By Zeynep Özsoy
The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Community Economic Development series, which examines a range of initiatives, such as cooperatives, alternative forms of collective land ownership and stewardship, mutual aid networks and worker advocacy/training organizations. Read more about this series here.
COVID-19 has intensified existing inequalities in cities, especially for women who work under precarious conditions. The importance of sustainable urbanization as a path to social justice and economic prosperity becomes much more evident in these conditions. Moreover, the need for social solidarity and mutual aid has impelled initiatives to develop public policy to combat widening social and economic inequalities and pursue just economic alternatives. In this context, Istanbul’s Neighborhood Kitchens project is a good example of sustainable urbanization that aims to reduce growing levels of poverty and the exclusion of women in economic and social life in urban areas. The project also addresses the need to access healthy and affordable food for those who are living in big cities, as the costs of food have risen significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
OECD data shows the women’s labor force participation ratio in Turkey is the lowest among member states, with only 29% of women participating in the workforce. In Iceland and Germany, 77% and 73% of women participate in the workforce, respectively, while the average for all OECD members is 59%. Additionally, the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap Report ranks Turkey 133rd among 156 countries in gender parity, 101st in educational attainment for women, 114th in women’s political empowerment, 140th in economic participation and opportunity, and 105th in health and mortality. For women who lack a living income and who struggle to participate in the workforce, insecure work such as cleaning is often the only option. For these reasons, women face significant barriers in meeting the basic needs of themselves and their families. Under these circumstances, increasing access to skills training becomes an important policy tool to support women's employment.
Another major issue in Turkey is access to healthy food, especially in big cities. Because of the fast pace of life, many don't have time to cook at home, instead turning to mass produced, unhealthy meals offered by fast food restaurants. Health statistics from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) show that as of 2018, the obesity rate in Turkey is 28%, the seventh highest in the world. Ensuring healthy food for all urban residents is an important urban policy objective, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alternative Food Networks in Turkey
The Neighborhood Kitchens Project, developed by volunteers and supported by the Şişli municipality in Istanbul, aims to address these two key problems: the disadvantaged position of women in the labor market and access to healthy food in urban areas. In this project, the municipality of Şişli selects appropriate applicants, provides them gastronomy training that is certified by partner universities, and encourages them to establish their own cooperatives and businesses. Şişli is also planning to provide a space for women who want to establish a cooperative restaurant. As an alternative to unhealthy food produced by fast food restaurants, the food from the Neighborhood Kitchens is prepared using traditional and natural produce grown locally. Women, who for various reasons are unable to participate in the wider labor force, are also provided with employment.
The project's leaders state that the primary goal is to create awareness, on a neighborhood basis, of accessing healthy and reliable food, and to offer an alternative to factory produced food for those living in the neighborhood. During the past decade, Alternative Food Networks (AFNs) and Alternative Consumption Cooperatives have already become popular in Turkey and stand in “opposition to conventional, supermarket-led food chains.” AFNs aim to transform both the production and consumption of food and are organized by activist consumers at a grassroots level. AFNs emerged as “quality food markets” that are an alternative to “mass markets” characterized by the dominance of a few big producers and retailers. The Neighborhood Kitchens project aims to build on the momentum of this emerging movement in Turkey.
In the long run, Neighborhood Kitchens have been able to stimulate solidarity in urban neighborhoods and create a base for organization. In Turkey, previous examples of urban solidarity were shaped by being hemşehri (people from the same hometown), belonging to the same Islamic sect, and belonging to an ethnic group. Unlike earlier examples organized around ethnicity or religion, emerging initiatives, such as Neighborhoods Kitchens are experimenting with inclusive, egalitarian practices. They provide an alternative shaped by solidarity, non-hierarchy, participation, consensus, and cooperation. These solidarity-based organizations act as prefigurative spaces to advocate ecological farming, solidarity-based initiatives, locality, food politics, and sustainable urban politics. Neighborhood Kitchens are also inclusive initiatives, aiming to involve participants from different nations and ethnicities representative of the cultural diversity of the Sişli district. . Since participants come from a variety of different backgrounds, staff are trained to ensure that they do not use discriminating language and behavior.
The executive stakeholder of Neighborhood Kitchen is (Neighbor Solidarity Food and Business Cooperative), located in the Şişli district and founded by a group of activists. It is also supported and funded by the United Nations World Food Program and the Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH. It has developed strategies on behalf of the EU to improve the self-confidence of vulnerable groups and strengthen social harmony between the Turkish and Syrian communities. Turkey has a higher population of Syrian refugees than any other country and a recent study shows that “psychological and socio-cultural adaptation of Syrian refugees are strongly influenced by economic concerns, pre-migration expectations, religion and perceptions of Turkish natives’ expectations/attitudes towards Syrians.”The planning and implementation process of the Neighborhood Kitchen project was supported and guided by professional chambers such as the chamber of food and agriculture engineers, who shared their professional experiences. Şişli City Council, local politicians, activists and civil initiatives are also contributing to project development and implementation.
Participants in the project have spoken to the unique nature of its participant structure in terms of organizational processes and the transformation of consumers to “prosumers”. Though there are other solidarity based organizations, Neighborhood Kitchens is a multi-stakeholder project that includes civil society, international organizations, the municipality and universities. Neighborhood Kitchens aim to provide just, reliable and healthy food, while also carrying out vocational training. Participants who are unable to afford items such as kitchen tools and ingredients needed for the training are supported by the Şişli Municipality. Participants are chosen after an in-depth interview with a social worker.
The project also involves an educational component, in which professional cooks train selected women. The first practical training in the Central Neighborhood Kitchen started in March 2021 under the names ‘Traditional Turkish Cuisine’ and ‘Kitchen Maid’. This training was conducted by the Public Education Center of the central neighborhood. In the first phase, 48 beneficiaries were awarded a certificate from the Ministry of National Education after training at Nisantaşı, Ayvansaray, and Kent universities. The limited kitchen facilities of the Public Education Center led the municipality to cooperate with universities, allowing women selected by the social services department to receive professional cooking and pastry training. An additional agreement has been made between the municipality and the University of Altınbaş: participants who have completed the gastronomy training will also be provided with basic management training via the university’s Faculty of Business.
The kitchen is currently established in two central neighborhood districts but the intention is to expand the project to 25 neighborhoods of Şişli. The kitchens plan to produce products such as sourdough bread, yogurt, pickles, tarhana, and tomato paste using traditional methods including smoking, drying, and marinating. So far, a total of 4 people are employed in the Neighborhood Kitchens including a Syrian national and an LGBTI+ individual. One of the partners of the Neighborhood Solidarity Food and Business Cooperative, which is an executive stakeholder of the Neighborhood Kitchens, stated that, besides volunteers and full-time employees, there are also temporary employees: “employees are paid by the hour and are employed daily when needed”.
A Şişli Municipality Social Services Specialist said that their goal is not to directly employ all women who receive gastronomy training, but to support women to gain more than a minimum standard of income by encouraging them to work cooperatively: “…we want them to learn for themselves, to fight and engage, to learn cooperative working. Our trainees also have social media accounts and they sell from these accounts …”
Eventually the project is expected to promote the Neighborhood Kitchens gastronomy education through cooperatives established in other neighborhoods. With training, unemployed women are able to produce and sell their own products, introducing a source of income. The Şişli Municipality Director of Social Support believes the Neighborhood Kitchens project will be a protective measure against the risks of poverty and food crisis.
The number of AFNs and Alternative Consumer Cooperatives under the umbrella of the food sovereignty movement are increasing in many large cities in Turkey. Recently, municipalities have also been taking part in the movement. The Neighborhood Kitchens project takes the movement one step further. Although there are various alternatives for people who want to access quality food items, there are few alternatives for cooked food for those who do not have enough time to prepare a meal. This project supports women’s participation in the labor force while at the same time offering healthy food alternatives to neighbors. The Şişli municipality is preparing a new space which will function as a kitchen and restaurant. This new space is expected to attract women who are ready to take the initiative and establish their own cooperatives contributing to foundations for a more inclusive alternative livelihoods
Zeynep Özsoy is a professor of Organization Studies and she is currently serving as an Acting Dean of Business School at Altınbaş University. She studied business administration in Ankara University and sociology in Middle East Technical University. Her current research interests include social and solidarity economy and gender diversity, with a focus on critical management studies.