Illustration by József Vass
Living in precarity - how social canteens and soup kitchens contribute to community solidarity
Creating spaces of solidarity for the most vulnerable is key to ensuring that some form of social justice is achieved, in a society where socio-economic policies and social attitudes are not the most favorable towards these categories. This article looks at how social canteens and soup kitchens contribute to creating such spaces, focusing on a specific category of vulnerability, homelessness, as a case study. Homeless persons belong to a social group extremely prone to poverty, discrimination, and social exclusion, with difficult or very low access to basic needs such as housing, food, belonging, and security. The purpose of this research is to understand to which extent food access initiatives build spaces which can offer a sense of inclusion and safety to their beneficiaries, while altogether meeting their food needs.
I am currently an Advocacy Coordinator at the Bucharest-based association Ateliere Fără Frontiere, where together with my colleagues and partner organisations we research and try to develop solidarity mechanisms for the socially excluded and most vulnerable persons. In parallel, I am doing a Masters in Social and Cultural Anthropology at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies SNSPA in Bucharest. My work and interests have always motivated me to get involved in projects and initiatives tackling social, economic and environmental justice. My curiosity led me to meet, live and work with people of different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs, as far away as Myanmar. I enjoy observing human behavior, analysing social norms and cultural symbols, which all contribute to my understanding of the systems we are part of and the values we adhere to.
József Vass is an illustrator under the pseudonym Mr. Musette, he has been creating digital and traditional watercolor and ink illustrations for over ten years. He is one of the winners of the Change Today, Change Forever project campaign organized by Phillip Moris International (2016), was selected for the Adobe Creative Residency Community Fund project (2020) and represented Romania at Expo Dubai 2020.
In addition to illustration and design projects for various clients (Hungarian Days in Alba County, Untold or World Art Nouveau Day 2021, Oradea) he has illustrated over ten books for children and adults, including the best-selling trilogy Olguța și un bunic de milioane by Alex Moldovan, and the trilogy Romanian Mythology by Antoaneta Olteanu.
Walking down a street in the notorious Ferentari neighborhood in Bucharest, I see some movement in this large dumpster. I’m thinking it must be a cat, but I see the head of a man emerging from the trash bin. His body was fully inside, scavenging for what I thought must be food. A few steps farther, I see another man, also searching in the trash. I found out later it was not food they were searching for, but rather recyclables they could resell, or even syringes to cover their addiction needs. According to Eurostat, 16.4 percent of the Bucharest-Ilfov region’s population was at risk of poverty and social exclusion in 2021, the rate reaching 34.4 percent at national level, ranking Romania on the first place of all EU countries.
This happened during my fourth day of fieldwork on a research project for one of my Anthropology of Food Master’s courses at the National School of Political and Administrative Studies (SNSPA). Being inclined towards addressing social causes and tackling exclusion, I decided to approach, through three case studies, the issue of social canteens and soup kitchens in Bucharest to better understand food insecurity and unequal food access, as well as the impact of social interventions to address food security. The research follows, from a moral perspective, how a social canteen/soup kitchen can contribute to creating a social space and positive social practices and the extent to which it can become a safe space for its beneficiaries (people belonging to vulnerable groups), a space where no one is judged for their vulnerable condition. The end result of the study was a short ethnography of social canteens and soup kitchens as a space where food needs, solidarity, and community development all meet.
I volunteered for two days at an NGO-run integrated community day centre for the homeless (offering food, medical services, laundry and shower facilities) in two different locations (central area, near Cișmigiu Park, and Ferentari neighborhood), one day in a public social canteen run by the General Directorate for Social Assistance and Child Protection of Bucharest, and another day in a church-run social canteen. Spending this time in the three canteens with different approaches allowed me to observe and interact with the spaces dedicated to cooking and eating, the cooking practices, and the social interactions and dynamics between the personnel, between the personnel and the beneficiaries, and between the beneficiaries themselves. I also held semi-structured and unstructured interviews with some of the beneficiaries and the staff to explore their socio-economic status, the value behind these places for them, and the relationships created within the canteens.
Currently, there are fourteen accredited social canteens in Bucharest, of which five are public and the others ran by NGOs, altogether accounting for a capacity of 6,300 beneficiaries.,  This should represent the maximum capacity, but in reality the number of persons using the services is much smaller, as I discovered at one of the places, and the current infrastructure and dedicated human resources would probably not be able to service the full capacity. There are also other types of services that are not declared as social canteens, as they rather work as soup kitchens, in a mix of integrated social services. The daily allowance offered by the State is RON 22, which should cover two meals/person. According to Law no. 208/1997 concerning social aid canteens, beneficiaries can be children whose parents earn less than the average net monthly income; young people up to the age of 26 who are enrolled in some form of education and whose parents earn less than the average net monthly income; persons who receive welfare benefit; retirees; persons with disabilities or chronic illnesses; or persons who are temporarily unemployed. In a context where the food price index has reached the highest average level since 2005, where the United Nations World Food Programme warns of a global food crisis, and where at national level the National Institute for Statistics reported an over fourfold increase in the average monthly rate of inflation for food products since 2019, service delivery to ensure food access becomes essential, and offering a hot meal to the most vulnerable persons, also the most impacted, should represent a collective engagement for social justice.
Given the limited space in the article and the urgency and gravity of the matter, I would like to focus on the issue of homelessness and the dedicated community centres that I visited, as this fit best the scope of my initial research questions. The Social Assistance Law no. 292/2011 sets a responsibility for public authorities to ensure social services for the homeless in the form of temporary housing, which needs to be associated with counseling services, reinsertion or social reintegration. Moreover, the Strategy for Social Inclusion of Homeless Persons 2022-2027 was approved in December 2022. In 2020, there were 2,026 homeless persons in the records of the seven administrative units in Bucharest, but in reality, it is very difficult to estimate the real number.
At the Ferentari community day centre, most of the beneficiaries suffer from drug abuse. One of the hotspots where they get their drugs is Aleea Livezilor. The police are present, but they don’t do much apparently, one of the social workers told me. Pretending we don’t know, or pretending the problem is not there, seems to be a common attitude in Romanian society. Despite measures and policies addressing the poor and socially excluded, the most vulnerable are largely left behind and prone to social judgment. In both Cișmigiu and Ferentari centres, beneficiaries were very diverse—parents with children, single mothers, older people, or young persons, all would find themselves in this common space where they didn’t only come for the food, but also for the socialising and to stay in a warm place. Their day was organised around a food route, depending on where and when food was served, which helped structure their schedule, the coordinator of one of the centres explained. This was confirmed to me by some of the beneficiaries, by producing plastic food containers from nearby soup kitchens from their bags. They were also willing to travel longer distances for their food. “He knows all the places, we’re friends. He takes us to the other places where they give us food.” Homeless persons have to create their own coping strategies to survive contexts of unequal access to food.
From empty rooms and empty gardens, at 12.30, with the beneficiaries’ arrival, the spaces would turn into quite the opposite. A great majority of them stayed until 5.30 pm, when the centres closed, also due to the integrated nature of the spaces, with the large dining hall or the pavilions where they could sit, eat, and socialise. The number of beneficiaries varied between 100 and 200 per day. The personnel of the centre, mainly composed of social workers and quite often volunteers, received the beneficiaries daily by announcing the rules of good conduct—mutual respect, queueing to get the food, and polite interaction. A sort of natural order was created, as they all agreed in one voice, nodding their heads. In practice, things happened more or less so, however the staff and the volunteers were patient persons who took this job because they believed in the NGO’s mission to support people in need. “We don’t judge people, who are we to judge anyone? Any of us can end up in a situation like this one day,” as one member of the staff at another social canteen had told me. Often social canteens are spaces characterised by higher levels of empathy, which helps the development of interpersonal relationships. For those five hours they were there, people seemed to forget about being homeless, joking around, relaxing—one man asked a woman if she wanted to marry him, and another took out his books on the table. “We feel taken care of,” and that is extremely important for their mental health. In this large diversity of people, little groups emerge, discussing what to do next, possible places to sleep, possible small job opportunities, some reflect out loud on life, economy, the political system. And they all get along, conflicts happen only rarely and usually go away by themselves, as one of the centre’s coordinators told me.
Monday to Wednesday, each person received one instant hot noodle soup, two loaves of bread, one hamburger bun, tea, and coffee. On Thursdays the menu included a can of beans or soup. On Fridays the centres were closed. Initially they only served canned food, but at people’s request to eat something warm, the instant soup option was introduced. And they were only allowed two teaspoons of sugar per drink, which limited their sugar consumption—“the sugar gives it some taste, it’s comforting.” “Put one or two more teaspoons please!”, “No, you are only allowed to have two. There must be enough for everyone,” responded the staff serving the food, while others jumped in shouting, “Don’t be greedy! We all have just two!”
The food is modest, but the beneficiaries don’t come as much for that as for the atmosphere created by the space. Canteens and soup kitchens also have the function to reduce inequalities and can be a factor for social inclusion. The canteen can become a social intervention space for the most vulnerable, a place for refuge and relief, helping beneficiaries find a sense of respect and not feel isolated. This complex space also brings out favorable social attitudes as opposed to the general criticism, prejudice and challenges that the poor face elsewhere. I was surprised by the eagerness and openness of some to discuss with me. The space we were in helped create this sense of intimacy and confidence they seemed to long for. Most of them had been coming to the centres for years:
‘We come here because we have no other places to go.’ … ‘We meet x, y, z, see what they’ve been doing, chat a bit, eat, wash our clothes, see what else is there.’ … ‘When it’s really cold outside it’s better to come here to have a warm place to stay during the day.’ … ‘Yes, this is really helpful for me, look at my condition, what else can I do.’
A mix of awareness of their current situation combined with powerlessness to change it characterises some, while others are too affected by substance abuse and/or mental problems to be aware of their condition anymore. Here is a collection of life situations:
‘Why did you choose this life?’
‘Eh, miss, it’s not that easy, do you think I want to be like this? Living on the streets is very tough and dangerous.’ …
‘I had a job, a house at some point, I lost everything.’ … ‘You know, I have qualifications. I work here and there. I cannot find a stable job, because everything in my life is unstable.’ … “He works at the block of flats. He sleeps in the dumpster room.’ … ‘I’ve worked here and there, I’ve worked for rich people also, they’re the worst, they kicked me out and didn’t give me the money.’ ‘Yes, I would like to work, this way we integrate into society, right?’
To what extent these places help them to develop a lost social identity is still subject to debate as this issue has not been explored enough in my research. I say “lost” because contrary to popular beliefs, most of them actually had a somewhat stable life before ending up on the streets. Talking to a few I understood that the 1990s transition to democracy in Romania had a major impact on their livelihoods. They either lost their jobs in the state-owned factories that closed down to be replaced by foreign capital and imports, were displaced from nationalised houses, and had to live on the streets because they had no money to buy or rent, for others the death of family members led to their fall, or others simply took really bad life decisions. “During communism you could at least get by, the State would provide a job at the factory and housing,” some mentioned. The lack of housing, IDs and access to food seemed to be the main problems they faced. As one woman rightly told me, “If we can’t have our basic needs met, what else can we do?” And indeed, as researchers who studied this phenomenon have shown, access to food and lack of housing are intricately linked.
Because they didn’t open up that easily, entering into the personal details of the beneficiaries’ lives required building a relationship, something that the personnel at the soup kitchen had managed to do over time. “People are mean, they will take advantage of you. I can tell who is well intended and who is mean, you learn to tell,” one woman beneficiary told me. The staff and the beneficiaries communicated well and had a good dynamic in general. Beneficiaries knew that if they behaved according to the set of rules they would be able to access the services. They mostly cleaned after themselves and jumped in to help the staff clean the counter where they were served the food. There were also situations where one person would stubbornly insist with a request that couldn’t be met by the staff and the centre at that particular moment or at all, but the staff showed determination. A sort of power relation emerges, which was accepted by the beneficiaries since they were grateful in the end for the services the centre provided. Almost everyone said thank you, sărut-mâna (a traditional greeting to show respect to an older person, literally translated as “I kiss your hand”) or bogdaproste (a way of thanking used in religious contexts to show appreciation for receiving something as alms for the dead, usually food), almost everyone because there were also a few showing some sort of indifference, in a sort of profound resignation.
Whether run by religious principles, the public interest, or privately by NGOs who complement State actions, all the places I studied had the same common mission: to be solidary with people in need. They contributed towards creating a feeling of belonging and safety for the beneficiaries, developing self-help groups, while fighting alienation and ensuring the necessary support for access to food. Being faced with a set of rules, shown a fair treatment and given assistance in a structured framework, homeless persons can abide by social norms and be respectful towards them, contrary to popular belief. Having a committed personnel who showed professionalism in handling vulnerable behaviors was also key. I do hope that research such as this one can actually contribute towards destigmatizing vulnerable categories, particularly homeless persons, and help improve policies, services and projects while showing the real needs and experiences of those for whom they were designed. However, to what degree creating such services will result in a state of dependency on the welfare system for those who benefit from it? This has to do with the moral responsibility that we choose to have towards the most vulnerable. Indeed, actions which support fighting hunger on the short term contribute to keeping beneficiaries dependent on the support system because the social inequalities born out of unequal food access and food insecurity are not fully addressed through State actions for more redistributive, fairer, and human-oriented policies.
We would like to thank Ioana Miruna Voiculescu for her useful proofreading and suggestions to ensure style consistency and improve readability across the texts published in English.
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