The Social Food Project aims to create a more connected food system through interactive food events that have a focus on sustainability, education and story-telling. The Social Food Project was founded by chef, environmentalist and social entrepreneur Ben McMenamin. After working as a chef for more than 11 years and gaining a degree at RMIT, Ben has realised the power food has at bringing people together and catalysing social change. We got to chat with the man himself and ask some cheeky questions (in case you haven’t noticed, we like doing that!). Read on!
Can you please tell us a little bit about The Social Food Project? The Social Food Project is all about building communities around food and communicating better ways of doing things. We host a range of different events to achieve this goal, with our most popular being pop-up community dinners. We are also producing a range of short videos that share the stories of local producers and do cooking workshops.
Was there a specific moment in life when you realised you wanted to pursue this particular path? I have been working as a qualified chef for 11 years now and it was seeing all of the food waste, social isolation and general lack of wellbeing in kitchens that spurred me into action. I found that producers, chefs, and eaters are generally not talking to each other and it is causing a disconnect in the food system. From there it was just about deciding how I could best use my skills to create positive change.
Can you share some details about your most recent project? One of the things we are excited about in 2018 is creating a range of short educational videos. We want to take the ‘cooking show’ model and turn it on its head by offering simple, genuine advice on how people can contribute to a better food system through buying, cooking and talking about good food. Check out the Social Food Video Youtube channel!
What is a ‘fair food system for all’ mean? This notion of ‘Fair Food’ points back to the global food sovereignty movement. Food Sovereignty is all about fighting for the right of people to access healthy and culturally appropriate food produced in ethical and ecologically sound ways. I am currently the Vice-president of the Australian Food Sovereignty Alliance and together with an amazing team of farmers, food activists and writers, we are fighting to bring about this fair food system.
Are there any projects that you are especially proud of? I am really proud of the work we did last year on the Farmer to Table project, which included a range of dinners, workshops, producer profiles and videos. Everyone has an idea about what farm-to-table means, but we wanted to make it about the actual farmer – the individuals who are physically and emotionally working for a better food system. It was really amazing to connect with a range of inspirational people and I look forward to working with them in years to come.
How can food be a catalyst for social change? Food is amazing because it cuts through all sorts of socio-political barriers – after all, everyone has to eat! We have found through our events that everyone has a story to share about food, whether it is a dish that reminds them of their childhood or an ingredient that they love to cook with, and when these stories are shared it is a great way to build community and create social change.
Who would you have over for your ideal dinner party and what would you serve up? I would have my grandparents over for dinner. They passed when I was quite young but grew up on stories of their lives. Their influence is strongly felt within my extended family and it would be amazing to sit down and cook for them. I would prepare something simple, perhaps a braised lamb shoulder with lots of seasonal vegetables.
What is a social conscience? Why do you have a social conscience? Why does it matter? This is a hard question because it really has to come from your own values and motivations. I love working with other socially conscious people because it makes me feel part of something bigger than myself and that together we are contributing to a better world. I think one of the best things people can do to develop their awareness is to try and empathise with other people in the world. It is easy to turn a blind eye and get caught up in our own lives, not thinking about how our actions are impacting others. I find traveling really helps with this!
Do you think that there is a stronger sense of accomplishment or success in conducting your business with an ethical and social conscience? Yeah, definitely. I started the Social Food Project as a way of contributing to that ethical movement and feel really proud of the work we have done. Being able to work on projects that contribute to the wellbeing of your community is hugely rewarding both professionally and personally.
What is success, how do we measure the “good” we do? Hard question! Success is such a sticky concept these days… We are constantly shown people achieving amazing things through social media and advertising and sometimes it is easy to feel unsuccessful compared to those examples. To me, being successful is understanding what it is that you love doing in the day to day and matching that with your values. You don’t have to be changing the world in massive ways to be successful, simply doing your small part is enough.
Do you think that there is a current trend that encourages business to hop on the ethical bandwagon? How do you feel about it? I definitely think that consumers are being more aware of the social and environmental challenges the world currently faces. If businesses are improving their systems in response to these trends, that has to be a positive thing. It just goes to show the power that individuals have to influence the world!
Do you become disillusioned? And if so, how do you remedy that? Yes, it is easy to become disillusioned in this space, especially if you find projects don’t work as well as you had hoped. It is super important to surround yourself with a community of people who will care for you and support you. Starting a small business can be really isolating at times so it is essential to reach out for support. I make an effort to stay connected to my friends and family and work to engage my community of practice.
Where can we find and follow you? We post a fair amount on Facebook and Instagram, but the best way to stay up to date is to sign up to our mailing list: http://www.socialfoodproject.com/