Episode two zooms out to look at the global food system and question how people in the city understand
industrial food processes. Where do people typically buy their food, and what factors do they consider when making
those decisions? Has the convenience of industrial food made us loose touch with what is "good"?
Samie: Hey. I’m Samie and welcome to Food in my Kiez
Have you ever stopped to think about all the food that you can find in a city?
This episode we are looking into the global food system – a system characterized by a complex set of interconnected processes and relationships that work to ensure food gets from farms to processing facilities, factories, warehouses, retailers, and ultimately to our dinner plates.
It’s a system that has been built over decades with the aim of feeding more and more people yet largely failing to feed us all well. Global food production is the single largest driver of environmental degradation, climate instability and the transgression of planetary boundaries – its also resulted in unhealthy diets now being the leading factor, globally, for preventable disease – while 800 million people still go hungry every day. Essentially, how we have decided to grow, process, transport, consume and waste food is harmful and unjust to both people and the planet.
From once very agricultural societies we have become increasingly urbanised, resulting in millions of consumers that live in cities depending on unknown and undervalued farmers elsewhere to sustain us. Farmers that, due to agricultural policies that have prioritized efficiency over diversity, have been encouraged to produce a limited variety of cash crops that now make up the majority of our diets.
And nothing is more emblematic of the global, industrial food system than our modern-day supermarkets. In Germany, four large companies – EDEKA, REWE, Aldi and the Schwarz Group (including Lidl) – share over 85% of the food retail market. In Berlin, branches of these companies are conveniently located in pretty much every neighborhood - so naturally, supermarkets are where most people in the city get their food.
Antje - Bio Laden: It's a horror. Its really horror. If I go to a big store like REWE or Kaufland, the smell is different and its so big, and you have all these plastic sheets around the produce, Thats the first Eindruck…. Impression. Like ah no, I dont want it, its too big”
Samie: Thats Antje… you’ll hear more about her later in the episode…. But I share her sentiments…I too, am often overwhelmed by the enormity and anonymity of a typical supermarket. And the monopolization of food retail by those four big companies does little for the diversity of businesses and products that will be needed in building a food system that is more ecologically resilient and socially sustainable. But consumers in Germany are increasingly demanding change and access to better food.
So to explore some of these things a bit further, this episode we’re talking to people who live and work in Graeferkiez, one of my favorite neighborhoods in the city...
Voices from the Street:
“oh its beautiful. Its like a small village inside of Berlin”
"theres this like chill vibe….. That has been able to remain in Greafekiez. That's the Kiez that has places that have been here for awhile and this sort of like new, introducing new stuff that doesn't disrupt the Kiez, It just adds to it and so I love that”
Samie: When I come here I almost always spend time at Atlas Café on the corner of Buchstrasse, and I finally got a chance to sit down with the owner, Ali…
Ali - Atlas Cafe: Hi .. I am Ali. 28 y.o. Born and raised up here in Kreuzberg. And now I am a Gastronom and talking to you about the things here.
Samie: I learned that Ali’s dad is actually the one in the back, cooking most of the food everyday, from scratch. And it was actually his quiche that drew me to Atlas in the first place... I was looking for a place to get some work done, and a I was starving – so I did a quick google maps search and saw multiple reviews about this quiche and so, I decided to stop by
Ali - Atlas Cafe: Its quiche, but he’s putting his own culture inside.
Ali - Atlas Cafe: The recipe of the bread is from his village. So hes putting his own culture inside, and doing things to... cook better… to make it interesting and to make it nicer, because you have the little crunch outside but normally its blatterteig and its usually not so heavy like the bread his is using. And its the first time he is doing quiches. He was doing an Italian kitchen. He came with 19 to Germany and was working at Italian restaurants. So he knows how to do food, hes not an Ausgebildeter Koch… not a trained cook… but he is experienced.
Samie: All of the food there is pretty great – its straightforward and wholesome - but what has kept me going back to Atlas over the years is the atmosphere. The staff are cool, the music is always good, and Ali told me that that’s kind of the intention…
Samie to Ali: yeah, and why I wanted to talk to you is because you own this cafe and you’re a Berliner, a Kreuzberger - and the last time we talked you called it a Kiez Cafe - so what is Atlas, and why was important for you to start this place here
Ali - Atlas Cafe: It was a dream to open my own coffee. But I was thinking about it not like everybody who does it for money or hype. For me its for Kreuzberg, for the Kiez. There are lots of coffees or restaurants. But they are charging too much. I want to offer nice prices. For the people here. So they can come and eat and chat and relax
Samie: As a place that aims to offer a space for the community to come together, relax and talk to one another, I see Atlas and other Kiez Cafes like it as very important parts of creating a better food system – granted its not really common for Berliners to strike up convos with strangers… but I for one spent lots of time there thinking about and talking with people about food and food systems. Like for example, how often do people think of the many tons of food that must be delivered to shops, cafes and restaurants in order to feed a city?
Samie: Atlas, for example, gets their produce delivered daily by a family friend and distributor. And because so many cafes like Atlas have menu items with similar ingredients, it made me think of an interesting start up I learned about at the beginning of 2020. So I got in touch with one of their former employees, Chelsea…
Chelsea van Hooven - Choco: My name is Chelsea. Work as a culinary consultant here in Berlin. Meaning I work at the intersection between food and innovation consulting, different food, startups, restaurants, producers on creative market entry, business development, and everything that comes in building and scaling a company”
Samie: Although Chelsea is out there killing it in new endeavors these days, when we met she was working for CHOCO, a company aiming to be the food industry’s number one ordering platform. The app allows kitchen managers and chefs to streamline their supply orders all in one place - rather than the multiple platforms they typically use on a daily basis
Chelsea van Hooven - Choco: So what CHOCO’s big vision is to digitize the food supply chain. To understand how food is being moved, and ultimately once all the players are on the app. not only seeing how food is being moved, but predicting and seeing how can food be moved more transparently and more sustainably so it's fair for all players. And really understand and see how can we bring all the stakeholders to the table and how can we see how food is being moved? We can see, okay. there's a certain Kiez in Berlin there and almost of the restaurants order very similar products, but there are still 15 trucks coming in throughout the week to deliver to the single restaurant. Whereas all these things can just be optimized”
Samie: Knowing what kind and how much food goes in and out of the city is important when thinking of food security and resilience, especially in regard to food landscapes that are increasingly shaped by climate change, but data on this is often lacking. So CHOCO functions as a tool not only to help streamline commercial kitchen orders, but also, to ultimately, help us understand our food system a bit better. The information the app gathers, should more and more restaurants and suppliers commit to using it, could highlight ways in which kitchens could potentially work in closer collaboration with one another – and ultimately help build the social infrastructure needed for more regional food systems in the long run. Imagine if a group of chefs using similar ingredients teamed up to buy produce from a local farmer? Not only would that better support the livelihoods of food producers in more local economies, it would also reduce unnecessary city traffic from the multiple tracks that would normally supply those kitchens each day….. Theres lots to work out there, but just an idea.
Samie: Another aspect of our modern, industrialized and digitized food system is the birth of all these new grocery delivery services that now exist in Berlin. Demand for food delivery grew by 10% during the COVID-19 crisis as many people with the privilege to stay home avoided crowded supermarkets – 26% of people in Germany currently order at least part of their groceries online. And it’s predicted that the trend will only continue.
7% consumers in Germany currently use one of the newcomers to the food retail scene: companies like Gorillas, Flink, or Getir who seem to have popped up almost out of nowhere. These companies are ditching the brick-and-mortar concepts of typical supermarkets to offer groceries delivered to your door, by bike, within 10 minutes, from decentralized warehouses strategically placed all throughout the city.
At first, I’ll be honest, I was really skeptical of these 10 min delivery services. I mean – especially in a city like Berlin, where there is a grocery store very close to most people’s homes, do we really need to have our groceries delivered rapidly to our doorsteps? To me, it felt like a symbol of consumerist convenience and yet another way to further disconnect us from our food. But I mentioned this to Chelsea and she had another way of looking at it…
Chelsea van Hooven - Choco: I think it's... important … to disrupt the supermarket industry… the supermarket has about 80,000 products... and it's not dynamic at all. And we're digitizing all of the industries……...So the supermarkets understand who are the people that are actually shopping in my Kiez. And what are the products that they actually need because stocks within the supermarkets all over the city are pretty much the same. But the target audience and the people living around it, it's so different. So I think it's really exciting to see how the retail industry can become more dynamic.”
Samie: Fair enough. These new players are definitely challenging the dominance of the four major supermarket chains I mentioned earlier. And I like the idea of moving away from fully stocked supermarket shelves, just for the aesthetic.
I personally have only tried Gorillaz, and really only because I was stuck at home with Covid but I totally got the allure – and since then I’ve learned more about the company and the ways its trying to transform the food supply chain.
There have been valid and important protests happening against Gorillaz as an employer, but at the same time they seem to have committed to sourcing from local farmers and partnering with local producers in every city they operate in. In Berlin they include “Berlin Buddies” as a product group, which is where products from smaller, local producers are highlighted.
I’m not sure to what degree this actually plays out in practice.. I recall a few fruits and veggie options on there that definitely couldn’t have been local.. but still promising. And whats more – the app includes space for product information – like where the product comes from and how it was produced to be displayed – making it a sort of food education tool as well.
But ultimately - the shorter the food chain, the better for your health and that of our planet. And the food chain behind delivery services like those I’ve mentioned and many others is quite long - it involves multiple rounds of transportation, as well as distribution and packaging centers - even if the last mile is done by bike and marketed as Co2 free.
So, there are pros and cons - and I haven’t fully made up my mind on it.
Like all things, such services must be considered holistically as part of the entire food system and local context. In some places it might work, in others, maybe not so much…
Samie: So besides the option to have our groceries delivered – how else are people on this side of the city normally getting their food?
I used to live just over the bridge from Graeferkiez, on Kohlfurterstr. and when I did, I developed the habit of spending quite some time planning my grocery shopping trips in order to shop in a way I felt good about. I was looking to avoid plastic and other waste as much as possible, and buy produce I was actually excited by.
Voices from the Street:
"yeah I go to Edeka, which is right on Kotti, and there are good sales and stuff, because yeah the eateries sell products and they can be little overpriced, honestly, although they are nice and speciality. Albatross also sells great sardines. But yeah, I do a lot of my shopping at the Edeka, and also the Vitalia across the street from Edeka”
"I prefer shopping at Denns, but I am also very much aware that I dont go shopping in an organic shop and just buy avocados, or papayas or certain things that are flown in from south america because that is also not the point of it”
"I usually go shopping in the organic markets here nearby, but I really love to go to Maybachufer markt on Tuesdays and Friday – we often go with my flatmates. My flatmate from Iran will find her pomegranates there and lots of fruit that remind her of home. And I just look out for the queer feminist gardeners with produce from Brandenburg. I also really like the vegan donors that they have there on the side”
"I get most of my herbs from this tea shop actually. Its called Theesoloniki, I just call it the tea shop, but its more than that. And this for me is the cool thing to me about the local spaces, is that they remember you. You create a relationship with the space that is nice because you are so close to home
"I grocery shop right down the street here on Graeferstrasse at the Bio market. They are also my neighbors, so I like to give them my money rather than big companies”
Samie: There are 10 or so multinational companies that dictate the majority of food we find in supermarkets and how it is all produced - Oxfam revealed this in their “behind the brands” campaign in 2014 and it hasn’t changed much since. These companies have used much of the profit gained in their business endeavors to fund marketing campaigns and lobbying efforts to obscure the social and environmental impact of their food production, which focuses by and large on just 4 major cash crops (wheat, sugarcane, rice, and corn) which make up more than 60% of an average consumers caloric diet. These crops are often stripped of their natural fibers and micronutrients during food processing, leaving us with mostly calorie-dense food products in order to “feed the masses.” This system results in unhealthy and unsustainable diets and agricultural practices. Farmers and consumers and everyone in between are essentially bound by and limited by a system that values profit over people and planet.
Instead of this massively inequitable and unsustainable food system, I would love to see us move towards one that embraces the concept of Food Sovereignty - defined as "the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods -- and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems based on their needs. [Food Sovereignty] puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations." But the way our food systems are currently set up allows for very little autonomy…
So with all this in mind, I wondered how people, generally, make their food choices and how much they feel they know about the way the global, Industrial Food System works…
Voices from the Street:
"oh my god, um, its probably delusional but I guess I know quite a lot, or I would say I do"
"I know very little about the industrial food system. I definitely should know more"
"probably not enough to make qualified decisions on everything I eat"
"The first thing that comes to mind when you say the Industrial Food System is Factory Farming - yes yes, factory farming and those tomatoes that they grow in polytunnels, in labs. LEDs they can do LEDs now. "
"the first thing that comes to mind is mass incarceration of animals for produce… and land use in a way that is monocultural and basically, destroys functional natural habitats for the use of human produce”
"I think I know quite some things, but dont ask me if I follow what I know"
"there are a few shops and restaurants that work with local producers that are outside the Industrial food complex but its a question of money"
Samie: True, depending in the product, making more sustainable food choices is still sometimes the more expensive choice. And despite the various food labels that are supposed to help, its also not always easy to know whats quote “right” or “wrong” to eat.
There’s also a number of social issues that need to be considered too, for instance, the livelihoods of smallholder farmers in countries that are reliant on and contribute to the global food trade, or the type of agriculture that is practiced and the associated social and environmental impacts there. And so I wondered - are there certain things that people in Berlin have decided not to eat once they learned how its produced?
Voices from the Street:
“I think the thing I’ve decided not to eat is factory farms eggs, and probably most things I am pretty chill about eating to be honest”
“I dont eat Tuna for years now because its an endangered species and its just overproduced, or overly hunted. I eat meat occasionally I must say, I still have a ways to go”
“I mostly dont eat buffalo mozzarella as well, because its such an extremely cruel way to be produced."
Samie: I couldn’t find any info to confirm the degree of cruelty involved in buffalo mozzarella production compared to any other type of cheese – but I mean, industrial dairy and meat farming is notoriously cruel in general, so understandably at the top of many people’s minds. Personally, my favorite obscurity that made the rounds some years ago was the use of “natural flavouring” by the food industry, even if that “natural” cherry flavouring you know and love is actually from the anal glands of a beaver.
Samie: I asked a good friend of mine, Hannes, this question too, and he had a particularly detailed answer that is also a great example of the behind-the-scenes processes of industrial food.
Hannes: this definitely applies to popcorn shrimp, like cocktail shrimp, how we like to eat them on bread rolls or in shrimp cocktails. These tiny little wormy things. I used to love them as a kid and then at some point I realized the ones we get in the supermarket are not just caught in the north sea and brought in to Germany, essentially they get auctioned off in Amsterdam or Rotterdam and then they get sprayed with antibiotics to make them fit for travel. Shipped to North Africa, mostly Morocco, where they are peeled by cheap Moroccan labor and then shipped back to Germany and sold at supermarket prices. And I only kind of realized that through of a friend of mine whose parents own a fish store in Hamburg, and they actually make the effort of peeling the little cocktail shrimp themselves in Hamburg with German labor hands. And I think the price for half a bread roll with the shrimp cocktail on there is around 12, 15 euro a piece, where as you buy the equivalent of that in the supermarket for a euro or two. Once you know that you know that it cant add up . As much as I loved these little things as a kid I am not touching them anymore”
Samie: Most consumers are not regularly spending time searching for details about their food, or happen to come across such info like Hannes did, which is why my idea of a more resilient and sustainable food system is one that involves much more engagement with each other and with the people who produce our food.
It also seemed to be why so many people I spoke to mentioned preferring to shop at smaller food stores - places where they feel like they actually know the people working there. And quite a few people in Graeferkiez mentioned the little Bio Laden, where I met Antje…
Antje - Bio Laden: “My name is Antje, Im 53. I had a crisis in my life, I was working in the internet industry, and I work a lot, so then….I had an illness, and need healing, and so I started working with food. I was working in the fields for some months, in an organic delivery, everything. And now I work here, at this little shop”
Antje - Bio Laden: I think, this was always a food store, or a grocery. It started in the… 19 something and in former times it was a butchery. And in the mid-90s it started to become an organic shop. Its called Leib & Kase, it means, first it was a shop for bread and cheese, and now it's more an organic grocery you can get everything for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Its the bio laden here. Its only one small bio laden. Its not the big Denn’s or Biocompany, no, its the bio laden in the Kie, selling fruits and veggies that are regional but in the winter they are from Spain. And I dont really like this but this is the fact. Some products are very, you know, the companies are very old. The pioneers of the organic business. These are inside the shop… we havwe this fresh shop, with milk and butter they are from here, the area, but most stuff we get from the…. Wholesale market
Samie: The wholesale market they source from is called Terra - the main organic wholesaler for Berlin and the surrounding region. But to me, supporting places like Leib & Kase is bigger than just what products you can currently find there. The still independent food stores in the city are steadily disappearing. Nowadays, those that you can find in Berlin are mostly the alternative, cooperative supermarkets – like the new one, Robinhood, on Maybachufer – or the unpacked, no-waste shops. Small independent organic stores like Leib & Kase are finding it increasingly difficult to compete with the 130 or so organic supermarket chains like Bio Company you can find all over the city. As independent businesses, these small food stores offer alternatives to the monopolized system that the four big retailers dominate. And because they prioritize relationships with their customers, they still allow for some degree of public influence in terms of the products they stock – therefore, I see them as symbols of one of the last remaining bits of autonomy that people in cities have over the food they have access to.
Antje - Bio Laden: The shop is a very little shop, its only 50sqm, its very small, and its very easy to come in and talk with me or my colleagues. And I like it, to talk with people, its very important to me. It’s a social place, more than a business place. We know our customers, we know what happened in their family or what in their life and this is the difference. If you go to a big supermarkt, or the big organic markets, there is no one, only at the kasse… and I want to be connected to people. It’s a connection place, its a very important place for the Kiez, for the area here
Samie: When I was out interviewing people on the street for this episode, I stopped for a coffee at the only place that had a sliver of sun left shining on it that afternoon. When I sat down, I noticed that each table had a little booklet on it and inside were stories of the different coffee producers. So naturally, I wanted to know more and ended up connecting with of one the founders, Georgi…
Georgi - Caventura: I am Georgi. 37yo. I’m Bulgarian. I live in Berlin since 2020. And I am the owner of a coffee company that searches, imports, roasts and prepares great coffee for people. Since 2021 in Graefekiez.
Samie: Georgi told me how he and his wife used to work for big tech companies, but after becoming slightly disillusioned by the anonymity of the automation they were developing, decided to quit -- and to travel for a year and a half. One stop they made was in Colombia, where Georgi’s enjoyment of coffee turned into a passion. He worked for an agricultural cooperative there for a month and a half where he began to understand the entire value chain of coffee and the basics of its production that he, as an everyday coffee drinker, had always kind of taken for granted.
So he was inspired to mix aspects of his former life in corporate business with his love for coffee, and create something that would support the producers he met during his travels in getting more visibility for their craft… and thats how this new, fair-trade coffee spot and roastery called Caventura was born - a word Georgi’s wife actually came up with - a mix of Coffee and the spanish word for adventure: Aventura.
Georgi - Caventura: When I was thinking about the startup to be built. We wanted to be different from industrial coffee. Industrial coffee still dominates the market. For example in Germany 95% of people still buys coffee from the top 5 brands, like Nestle, Lavazza. And what happens there is that the coffee gets gathered from different places in the world, put in containers and shipped to Hamburg, which by the way is the biggest coffee port in the world. And then its being roasted in big industrial machines that roast 3-5 tones of coffee in a single run. And the most important feature of industrial coffee is that it should have constant taste over time. Coffee customers want the same taste and want to stick with it. You blend a lot of coffees and add certain products so it stays the same in terms of taste. What we do is completely different. We go to different countries where coffee is grown and we specifically select coffees that taste different. We work only with small farmers who have 2 to 10 hectares of land. And when we choose the coffees we search different profiles so we have different options for people who like our coffee. And we roast on a small machine that does 5kg of coffee each time. So each batch can have a slightly different taste to it. If you taste a coffee today, and if you taste it next week, it will have slight twists because it is being handmade.
Samie: For Georgi, this slight change in taste is what keeps coffee drinking something interesting and enjoyable. Many of us tend to consume coffee simply for the caffeine, or out of habit, so its nice to know of places where one can appreciate the craft of coffee making, and the labor behind it. Coffee, as one of the most consumed beverages worldwide naturally has a very high socio environmental impact - and since there are no producers of coffee bean in northern parts of the world, the consumption of coffee in places like Germany is dependent on the land and labor of communities and people elsewhere. I was curious what Caventura thought about this, as their prices for a cup of coffee, or a bag of beans was quite normal compared to everyday coffee shops in the city…
Georgi - Caventura: Usually in the coffee market prices are dictated by demand. Which means if a roastery gets its hands on a very hip coffee it can request very high prices. We want to make specialty coffee. We charge as little as possible. In order for more and more people to drink better coffee. This is more sustainable for everybody - both for the farmers, the roasters and pay fair salaries.. We have a wide range of coffees between 10-15. We start at 5,90 for 250g. We want to provide coffee for everybody. If people like more exclusive things they can choose. It is a very basic right to drink good coffee and that starts with a good price.”
Samie: At the moment, Caventura sources directly from farmers in Colombia and Kenya, and when I met Georgi and his wife for this interview they were getting ready to head off the next day to Costa Rica and hopefully establish relationships with farmers there. And I was curious whether, from a sustainability perspective, this is the quote on quote “best” way to source and provide coffee or other specialty products in a city like Berlin
Georgi - Caventura: There have been a number of initiatives which are trying to increase the value creation at origin. One called “roasted at origin”. This is one of the reasons why we will travel to Colombia soon to discuss this possibility with people there. If we are able to have the bags produced and designed there and the coffee too we may create jobs and a coffee culture - which weirdly does not exist in Colombia. In Colombia up until recently the farmers were forced to export any coffee bean of good quality, because this was the only way to get US dollars into the country. So the country with the best coffee in the world drinks Nespresso. So the more we do to… create the coffee culture, and not only, it can be chocolate…. it can be rum, there are lots of things coming out of there. The more people there consume this, instead of exporting to Europe and reimporting there, the more people and nature benefits. We benefit because we become aware where this comes from. The Germans think they are a coffee consumption nation. But is not the only nation that consumes coffee. We have to be aware is done somewhere else, by other people and we have to give them credit.
Samie: So….Explaining how and what we are consuming does not always lead to a straightforward answer. There are many factors, that change daily, to explain how and why people make their food choices, but generally, we tend shop where it is convenient - and where we know we can get good prices - even though those prices aren’t always reflecting the TRUE cost. We’ll pay more, when we are convinced of the quality - or the hype - and we go to certain places for speciality items or that one brand we really like - but by and large, the supermarket is still king.
Now, to be clear, I believe there is a distinction between a supermarket and a grocery store – one, in my opinion, is the result of the monopolization of food crops and food retailers, while the other is a place for the surrounding community to have centralized access to a variety of different food products.
And also to be clear: not everything about the industrialization of food is negative – in many ways it has helped us feed more people and do so more efficiently, but too often we have examples of companies cutting corners to maximize profit and overlooking the health and environmental benefits that come from a more ecological approach to food and farming.
And as far as how much people know about the industrial food system as a whole - well, animal rights activists have done a pretty good job in showing the world the atrocities of factory meat and dairy farming, even if the cognitive dissonance of consumers is still quite high there. But other industrial processes are still far too obscure. So we have to ask the questions - we have to start the conversations. Forming communal relationships with shop and restaurant owners and their employees, as well as amongst one another allows us to have a better understanding and say in what we eat.
Capitalist greed and colonial continuities are at the root of the climate crisis - and these concepts have led to the marketing of convenience, which I continue to say is detrimental to our collective future. The whole system needs to change, yes, but we can also work toward a new visions for the way we produce and source food by doing what we can, where we are, too.
To move toward new systems is to create them ourselves. And while doing that, I hope, we can start to reconnect to our food and with each other as well. We’ll explore some ways folks in Berlin are doing just that, next episode.
Samie: Hey ya’ll, thanks for listening to this episode of Food in my Kiez. If you enjoyed it, make sure to share it with a friend or two and subscribe now to be sure you don’t miss any upcoming episodes. You can follow me on Instagram @FoodinmyKiez or send me a message at firstname.lastname@example.org - I’d love to hear from you.
🌱 Audio for this episode was produced by Grettch ⬅️
🌱 Research support by Jess Stenhouse
🌱 Script support by Itak Moradi
🌱 Production, Script, Narration and Creative Direction by Samie Blasingame
Thanks again for listening. Until next time