“A few weeks ago we got 800 avocados and they really were perfectly okay,” says Gerda van den Dool of her most recent reclaimed food escapades, “and then 50kg of bananas, which came all the way from Costa Rica and would have just been thrown away. It’s pretty sad.”
Her voice comes echoing down a shoddy internet line from the ADM free-haven, a former ship building yard in Amsterdam’s Western Harbour, which has been squatted by a community of artists, creatives, inventors and technicians for more than 15 years.
It’s here that Gerda, a Dutch international communications graduate, and her Spanish friend, filmmaker Ana Requena, have slowly fitted out a secondhand van with a mobile kitchen capable of feeding up to 200 people at once.
Calling themselves Bellies Beyond Borders, Gerda and Ana will this week head some 2000 kilometres south-east to Macedonia, Serbia and other areas most affected by Europe’s ongoing refugee crisis, where they’ll cook meals for people displaced by conflict in Syria and across the Middle East and Africa.
Every dish will be made almost entirely from reclaimed food that would otherwise have ended up in landfill – mirroring a similar “bellies not bins” food rescue structure they helped establish in the Netherlands under the banner Guerilla (sic) Kitchen Amsterdam.
It actually all began on the other side of the world, when Gerda was living in Melbourne and became friends with Andrew George, originally from Adelaide. Both regularly fed themselves with food foraged from supermarket rubbish bins, while Andrew also volunteered with Collingwood’s Free Feed Street Kitchen, which collects leftovers from inner Melbourne eateries and hands it out free on the streets each Wednesday night.
After meeting again in Amsterdam in 2014, Andrew and Gerda moved into an old school via an “anti-squat” arrangement, where landlords offer cheap rent but no certainty about the duration of stay.
Calling themselves The Rubbish Rats, each week they’d borrow a car and drive out to forage the bins of a large wholesale supermarket on the outskirts of Amsterdam. “It was just terrible, like cubic metres of really, really good food and because it was winter it was like a refrigerator,” Andrew says. “Sometimes it was hundreds of litres of perfectly fine milk just sitting there, melons year-round, pies after pies, tea and coffee. And every time we thought: ‘This could feed hundreds of people.’“
That’s why, early this year, they set up a “free supermarket” at the school gates, giving away rescued food and then also leftover produce donated by nearby supermarkets. “I’d estimate we saved at least 4000 loaves of bread and maybe more than €10,000 ($15,000 AUD) worth of produce,” Andrew says.
The free supermarket morphed into weekly Food Waste Feast nights, offering locals a three-course meal and drinks for a donation – inspired by the “pay as you feel” Lentil As Anything restaurants in Melbourne. “We would often do garlic bread because we’d get lots of butter out of the bins,” Andrew says. “We’d do soups and we had lots of courgettes for a while so we learnt some nice courgette soup recipes. We’d usually find one kind of dairy product like cheese, butter, cream or yoghurt and with that you can really go very far with whatever vegetables you have.”
Guerilla Kitchen Amsterdam now has more than 50 volunteers who feed around 100 people across two feasts a week.
The collective has also connected with refugee action group We Are Here to offer reclaimed food to dozens of undocumented asylum seekers. “We bring them bread once a week, like 50 loaves, and ready-made meals and vegetables. We brought those 800 avocados there, too,” Gerda says.
She says the decision to take the kitchen mobile came as Europe’s refugee crisis worsened in recent months. After raising more than €5000 ($7500 AUD) via crowd funding, Ana and Gerda bought an old Mercedes bus and began fitting it out with a professional kitchen and bunk beds for the pair to sleep in.
“Here in the squatted shipyard there’s a lot of knowledge, a lot of people who know how to work with cars and a lot of recycled materials we can use to keep it low budget,” Gerda says. “So, for example, we go under the car ourselves and look at how we can fix the motor, Google ‘DIY Mercedes diesel repair’, these kinds of things. Now we know all about chimneys, wood burners and gas. Today we’re going to make the electricity and we don’t know anything about it but we will learn as we go, I guess. It’s really fun.”
On the road, Gerda and Ana hope to connect with local markets and farmers to take leftovers or “ugly” food that’s entirely edible but difficult to sell and would normally be binned.
Money raised from Food Waste Feasts back in Amsterdam, as well as reclaimed food sold by Guerilla Kitchen in the “pay as you feel” way at festivals and events, will help Bellies Beyond Borders keep travelling.
“We don’t have an end date and our aim is to make this a long-term thing, maybe even go to Africa,” Gerda says. “Our aim is not only to serve food and give aid but also to cook with people. We want to give people an opportunity to actually be at home and use our kitchen and create their own community.”
She plans to produce a podcast from the road and Ana will make short films telling the stories of people they encounter in a bid to shift the conversation around refugees and asylum seekers. “Most people don’t know any refugees and the media might make you believe they’re all terrorists,” Gerda says. “Really, I cannot imagine how it is to live in a war zone, to have all these restrictions, no freedom and such a dangerous situation around you. It seems pretty sad and we should do all we can to welcome these people.”
Photographs by Guerilla Kitchen