Running a kitchen in the middle of a protest camp presents some unusual operational challenges. “We’re cooking most of the hot food offsite at the moment,” says George Coiley, as he leads me past boiling stove-top kettles, catering-sized saucepans and two volunteers preparing a fruit salad of epic proportions. “The police keep taking our stuff...”
This is Coiley’s fourth Extinction Rebellion kitchen. Staffed by a rotating squad of around 30 volunteers, it serves food and hot drinks 24 hours a day to protesters and anyone else who needs it. All the food is vegan or vegetarian and is assembled from donations.
“This in itself is a political action,” says Coiley, a bright young man who, when not involved in cooking at demonstrations, is working on a PhD on sustainable food and the state. “There are people here who wouldn’t consider themselves activists but just feel really comfortable coming into the kitchen. It sounds basic, but I think it’s really inspiring.”
How you feed an activist, or indeed thousands of activists, may seem trivial compared with the colossal existential questions they are trying to tackle. But they are not unrelated. What we eat is inseparable from the climate crisis: around 30% of human emissions are associated with food from production to consumption. Our dietary choices are also political. Cynics often use the subject of food to nitpick at Extinction Rebellion activists (or vegan dinner-party guests). Barely a protest goes by without a high-profile contrarian flagging up a photo of a protester in a chain restaurant as evidence of hypocrisy.
Daft as the nitpicking can be, it highlights crucial questions on the importance of personal responsibility, ie, being the change you want to see in the world versus big-picture structural change. Coiley has pondered this in his academic work, as well as during his time cooking in Trafalgar Square’s “Rebel Kitchen”. He argues that Extinction Rebellion is right not to “shame” people about what they eat. “We’re trying to help people see that a different world is possible,” he says, “where we can all have nutritious, sustainable food, that is not harmful and can be enjoyable too.” Coiley thinks good cooking can show “we don’t need steaks to be having an amazing time.”
The Rebel Kitchen is housed in four gazebos customised with various pieces of tarpaulin and lots of gaffa tape. A wishlist on a whiteboard outside lists oranges, bananas, savoury snacks, hummus and homemade vegan cakes and treats. People photograph it on their phone and return with donations later. Inside crates are dedicated to everything from sauces to dried fruits, pulses to vegetables and a fine selection of vegan and non-vegan biscuits. At the service end of the tent, lentil and vegetable curry is doled out of a 20-litre thermos vat, along with lots of bread and catering-sized saucepans of salad. There’s a tea station too and around the back a washing-up station also run by volunteers. There is a “no disposables” rule at this pop-up café.
As we step out of the kitchen into Trafalgar Square, the scene is one of celebration. Colourful clothes, flags and flyers light up the space between grey pavements and grey skies. A mixture of righteous anger and communitarian warmth emanates from the crowd. The Extinction Rebellion encampment included a hundred or so tents occupied by the resident rebels along with larger marquee-style tents dedicated to sharing information about climate change, activist wellbeing and arrestee support. More than 1300 have been arrested in London at the latest count. There is a bookshop, an art tent where you can stencil the Extinction Rebellion logo onto your clothes, a drum circle, a hula circle, groups of people singing and two platforms where amplified voices speak in sombre and stirring tones to the crowds about what is at stake. There is also, naturally, a ten-foot-high pink octopus.
Away from the Trafalgar Square camp, Extinction Rebellion have orchestrated a series of spontaneous actions across London, often involving protesters glueing and locking themselves to gates, buildings and even planes. The Rebel Kitchen was responsible for supplying these protesters with care packages, including cereal bars, apples, rice cakes, biscuits, peanut butter, dried fruit and bread rolls. Volunteers on bikes zipped back and forth to deliver hot food and hot tea, especially welcome as rain lashed down on the city.
Just across the river on Millbank, not far from the MI5 building, a few hundred protesters blocked the streets in a protest “to highlight food security”. One activist, Miranda, a middle-aged woman wearing sunglasses, stands on the side of the road eating medjool dates as she watches her peers climb on top of a police van. Her experience of the food provision during the demonstrations has been markedly positive. “I’m vegan and I’ve never had so much vegan food in my life,” she says. “The food’s been excellent...I’ve put on weight.”
Another protester explains that some activists are protesting by abstaining from eating altogether. “Some people today are starting a hunger strike, but now they’re calling it fasting action,” says Emma, on the lookout for other protesters having become stranded on the north side of Lambeth Bridge. In July Cliff Kendall, a 38-year-old doctor, completed a 15-day hunger strike in support of the movement.
Having good food available during the protests is also a morale booster. “You feel very looked after,” says Leonie, another protester standing with a group of musicians. “We’re here for two weeks and people have taken their annual leave to do this. But you need food, hot food, otherwise people start getting grumpy. A lot of us don’t want to be here but we’re more scared of not being here.”
Standard activist fuel seems to involve a heavy reliance on cereal bars, but what about the more hardcore deployments? Greenpeace is known for its daring direct-action missions, from climbing the Shard skyscraper to occupying oil rigs. Graham Thompson, a press officer for the charity, once spent a week camped on top of a chimney at West Burton power station.
On these kinds of actions, says Thompson, self-heating army ration packs offer a hi-tech (and nutritious) solution. You simply pour in cold water, which causes a chemical reaction with a heating element that heats the food inside. Greenpeace always uses vegan supplies: typical packs include vegetable curry, vegetable chilli or vegetable pasta. “I would say taste-wise, they’re slightly less bad than you might imagine,” says Thompson, laughing, adding that often its how much water can be carried which is the limiting factor for how long activists can stay out. On occasion, Greenpeace has run resupply missions via boat, in the case of oil rigs, that have made longer occupations possible.
Greenpeace as an organisation is fully vegetarian and mostly (if not entirely) vegan, offering subsidised vegetarian and vegan lunches to staff, but there are individual meat-eaters who work there too. “We’re constantly saying that reducing your personal carbon footprint is fantastic and wonderful,” says Thompson, “but this is not the kind of problem that you can solve with that kind of solution. You need top level change.”
It’s a position shared by Tim Benton, research director at Chatham House and an author of this year’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on food, land and climate. “We do have to change our diets,” he tells me over the phone, as the Extinction Rebellion drum circle pounds away in the background, “but we are all actors within a system that other people or past policymakers have designed.”
Whether it’s fuel for activism, symbolic of a lifestyle choice, abstained from for religious or political purposes or simply down to personal taste, food is never just something we eat. And whether you focus on the overarching message of Extinction Rebellion or look at the systems in place to feed its activists, the movement provides plenty of food for thought.
Additional reporting by Ethan Croft