Illustration by Studio Sonsuz

How a black bean burger can be the bridge between food poverty and sustainability; An applied anthropological view on an organization that creates impact through food in the sustainability space

Lin Visser and Sanni Overweg

Abstract

This article examines the intersection of food poverty and sustainability through the work of The Waste To Success (TWTS), an organization offering sustainable cooking workshops at schools in the Netherlands. Using applied anthropology methods, the study explores the challenges of promoting sustainable food practices amongst students.  Findings reveal a that despite sustainability teachings, students make choices that benefit themselves, insighting the need to align educational content with students’ lived experiences. The article offers recommendations for improving the impact of TWTS’s workshops, such as enhancing communication and incorporating culturally familiar recipes to promote sustainable and affordable cooking practices.

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Lin Visser

Author

Lin Visser, visual anthropologist, community builder and food waste activist. Food and film are two creative media strategies in which you can do research and can connect people, with themselves, their story, the land, and each other.  Lin organises, connects and spreads positive energy with the foundation the Waste to Success, at the cultural hub Lola Luid and with Queer Skate Club.

Sanni Overweg

Author

Sanni Overweg is a cultural anthropologist who’s current work focuses on the impact space. In all the projects she’s involved with in Amsterdam there is an aspect of community. Her myriad of interests revolve around themes of sustainability, ecology and the culture of care. Her intention is to involve more applied anthropology tools into each of her work arena’s, at The Waste Too Success, at Kringloop Muna, with Warm Hearts Sauna and Orchestra Partout.

Studio Sonsuz

Illustrator

We are Studio Sonsuz.
We like fresh, new, bright and joyful things.
We like to play.
With colour, sketchy sketches and humour.
We love challenges and crazy combinations.

Elisa Bresseleers & Imke Litjens are running a young women’s collective with a wide range of interests. They are partners in heart and soul: both in their private life and at work. Together they run the company called Studio Sonsuz. Sonsuz means infinite. It is a word that brings the unknown to an imagination. And with that it is a perfect description of our ambition as artists. With our creative expressions we want to question boundaries in contemporary society. We do this in various forms of media, such as photography, film, illustration and graphic design.

For more work: www.studiosonsuz.com / Instagram: @studiosonsuz

It’s a Wednesday morning in April at The Wateringse Veld College, a high school in The Hague, Netherlands. We, Sanni and Lin, have just set up one of the classrooms, transforming it into a cooking studio. Two large tables are filled with cooking utensils. Near the sink, we’ve created a clean-up station with big bins filled with water and soap, along with dish towels to dry everything off. Between the cooking islands, we set up an ingredient table filled with rescued broccoli, noodles, eggs, pumpkin, flour, leeks, crooked cucumbers, onions, spices, and more.

This morning, the students of the high school are participating in a sustainable cooking workshop facilitated by The Waste To Success (TWTS), a foundation dedicated to inspiring people, especially the young, to waste less food. TWTS achieves this through creative cooking workshops, wasteless catering, and other interventions that emphasize seasonal and local cooking, creativity, and bonding over food. Our primary work involves offering fun and engaging cooking workshops where students prepare meals using ingredients that are often rescued (from farmers who can’t sell their produce, from supermarkets that would otherwise discard them, etc.).

Today’s session is part of a series called The Sustainable Masterchef (TSM, or ‘De Duurzame Masterchef’ in Dutch), a program by the municipal organization Natuur & Milieu Educatie Den Haag (Nature & Environment Education The Hague), inspired by the famous cooking competition show Masterchef. Before the cooking workshop, the students attend a class taught by their teachers, centered around a presentation on the theme: ‘What makes a meal sustainable?’. This class teaches students about the benefits of choosing local and seasonal foods to reduce global transport costs, and about meat replacements to reduce greenhouse gasses. After this lesson, the students prepare their own sustainable recipes. TWTS receives these recipes, mainly the ingredient lists, acquires all the foods, and brings them to, for instance this Wednesday morning cooking workshop, where the students prepare their chosen meals. After cooking, the plating begins. A jury, consisting of the facilitators and the teacher(s), judges the meals based on the sustainability of the ingredient choices, the preparation, the teamwork, and a myriad of other factors.

What intrigued us the most about this workshop with the students from Wateringse Veld College was that many of them opted to include meat in their recipes, despite it being taught as an unsustainable practice in the previous workshop. When we inquired about this choice, most of them said they ‘just really liked the taste of chicken’. Since this went against the assignment’s directives, we, as facilitators and as anthropologists, were immediately intrigued. When we asked the teachers, they said ‘the students were able to pick whatever they wanted, and they picked something they don’t get that often at home (i.e. meat)’. Over the next few months, we heard this more frequently, which made us think a lot about food poverty and its juxtaposition with sustainability.

Our Research Approach

We facilitate workshops about sustainable food, and during our work, we started noticing more signs of food poverty. This prompted us to research this topic further. We discovered that food poverty is a growing issue in Dutch society, where it had previously been stable for many years. As anthropologists, we asked ourselves: How can we go to these schools and teach about sustainable food practices if we don’t understand the world these students live in? What impact can we then achieve?

Lin, as co-founder of TWTS, and Sanni, as a freelancer for TWTS, have worked together on many occasions hosting workshops. The numerous opportunities for participant observation during these workshops allowed us to collect a lot of data. Since we both participated in the March 2024 bootcamp edition of Namla, an applied anthropology bootcamp focusing on applying design thinking to social issues, we decided to use all the knowledge and data collected from the many workshops facilitated and use TWTS as a research topic for this paper.

This article describes the tension between TWTS’s mission to provide sustainable food education to students and the apparent food poverty at some of these schools, concluding with how TWTS can better address this tension. We used an applied anthropology method, incorporating a mixture of interviews, participant observation, analysis of the students’ recipes, visual materials, and auto-ethnography to create an analysis of our findings. Lastly, we will offer some preliminary solutions going forward. We believe these applied anthropology methods are most effective in the field for uncovering the questions around this hidden topic.

Food Poverty x TWTS

Food poverty, as we mentioned earlier, is a growing issue in society despite significant efforts to combat it. Specifically, it refers to “the inability to acquire or consume an adequate quality or sufficient quantity of food in socially acceptable ways, or the uncertainty that one will be able to do so” (Radimer et al., 1990). For us, in short, food poverty means having insufficient access to nutritious foods.

During our work in schools, we noticed the increasing prevalence of food poverty. Some schools hired us primarily to provide a cooking workshop, not necessarily because TWTS offers a sustainable cooking workshop, but simply because it involved food preparation and consumption. In conversations with school support staff and teachers, they often mentioned how great it was to host a cooking workshop at the school because “the students would receive an extra meal.”

We spoke with the municipal organization Stad & Natuur (City & Nature), which acts as an intermediary between schools and organizations offering nature and sustainability workshops in Almere. They connected us to many schools and also observed food poverty in some of them. For example, many schools applied for the De Rijke Schooldag grant from the government, designed to support children from all backgrounds in developing their skills. “Every child should be able to discover their talents and develop fully, regardless of their background or financial situation” (Website Rijke Schooldag). TWTS was invited to conduct a series of four workshops with this grant. Our task was to provide the kids with a fun and nutritious afternoon, rather than focusing solely on teaching them about sustainability.

We also recognized food poverty through the facilities at different schools, particularly high schools. We observed specific fridges stocked with free fresh pre-made sandwiches and fruit baskets placed throughout the schools to provide students the opportunity to eat fresh produce. In one primary school, we found a fridge dedicated to sandwich-making supplies for students during their breaks, containing loaves of bread, cheese, and butter. When we inquired about this, we were told that the school is located in an area with high poverty levels, and some kids come to school hungry, so the school provides extra nutrition.

Leontien, the coordinator at Het Wateringse Veld College where we conducted several TSM workshops, confirmed in an interview that some students live in food poverty. When asked about the food realities of the students, she mentioned that some parents had even called the school to ask if it participated in municipal programs that provide free shopping cards for groceries. All these examples show that this issue is present in our society and potentially even hidden.

After analyzing the recipes from TSM workshops at various schools, we observed that students at certain schools, such as Wateringse Veld College, used more meat and other delicious but non-sustainable products. During the workshop, we noticed that the students were eager to eat the food themselves even before the jury could taste it. For them, the workshop was a unique, festive experience.

Conversely, there were schools where our sustainability message resonated with the students. In these schools, we saw students create menus with seasonal, local, and other sustainable products. These schools often had fully equipped kitchens, and cooking was a regular part of their curriculum. During interviews, students from these schools consistently reported that they never needed to skip a meal, indicating a lack of food poverty. The school boards also confirmed that their students did not experience food poverty.

Through these observations, we see a clear contrast in how food poverty impacts students’ engagement with sustainable practices. In schools without food poverty, students are more receptive to sustainability education, while in schools with food poverty, the immediate need for nutritious food takes precedence over sustainability concerns.

Tension at More Places

To better understand the tension between sustainable food and food security, we explored other spaces where these two concepts intersect. We see this tension in food initiatives that distribute rescued food from supermarkets to individuals. We spoke with some people involved in this space in Amsterdam Nieuw-West to gain their perspectives.

One of the perspectives offered is from Rene, who runs the Buurtkeuken (neighborhood kitchen in Nieuw-West, Amsterdam), which serves soup twice a week and distributes food boxes twice a week, all made with rescued food from mostly organic and high-quality supermarkets or bakeries. He shared insights into the kinds of people who come to the food giveaways: “There is a mix of people who come here for sustainability reasons (combating food waste) and those who really need the food to survive, or something in between. Some come here for healthy, organic, vegetarian, and/or gluten-free foods, which they normally cannot afford. For example, some people are gluten intolerant but can’t afford expensive gluten-free bread. I save it for them and give it to them when they pass by.”

We asked Rene how people choose between the different kinds of products offered at the food giveaway. “Some people choose white bread from the local bakery while they could also choose healthier bread. This is a cultural preference. Some people ask for more food because they have a family.” What we learn from this is that there are different reasons why people are in food poverty, and their situations are often culturally determined.

How to Have More Impact

Firstly, to understand what we could have done better, we critically examined our communication with the different partners in play.

Leontien provided a clear answer regarding communication before the workshop: “No, you did not ask about the background of the students. It would be good to ask about allergies, diets, levels, and backgrounds. For example, always buying halal meat when facilitating at our school, so everyone can eat together and improve the inclusivity of your workshop and the eating moment.” This comment refers to an incident during the ‘jury moment’ at the end of one workshop. While the jury was tasting and rating the dishes, the students were also eating their food. One student asked if the chicken was halal and was upset to learn it was not. He threw half of the food in the bin and walked out of the classroom. In this case, there was a miscommunication between the recipe and the shopping. For him, buying halal is so standard that it wasn’t specifically mentioned on the shopping list. We could have anticipated the student demographic better and bought halal meat, so everyone could taste each other’s dishes. Another improvement would be to educate more clearly about the differences between organic and halal labels, so the students understand that organic doesn’t have anything to do with halal and vice versa.

Secondly, an observation we made was that the saved food was less interesting to the students than the dish that was prepared. The students expressed a desire to prepare comfort foods like tacos, burgers, pasta, fries, and pies. Many students also wanted to bring some food home for their siblings and parents, which was partly due to pride in what they made but also possibly to help provide food for their families. We also noticed that cooking with meat was very important to the students. Since we primarily offer vegetarian workshops, the kids were initially skeptical. However, once they experienced that the flavors were still satisfying, their attitudes changed.

Lastly, if the kids liked the food, they would finish their plates. If they didn’t like the taste, texture, or anything about the meal, they would leave it for us to deal with afterward.

What we learned from these workshops is the importance of choosing dishes that resonate with the students. For example, during the last lesson at Tjasker, a primary school in Almere, we asked the students to decide on their final meal, and they chose biryani. Although they wanted traditional South Asian biryani with chicken, we offered a vegetarian version with nuts. To the surprise of the students, and maybe us as well, they said it tasted just like what they were used to. This showed us that: 1. Spices are more important than the substance of the meal. 2. By sticking to our ideals and being creative with alternatives, our message can reach the students through experience. 3. Focusing on the experience and connecting with the students in their own world increases our impact.

An example of this is feedback we received from Stad and Natuur about a vegetable burger we created during a workshop in Almere, made from beans. A student who was a very picky eater and rarely ate vegetables now eats this vegetable-filled burger several times a week. In sticking to our values of sustainability we managed to create an impact1 far beyond the walls of the school, not only on the area of sustainability but also nutrition. Which is a big win for us.

Recipes

Stad & Natuur also supported us in understanding how to address food poverty within our workshops. They noticed a common misconception among parents that sustainable food is inherently expensive. This is not necessarily true, especially when cooking with seasonal and local ingredients and using beans instead of meat. The price of a sustainable meal can be significantly lower than the conventional ‘aardappel, vlees, groenten’ (potato, meat, and vegetables), the classic Dutch meal.

Together, we came up with the idea to prepare recipes with the students that are sustainable, nutritious, and affordable. We also provided the students with a recipe sheet that included the cost, which they could take home. This hopefully inspires their caregivers to cook more sustainably and affordably.

Leontien also shared how she tries to inspire students by introducing them to ideas beyond what they know from home. When asked, “Does it make sense to come and talk about sustainability at your school?” Leontien responded, “To this level, it does make sense,” referring to a practical and fun lesson where the kids have some freedom to make their own choices. “You just hope that some of them will make more sustainable and healthy choices when they start making decisions for themselves.” We see that these small sustainable steps we offer are just outside their comfort zone, making it more viable that they will take some of it with them in their daily lives.

Conclusion

During this research, we gained a lot of knowledge and insights that helped us better understand the tension between food poverty and sustainable food, improving TWTS’s workshops. The juxtaposition is delicate, mainly because food poverty is a hidden but growing challenge in our society. In our desire to do good for the world by offering sustainability workshops, we didn’t initially focus on the other challenges society faces. Food poverty can turn into food security through sustainability, but only if we alter our approach and offer better tools for the students.

When organizing the workshops, it would be helpful to consider differences such as age, social class, religion, allergies, and diets, so we can tailor our workshops to each demographic and group. A practical and quick solution is to change our primary communication with the school and ask about the background of the students.

Through this discussion, the school’s wishes and needs for the workshop can also become clear. Are we hosting a workshop to provide an extra meal or to educate about sustainability? In the first case, we need to make eating together a nutritious and fun moment. These intentions can also be clarified by asking where the funding is coming from.

We also concluded that we need to connect better with the students’ experiences, so they can take small sustainable and healthy steps with us. We should avoid choosing recipes solely for their sustainability aspects and instead focus on recipes that the students know and want to eat, incorporating sustainability aspects into the recipe. Only then can the students be surprised by the fact that sustainable food is also tasty.

Through the students, we can make their surrounding network also aware that low-cost, sustainable recipes can be inexpensive. Switching beans for meat is a simple but effective option for reducing not only your carbon footprint but also your grocery bill. If we can create positive associations with this food for the kids, it will have a lasting impact, like the example of the black bean burger.

The answer to the question of whether it makes sense to give our sustainable workshop in schools, as we asked many teachers and ourselves, is yes, as long as we stay within the ‘taste world’ of the students, understand their needs for nutritious meals and special diets. Only then can we make small sustainable steps forward with them.

Lastly, we are very pleased that we were able to use the teachings from the Namla bootcamp to critically examine ourselves and this hidden problem. Being open and vulnerable in assessing our own work has been a great catalyst for achieving a higher impact in today’s world. We encourage other organizations in the impact space to do the same.

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