Somali Kitchen

Talking Easton’s food politics and real fast food

Coinciding with the first proper day of summer heat this year, the nondescript walkway outside the Junction 3 Library in Easton is being completely transformed on Monday afternoon. Homemade Somali food, juices and spiced tea are being served up to curious and hungry passers-by, while a group of kids are learning how to make herb and spice mixes.

The pop-up Somali Kitchen event is led by a group of mums, all members of SPAN (Single Parent Action Network), who are keen to promote healthy alternatives to the fast food on offer at the dozens of takeaways in the area, while discussing food-related issues and celebrating Somali food and culture.

The event evolved out of collaborative research project Productive Margins, which involved members of SPAN, Coexist, Knowle West Media Centre and researchers from Bristol University. As Naomi Millner, one of the researchers explained, the project is based on the idea that “if you want to influence policy and regulation that actually meets the needs of people experiencing marginalisation, poverty and so on, you need to create those agendas with people who have that experience”.

The main research question the group focused on was ‘who gets to decide what’s in my fridge?’, which became an entry point for exploring eating habits, issues around access to healthy food and regulation of fast food outlets. This last issue is of particular concern to Suad Yusuf and the other women running the project. Suad points out that Easton has a far higher concentration of fast food takeaways than other parts of the city, which corresponds to trends for these outlets to be clustered in lower income areas.

Suad is concerned about the effect this is having on the health of young people. Speaking animatedly on the subject, she argues that the type of high-fat, high-sugar food on offer at many of Easton’s takeaways is “not healthy, it’s not even English food, it’s American fast food, so it’s fried. It’s quick to eat, and it only costs £2 a meal but that’s not good for your health at all.”

According to research carried out by the group, there are thirty-four takeaways along a single stretch of Stapleton Road, sitting in close proximity to a number of local schools and children’s centres. Part of their research focused on the planning and regulatory frameworks that allow this to happen, and how they can be contested.

The idea for a pop-up Somali restaurant emerged as way to offer “a healthier version of fast food, or street food, that’s accessible to children and to families”. While there are plenty of local cafes serving Somali food, Suad points out that “they are mainly run by men. And the customers there are mainly men. So it’s not that accessible for families and other people in the community, especially women.”

She feels that having a pop-up café run by women makes healthy food accessible to a broader spectrum of people. People from all of Easton’s communities are present at the event, and Suad feels that food is an excellent way to bring people from different backgrounds together, as it transcends barriers of language.

Owing to the success of event, Suad and the other women hope to put on other similar events in future: “I think there will be more to come, even though it’s hard work. I can see there’s a huge interest”.