After decades of trying to solve some of the world’s most intractable conflicts, I’ve come to believe that bringing people together around a common table — focusing on the cultural dimensions of cuisine as a language that all parties can understand — may be a better way to build peace than other forms of development intervention. In fact, I believe the kitchen is the new venue of foreign policy.
This is how I started to use food as a way to teach students about conflict and peacebuilding. In the city of Washington, DC, I discovered an urban laboratory. It was no secret that you could always tell where America was at war by looking at the new ethnic restaurants opening in the area. So, one day I decided that these “conflict cuisines,” the foods prepared by those who’ve escaped war and violence, could be a way to show students about the power of food to preserve memories of home, and also to provide livelihoods for survival. That is how “Conflict Cuisine: War and Peace around the Dinner Table” was born.
When I started my Conflict Cuisine project, little did I know that I was becoming part of what is a growing movement of people — chefs, private citizens, and governments – who are all looking to food to promote social change. Call it social gastronomy, or gastrodiplomacy, I found myself immersed in ideas and people who were building a movement from the ground up.
Gastrodiplomacy is a form of soft power. It is a means by which one can engage, promote, and persuade others through the use of food. Think food trucks in urban centers, or nation-branding campaigns that have become a favorite tool of middle powers to project a positive image of a place through the palate. Gastrodiplomacy is, above all, a citizen-based food diplomacy, contrasted with culinary diplomacy, something that governments do as part of high-level political engagement. (Think State Dinners!)
After all, our first exposure to another culture is often through our palates. A quick story. It is said that, in the 1970s, when the US opened relations with China, a bold political move during the Cold War, it proved very popular. Why? Survey research showed that Americans had been eating Chinese food for years. It was this familiarity with a culture through its kitchen that moved geopolitics forward!
Social Gastronomy is another term that has cropped up in the last few years. It refers to “positively impacting society with food.” Social Gastronomy is using food to do good. Think the Refetorrio movement by Massimo Boturra in 2015 in Milan, now going global, or training vulnerable youth in Brazil’s favela, the work of Gastromotiva.
In times of war or conflicts, or when there are mass movements of humanity fleeing from oppression, food can be one of the only tangible remnants of displacement.
And more recently, the Chef’s Manifesto, part of the World Food Program’s outreach to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals by enlisting chefs around the globe to commit to principles of sustainability, reduction of food waste, and going beyond their comfort zones to promote healthy eating.
Social Gastronomy is training Syrian refugee chefs in Turkey through the LIFE project, or training prisoners to be chefs in the UK. And it demonstrates how we must transfer our love of food to our embrace of newcomers whose culinary cultural heritage is the first step toward integrating into a new homeland. New tastes and flavors, shared over a common table are the first steps toward inclusion. That is the challenge of citizen food diplomacy.
Stories of refugees are filled with examples of how food and recipes have become a lifeline not only to cultural heritage, but also to livelihoods and social cohesion. Pick up any popular magazine and you will see articles about refugee chefs and entrepreneurs. Social media abounds with stories of hope, often fulfilled at the dinner table. Food is a powerful form of communication. It is a language with its own grammar and syntax. When we promote culture, such as sharing a meal, we also promote tolerance.
In times of war or conflicts, or when there are mass movements of humanity fleeing from oppression, food can be one of the only tangible remnants of displacement. Willful destruction of cities or communities cannot rob a people of their cuisine. Unlike destroying a monument of a building, it is hard to destroy a recipe, passed down through generations of experience.
Today, we are experiencing a global food revolution. It is a revolution with many fronts and many players united by a common goal – to use food to create social change and to help build greater understanding of some of the most existential problems we face – climate change, wars, refugees, and the rise of megacities that have challenged the developing world to address how urban centers will cope with more people with less infrastructure.
At the heart of this revolution is the desire to create a more sustainable planet, to ensure that no one goes hungry, and to give value to those who produce our food, but also embrace those who consume it. The use of food as tool for political change is not only powerful, it is empowering.
We are living in a world where the cheapest weapon of war in our 21st-century arsenal is food. It does not take an expert to understand that bad governments make for bad food policies. Withholding food from a country’s citizens has caused man-made famines to add to the suffering and devastation that we all read about in the headlines.
Of the 815 million chronically food-insecure and malnourished people in the world, the vast majority – 489 million – live in countries affected by conflict. The proportion is even more pronounced for undernourished children. Almost 122 million, or 75 percent, of stunted children under age five live in countries affected by conflict.
Make no mistake. One of the drivers of increasing urbanization is conflict. Without a strategy of conflict prevention, we will continue to see urban centers overflowing, especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Population growth and war will not cease.
We must surely find ways to end conflicts driven by changes in climate, coupled with bad governance. It is not only the responsibility of governments, but also the responsibility of citizens, who at a local level commit to investing in food security. This is how real peacebuilding takes place.
This piece is part of a special series, in honor of Inkstick’s one-year anniversary, which looks to the future of US foreign policy under President Donald J. Trump and beyond. To read the rest of the series, click here.