English: Food is a community issue.


This article is a summary of how people have contributed to the revival of a small market place that works as a hub for a growing community of food-conscious people, most living within 500m of its location in Wekerle Estate, Southern Budapest. The story is intended to document a brief period over the last 5 years, when from one character to another, a story developed, a community connected and the market received attention from many helpful sources. Why all this fuss over a place no larger than a school football field? Good food, and access to it can, should and has become a community issue. In this small part of Budapest, it’s a possibility we are discovering…and of course, one good story leads to another…

This ‘long-read’ article  is available in online journal form at ISSUU.com https://issuu.com/home/docs/mell__klet_vii__food_is_a_community/edit/links

 The story of Imre Horvath.

Imre had a passion and the drive to pursue it. He also had something very rare these days: time. He had just retired. His passion was creating the possibility for people in his neighbourhood to buy food from small family farmers, those farmers he considered as Indispensable Holders of Traditions, half of whom have disappeared since the change from communism to a market economy (for a whole load of difficult-to-accept reasons we won’t go into here.)

As in all good stories, there was an Accidental Moment: people who know better would call this synchronicity.. This was a moment that would later become significant and Start a Ball Rolling. Its 2012 and the community was just celebrating on Earth Day its first big experience of community planning, re-creating a derelict greenspace as a park with herb-beds, a drinking fountain, a Green Street Map and street furniture designed and painted by the local nursery and school kids: a tree-shaped sign post pointed to the ‘twin cities”, the other Garden City developments across the globe. Mullbery Bush Square was enjoying its community ‘opening’ and a handful of forward-looking organisations provided extra input with games, crafting and tasting.

Enter the Helper, the Living Tisza…

As in all good stories, Imre had a helper – in this case in the form of the Living Tisza, a farmers’ association named for the wild winding River Tisza in the East of Hungary, famed for its fertile flood plains. Or rather, its once-fertile flood plains before the river was straightened and lost its life-giving ability to bring nourishment and fish to the pools, fields and orchards along its banks. The Living Tisza small farmers were amongst the first to organise themselves, see their common interest, both as commercial allies and in shared advocacy, and with a common brand sought to bring good food to Budapest consumers, food with a small-farmer guarantee.

Imre meets Living Tisza on the Mulberry Bush Square and the ball is rolling; first Imre offers up his garden as a “delivery point” for Living Tisza online ordering on Preserve Days, the name of the special bulk buying promotions aimed at those buying for storing in the still common larders, or for preparing jams and conserves, giving at the same time the small farmers a decent income for their work. Win win.

And the story line develops..

Let’s move on a bit. In every story there are challenges, and this one meets its first hurdle pretty quickly. The delivery point was pretty short-lived; the grey area in the law concerning sales and distribution of consumables didn’t provide a good enough explanation for what – as far as the authorities were concerned – was indirect market activity. End of the delivery point.

Start of a new story, and enter new characters. Parallel to Imre’s Challanges with the Delivery Point other people in the community had started to ask how could good food become more accessible. Wekerle has a higher than average number of large families perhaps one reason why this is a sensitive issue. People care about what their kids eat, which, given the rise in obesity and diabetes, raises many questions. Why does buying organic involve a half day journey to the other (wealthier) side of Budapest? Why, when Wekerle Estate is full of gardens, are more people not growing their own? Why is our local market only open when most working adults are, em, working? One good question leads to another and in the great tradition of getting more out of what you’ve got, the decision was made on one Family Green Saturday, one of the many local green events in the Culture House, to start the ‘Our Basket’ local food program to do something about all those things mentioned above.

And this is how the Thursday Evening Little Market on Gutenburg Circular was born. Imre, backed up by enthusiastic future market-goers took the proverbial and formidable Hungarian Grey Cow by the Horns, negotiated long and hard with the Municipality Market Supervisor and the farmers flourishing a Living Tisza guarantee took their places and filled the stands with all things good. The Our Basket active-residents ( later to be known as Transition Wekerle) started up the Small Market Friends facebook group and spread the news far and wide of what good things could be gotten on Thursday evenings in Wekerle. The market quickly became an Agora, and alongside the fresh food friendships, alliances, campaigns and solidarity grew. That’s the short story, in a proverbial nutshell.

And this is only the beginning.

Next came the challenges.

Jump forward 1 year and the big issue on the market is the Struggle to get Decent Lighting. It sounds simple, but without going into the long and tiring, gruesome details, just give yourself over to the question: how many council departments does it take to fit a light bulb? The marketplace begins to show its true colours; it may be a place to meet and buy produce, but it is also Governed by Unseen Forces, otherwise known as the Municipality Property Management and Maintenance Department. Reality is starting to check in.

Jump forward 2 years and the State of Our School Food is debated between the rows of stalls as shopping parent meets shopping parent and notes are exchanged on the inexplicable, indigestible foreign bodies popping up on school dinner plates, in particular the case of the mysteriously unreported mould-spotted ham… Out of simple market-goers the Kispest Residents for School Catering campaign was born, leading eventually to two notable outcomes – the threat of a 45 million forint libel trial against some of the parents and – happily – introduction of a law on catering reform. Rumour has it that the local campaign provided enough stimulus for the Wheels of Government to grind into action; who knows, maybe democracy really works, just in unpredictable ways.

Jump forward 3 years and the first real thinking on what could become of the market space got underway as the Local Municipality announced it would make an application for Capital City financing for community space development. The required community and environmental input was given by just the right people – an example of good cooperation for a common goal between imaginative and innovative local citizenry and those charged with handling our services and infrastructure. This bid was unsuccessful, but the thinking didn’t stop there – locals went on to make some first steps towards strategizing for local food, putting forward the Local Food for Kispest Residents as part of the Local Integrated City Development Plan…

Jump forward 4 years and new allies are attracted to this fertile land – students from the Corvinus University Social Business School make Wekerle the base for their “field studies” and provide useful research for market development based on interview with farmers and consumers.

Year 4 is also the Year of the Vegetable Commando, a group set up to redress on a simple and direct level the food injustice in our society: parts of the Hungarian population goes hungry at the weekends, kids don’t eat on the days they don’t get a school meal. Not all people can afford fresh food, and large families find providing this even more difficult. The Wekerle Veg commando in a very simple and human way made a bridge between the have enoughs and the have not enoughs and surplus fresh food from the markets and donations from shoppers are delivered as a foodbox to local families once a week by volunteers on bikes. Simply beautiful. In the tradition of One Good Thing Leads to Another, a Saturday school has also grown out of the vegetable box, providing another form of sustenance: educational support.

We are now in Year 5. This year has been the year of Considerable Efforts and New Partnerships. It has seen the market as one of the focus issues in the Local Economic Strategy workshops in cooperation with the ESSRG, a Budapest-based environmental action-research collective. It has also been the focus of 6 months of support for community -led development based around the market by the civil society organisation, the Védegylet through the Food Sovereignty and Communities in Transition programmes. Why the Védegylet, why Wekerle? This is a pretty established working relationship: In 2008 within the framework of an EU project on Climate Justice the Védegylet supported a staff member’s idea to start a community-based pilot project asking the question – what if the community sees opportunity in change? What if climate-change isn’t a threat, but a wake-up call, a mirror in which we see how much of what we do isn’t making us happy? The organisation continues to support this project when it can, creating another win win situation, as the CSO gets the chance to experiment, reflect and learn, and the local community gets access to know-how, organisational capacity and sometimes, funding. Add to this that 4 staff members have lived here it means the trust and the social networks are in place to make incredible – or at least promising – things happen.

Perhaps a summary of the local programmes is needed to give some substance at this point?

What did the local market development project look like?

Between May and Oktober 8 family programmes were held on the Thursday evening market, according to stall-holders attracting on each occasion 3 times more people than would usually frequent the market. Remember, this is a small market, 3 hours long on at the end of the working day. Roughly 80-100 people would turn up to each event, literally ‘pouring’ through the gates 5 minutes before the programme, and then shopping and standing around chatting for maybe another hour after it.

These programmes were simple, deliberately “anyone could organise this” type events – food-tastings, treasure hunts, smoothie-making, cake competitions, wine-tasting, story-telling and puppet-shows…Simple, but popular, brought customers for the farmers, and a social opportunity for families. Not a difficult recipe to follow.

The promotion of the events was relatively simple too: facebook event, local posters, chalk board on the market, event listing in the Municipality website. Could have been done better, but with the time resources available that was as far as the cloth stretched.. Enough and again, manageable.

Communication after the programmes as a ‘follow-up” and a teaser to ‘join us next time’ worked very well. The local TV came to every event, meaning that the event was reported every day in the following week in the local news magazine. Amazing ‘outreach’ made possible by a simple fact: the TV folks like being on the market. 3 ‘special programmes’ are also presently being prepared; the video reporters visited 3 of ‘our’ farmers at work with the intention of bringing their lives as food producers closer to those who buy from them, in the meantime raising questions about livelihood, sustainability, healthy living..

Photographs also provide great documentation of the events and, at the risk of sounding grandiose, also contribute to the formation of what is emerging as the market’s “mission”. As every photo tells a story, then the story of the Gutenberg market tells of smiling small children perched on fruit boxes, sharing handfuls of peas, lumps of crackling, slices of apricot and pickles, enchanted by a puppet-show or a story teller. Watching every child is an equally attentive family member, enjoying the child’s enjoyment. Good feelings all round. This is a family market. Here the kids get to crawl on the empty stalls, taste the healthy local produce, meet friends and neighbours…

That’s just the surface. We didn’t really aim for more than that, but at this point in the story we had to realise that this isn’t the only important stuff. Let’s look more closely at these kids:

They see their parents donating to the Vegetable Commando and begin to understand solidarity.

They see their parents and neighbours taking an active role in their community.

They hear stories about their food and see the skilled people who produced it.

They see food that is not packaged, and people who bring their own wrapping and carrier bags and refuse to take plastic…

And most importantly? They get to pack away the fruit boxes they have used as seats after the puppet shows.

A simple request at the end of the first puppet-show really brought home how these kids are on the market. In their own ways, they own this space. Packing away the fruit boxes was literally an ecstatic experience for them, and for the parents too who watched 5 year olds struggling with packaging as big as themselves, following each other’s instructions and ‘clearing away’ the space that had been 5 minutes before a journey in another storyland.. Forgive me for reading too much into this, but I got the feeling these kids understand place and feel safe enjoying this space. They can take part, take responsibility, experience trust and attention… They are living a sense of ownership.

Anyone read a little about neuroscience these days? By repeating this experience we are providing these kids with patterns that they will draw on their whole lives. Food will corregate with community will corregate with happiness and with fulfillment. We are helping them join up the dots needed for fulfilling lives as conscious citizens. Think back: you can probably identify these points in your own childhood too, pivotal points that made you the adult you are…

It would be nice to bask in this feeling for a moment, but things are, naturally, not that simple.

Year 5 is also the year of the Second Try for Funding for market development, this time a successful application was made, allowing a useful symbiosis to develop: market development and market promotion happened in parallel providing useful leverage for community demands.

Let’s get more literal for a bit. How did the community ‘formulate’ its demands?

Drawing on the research carried out earlier by University students.

Through on-site consultations with the local citizens’ groups, architects and planners, and local councillors. Pictures, written texts, big print-outs, post-its, pens, a bit too many councillors hoping for a photo opportunity, and lots of rain.

Through questionnaires: 120 people responded to the questionaire on how the market should be developed, most asking for more sustainable infrastucture, environmental protection services and the development of a more family-friendly community space.

Through regular meetings between the stakeholders.

And by actually writing a good part of the municipalities funding application, the part that got the ‘gold stars’ on good practice for community involvement, high environmental expectations, creative community space.

If we had a tick-list of ‘How to do participatory planning’, then we’d score pretty high. Wide community involvement, mobilisation of relevant stakeholders, creating and holding vision, information flow, accessible planning events, many types of engagement.

Shall we go back to the main storyline?

There is a market, the locals feel strongly about the market, and the municipality has secured the funding to develop the market. Where next?

Every story has a villain or two, someone or something that makes stuff a bit complicated. Just when you thought that the prince would kiss the princess there is a poisoned apple, a prickly fence, a dragon on the horizon. Translated into modern times and the rather futuristic Concept of Community – led Development, these villains are less well – known. Meet Budget Constraints, Aggressive Project Manager, Culture of Cronyism, Suspicion of Corruption, Vested Interests, Fear of Losing My Job, Lack of Vision…

To be fair, the dragon also has a point of view, as did the envious witch with the apple and the unfairly snubbed queen responsible for the prickly hedge… The villains of our story take a bit of understanding: where we see public participation, they may see such horrors as: People in the Way of Me Doing My Job, Unrealistic Expectations, People Talking about Unimportant Things like Environment, Breach of Secrecy Contracts, Impending Deadlines, Conflicts of Interests… Another sees Job in Jeopardy if I Disagree. Another sees Elections are Coming Up…Another sees a Challenge to My Authority…Another sees Unwelcome Outsiders.

Perhaps these are unfamiliar “characters” but believe me, they are important, defining ones. These are the cultural baggage that fill the room when ‘stakeholders’ without a culture of cooperation and difficult to name power imbalances come together to Achieve Something. It may be a small market, but it is a steep learning curve.

Where are we heading with this story?

At some point in the future this story will have a happy ending, when in 2018 a new and attractive market building stands on Gutenburg Circular, a traditional-style building with high energy efficiency, good use of natural light and shade, a dedicated, covered community shop/kitchen, a community oven, expandable space for stalls, nappy-changing room, solar lighting and something to sit down on, avenues of trees down either side, and the option of a bus stop at a later date. Nice outcome, we are sure to celebrate!

Will this story have ‘heros’?

  • the Green Party councillor who orchestrated the meeting where one Vice-Mayor through announced through gritted teeth that ‘Of Course we can have a Community Space”, and his Project Manager grimaced and noted this on his list of yet another headaches.
  • the local architect who ‘blew the whistle’ on the municipality planning meeting where the delegates thoroughly objected to the rather inadequate “final”  plans, but the minutes mistakingly stated the plans were accepted.
  • the Head Architect who held another planning meeting even after the Project Manager ‘banned her’ from going ahead with it.
  • the Planners who tried to walk a tight-rope of formal contract obligations, their own creative drive and informal consultations to get the community ideas into the final draft…

So much effort and attention on such a small thing, isn’t it? But it is ours, and it is precious.. and of course we will celebrate whatever the outcome, just for the sake of our own mental health…

Will there be ‘morals’ to this story’?

What do we take away from this story? Learning, of course. That’s what we can see in our very full basket as this 6 months of concerted activity doesn’t draw to a close, but at least takes a deep breath before moving on. So what delicious insights can we share?

Community led development is “uncharted territory” at this point in time and place; within a culture of representative democracy, participation cannot be taken for granted, it demands patience;  there is no point in fighting every fight as though it is the final war.

People hold tightly to what they see as their sphere of influence and responsibility: at it’s heart an active community pursuing its interest is a challenge to established patterns of authority and is clearly trying to redress the balance of power and responsibility to simply get things done better. Those who have power and authority need help seeing this as an opportunity for them to do something great, they work in a culture of competition and fear, and need time to adjust and relax and engage.

Community and Councils need to suffer a bit before these processes will work. It’s not easy for anyone. Just as a community is made up of many contradicting characters, so is a local council administration. Build relationships with those who in spite of constraints in their work role, are open and cooperative. Councils are not static and the clerk today may be the head of Parks and Recreation tomorrow. Make that person your friend – or at least respect each other’s work and have a good working relationship.

Be clear about ownership of the process, what the process is and what happens at each stage of the process. Own the process together. Write and share minutes, prepare meetings transparently. If you are on board, stay on board.

Don’t take for granted that a promise of involvement will result in an invitation at each stage of the process. In the Wekerle case the council ‘“dropped” the community from the discussions with the architects, which led to concrete proposals unrecognisable to the community and a lot of unnecessary angst.

Get all cards out on the table: make positions clear and be upfront about them. Talk about interests. Don’t be naive; be aware that there is a lot not being said, but “openness” creates a useful dynamic – the stakeholders understand each other better and this reduces fear and suspicion.

Make sure the wider community and its needs are kept visible and many types of people are involved. There are different levels of community involvement and, put brutally, they all need “managed” to some degree. We are not dealing with a movement dynamic, rather a campaign dynamic. As a local citizens’ organisation we were able to create pathways for involvement familiar to the community and use local communication channels to inform, mobilise, and direct attention at different points in the process. This is demanding, tiring, and time-consuming. Be prepared for long nights on facebook.

‘Harvest’ the extras that come up along the way. If this market turns out to be a plaza built from cold steel we will still have an armful of useful contacts, and an experience of community in the larder, waiting for better times…this is an exercise in building resilience as much as building a market.

Will this story have a happy end?

Back to Imre.

Remember the man who wanted to help the small family farmers and his community? Imre doesn’t know about this story and would probably be embarrassed at so much attention being given to the processes he tapped into, catalysed and all the processes this set in motion. As the much-quoted anthropologist Margaret Mead asked: can a small group of people change the world? Imre made food and how we access it a community issue in our small neighbourhood, inadvertently creating space for many other things to emerge. Will that change this world? It does for us, the local people using the market, those affected by the ideas and struggles forged there, and those who listen to our stories, rare ones here in Hungary about how ‘everyday’ people can make a difference.. we could get philosophical about this, but perhaps it’s suffice to say,  Margarets question is a good one with which to finish this story with, isn’t it? And of course, many thanks to Imre.

(Soon after time of writing Imre passed away. His contribution to the local market was movingly remembered at his funeral. )

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