Edible Cultures: The Politics and Ethics of Recuperating Food Waste

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On a planet with shrinking natural resources and a rising population, who will have enough to eat? This research studies the people and policies involved in an emergent citywide system of food waste recuperation in the E.U.’s capital of Brussels. It incorporates those who recirculate food—such as volunteers at the city’s largest food bank; workers at a culinary skills-training program; and activists in a soup kitchen with "zero food waste" weekly pop-up restaurant. It also includes those who benefit from their efforts—such as the E.U.'s growing immigrant and refugee population, some of whom strive to become citizens while others pass through on their way to larger dreams of European belonging.

The same policy drives these efforts, but distinct ethical frameworks guide them. Reflecting the city’s Catholic history, traditional hospitality is embodied in acts of sharing food—which adherents believe builds communities, brings individuals closer to God, and reinforces the belief that God will provide. Volunteers at the food bank strongly express this ethic. Elsewhere, acts of “giving back” become ways to recruit new citizens, expressing neoliberal politics that locate an ethic of caring within capitalism. For example, a job-training program is a restaurant that runs on donated food and offers internships to welfare recipients so that they might join the local labor force one day. Finally, an N.G.O. runs a social inclusion program aimed at recuperating not only abandoned food but also abandoned urban spaces. In this case, a mobile soup kitchen aims to revitalize urban blight through feeding the city’s hungriest residents—giving sustenance by means of scrappy collaborations between volunteers, citizens, and immigrants.

Through ethnographic observation, this dissertation explores sharing food as a way of caring for people that reflects moral beliefs about value and worthiness, both of food as well as of people. It asks: How do obligations of care square with social obligations that match cast-off food with cast-out humans?





Alexander, Kelly (2020). Edible Cultures: The Politics and Ethics of Recuperating Food Waste. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/21026.


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