a bourgeois world. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
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  • Couttenier, M. 2005. Congo tentoongesteld: Een geschiedenis van de Belgische antropologie en het museum van Tervuren (1882–1925). Louvain: ACCO.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Desair, Steven and Joris Lens. 2017. Meer Dan de Rest: Eet Beter, Verspil Minder. Tielt: Uitgeverij Lannoo Groep.

  • Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger; An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.

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    • Search Google Scholar
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Krause, E. L. 2019. ‘“One world ends and another begins”: making sense of migration’, Hot Spots, Fieldsights 22 October.

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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reno, J. O. 2009. ‘Your trash is someone's treasure: the politics of value at a Michigan landfill’, Journal of Material Culture 14: 2946.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
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  • Taylor, Janelle. 2003. ‘The story catches you and you fall down: tragedy, ethnography, and “cultural competence”’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17: 159181.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, Janelle. 2008. ‘On recognition, caring, and dementia’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 22: 313335.

  • Tom Dedeurwaerder (Director of Bel Mundo) in discussions with author, July 18, 2015; August 2, 2017; December 4, 2018..

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Contributor Notes

KELLY ALEXANDER is the George B. Tindall Assistant Professor of American Studies at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She is also a food writer, former editor at Saveur magazine and the recipient of a James Beard Journalism Award for food writing. Her research is at the intersection of food and contemporary ethical and political issues, and her methodology combines ethnography with journalistic narrative. Her manuscript on the ways in which EU food waste policies are enacted among a network of cooks, activists and volunteers in Brussels, Belgium, will be published by UNC Press in spring 2023. kelly.alexander@unc.edu, kellyalexander9@hotmail.com

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  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 1.

    The furniture and fixtures in Bel Mundo's dining room were built in the on-site workshop. Interns there are paid by government contracts that allow them to learn woodworking skills.

  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 2.

    AgteliAAtelier Groot Eiland leases a plot from the commune to grow vegetables. Those who do not qualify to work in the restaurant can get a place in the garden crew (at a lower salary).

  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 3.

    It delighted not only Bel Mundo's customers but its cooks and interns when one supermarket sent over steaks it could no longer sell but that were still safe to eat.

  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 4.

    Steak dinner at Bel Mundo. Pan-seared steak, with mushroom cream, roasted potatoes, garlic green beans, plus a soup course to start and dessert course to finish, was offered for €19 on Bel Mundo's inaugural ‘Steak Night’

  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 5.

    Bel Mundo's chef Nena and Mamadou show the staff's excitement as ‘Steak Night’ commenced.

  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 6.

    Interns Tristan and Behia learn ‘front of house’ restaurant skills like waiting tables and managing the bar, which they use to build their resumes.

  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 7.

    The executive director of Atelier Groot Eiland, Dedeurwaerder's staff call him ‘the mayor’.

  • View in gallery
    FIGURE 8.

    Leopold and Mamadou both qualified for contracts to work at Bel Mundo based on screenings with social workers. Leopold wants to fulfil his obligation to the state; Mamadou wants a path to citizenship.

  • Alexander, K. 2019. ‘Europe in the balance’, Hot Spots, Fieldsights 22 October.

  • Blainey, M. G. 2016. ‘Groundwork for the anthropology of Belgium: an overlooked microcosm of Europe’, Ethos 81: 478507.

  • Buch, Elana. 2018. Inequalities of aging: paradoxes of independence in American home care. New York: New York University Press.

  • Buyck, C., L. Cerullus and C. Kroet 2016. ‘A year after Brussels attacks: what's fixed and what's still broken’, Politico 29 March.

  • Cendrowicz, L. 2015. ‘Paris attacks: deprived east Brussels suburb where anti-terror officers made arrests has long been connected with jihadists’, The Brussels Times 15 November.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Cohen, Roger. 2016. “The Islamic State of Molenbeek.” The New York Times, 11 April 2016.

  • Conway, M. 2015. ‘What is it about Molenbeek?The Conversation 20 November.

  • Cooper, F. and A. L. Stoler 1997. Tensions of empire: colonial culture in a bourgeois world. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Couttenier, M. 2005. Congo tentoongesteld: Een geschiedenis van de Belgische antropologie en het museum van Tervuren (1882–1925). Louvain: ACCO.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Desair, Steven and Joris Lens. 2017. Meer Dan de Rest: Eet Beter, Verspil Minder. Tielt: Uitgeverij Lannoo Groep.

  • Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger; An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. New York: Praeger, 1966.

  • Dupont, Emilien, et al. 2017. “Partner Migration in the Moroccan Community: A Focus on Time and Contextual Evolutions.” Moroccan Migration in Belgium: More than 50 Years of Settlement, Leuven: Leuven University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Englebert, P. 2009. Africa: unity, sovereignty and sorrow. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.

  • Fox, R. C. 1994. In the Belgian château: the spirit and culture of a European society in an age of change. Chicago, IL: Ivan R. Dee.

  • Fox, R. C. 1978. “Why Belgium?European Journal of Sociology/Archives Européennes de Sociologie, Volume 19, Issue 2, pp. 205228.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Goody, Jack. 1982. Cooking, Cuisine, and Class: A Study in Comparative Sociology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  • Gosseye, Janina & Heynen, Hilde. (2013). Architecture for Leisure in Post-War Europe, 1945-1989: Between Experimentation, Liberation and Patronisation. The Journal of Architecture.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gross, J. 2001. Speaking in Other Voices: An Ethnography of Walloon Puppet Theaters. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

  • Heath, R. 2017. ‘Brussels is blind to diversity’, Politico 11 December.

  • Hochschild, A. 1999. King Leopold's ghost: a story of greed, terror, and heroism in colonial Africa. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Klein, M. C. 2015. ‘What's the deal with Belgium?’, Financial Times 20 August.

  • Krause, E. L. 2019. ‘“One world ends and another begins”: making sense of migration’, Hot Spots, Fieldsights 22 October.

  • Leitch, A. 2003. ‘Slow food and the politics of pork fat: Italian food and European identity’, Ethnos 68: 437462.

  • Livingston, Julie. 2012. Improvising Medicine: An African Oncology Ward in an Emerging Cancer Epidemic. Durham: Duke University Press.

  • Mentes, F. D. 2019. ‘Droning on: toward a single European sky’, Hot Spots, Fieldsights 22 October.

  • Muehlebach, A. K. 2012. The moral neoliberal: welfare state and ethical citizenship in contemporary Italy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Myaux, Deborah. 2019. Aide Alimentaire. Les Protections Sociales en Jeu. Louvain-la-Neuve: Academia / L'Harmattan.

  • Peebles, G. 2019. ‘Cash deserts and cash swamps’, Hot Spots, Fieldsights 22 October.

  • Reniers, G., 2000. ‘On the selectivity and internal dynamics of labour migration processes: An analysis of Turkish and Moroccan migration to Belgium’, in R. Lesthaeghe (ed.) Communities and Generations: Turkish and Moroccan populations in Belgium. The Hague/Brussels: NIDI/CBGS, 5993.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reno, J. O. 2009. ‘Your trash is someone's treasure: the politics of value at a Michigan landfill’, Journal of Material Culture 14: 2946.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Scholliers, P. 2009. Food culture in Belgium. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

  • “Social Economy in the E.U.” European Commission: Internal Market, Industry, and SMEs, accessed September 10, 2015. https://ec.europa.eu/growth/sectors/proximity-and-social-economy/social-economy-eu_en#:~:text=There%20are%202.8%20million%20social,5.5%20million%20full%2Dtime%20workers.

  • Taylor, Janelle. 2003. ‘The story catches you and you fall down: tragedy, ethnography, and “cultural competence”’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 17: 159181.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Taylor, Janelle. 2008. ‘On recognition, caring, and dementia’, Medical Anthropology Quarterly 22: 313335.

  • Tom Dedeurwaerder (Director of Bel Mundo) in discussions with author, July 18, 2015; August 2, 2017; December 4, 2018..

  • Turner, Victor. 1974. Dramas, fields and metaphors: symbolic action in human society. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

  • Young, C. 1965. Politics in Congo: decolonization and independence. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

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