Shared kitchens for food empowerment

Said to be the last resting place of the Cyrano de Bergerac, the convent that predated the current Palais de la Femme in Paris has lived many lives. The first of its kind, in 1910 it was home to working class single men. After the war it was bought by the Salvation Army, thanks to private donations, and officially opened as the Palais de la Femme, Women’s Palace, in 1926. Ever since, its 630 rooms are one way this place fights social exclusion in the French capital.

Beds, activities and food

The Palais de la Femme’s main service is to host residents with different backgrounds, profiles and needs, but its work doesn’t stop there. A mixed community lives in and shares its halls: young students, elderly people at risk of isolation, single mothers, people with difficulties in finding accommodation or a job.

While each resident has their own private space within the structure, they also have access to communal areas where they enjoy socio-cultural activities together. These are also open to the neighbourhood reinforcing connections within and without the Palais de la Femme.

Accommodation structures like the Palais de la Femme have the obligation to provide food for its residents. More than half of the residents have a private kitchen as part of their living quarters, but others originally depended on a self-service restaurant inside the building.

“The self-service restaurant was no longer adapted to the residents’ needs,” explains Dialika Diakite, Coordinator of the Shared Kitchen Project at Le Palais de la Femme. “The time slots and the dishes did not always satisfy everyone. So we consulted with the residents and decided to set up a shared kitchen instead.”

Back to cooking

The 200 square metre restaurant was transformed into a kitchen with 20 working stations that first opened in 2018 for residents of the Palais de la Femme, and then was made available to people from the outside too.

Residents liked that they were regaining autonomy
— Dialika Diakite

“Residents liked that they were regaining autonomy. Some of them spent hours and hours in the kitchen because they were so happy to rediscover the pleasure of cooking,” recalls Diakite. “Seeing how well it worked, we decided to open the kitchen to families who were housed in hotels.”

In fact, hotel residents have difficulties eating varied meals at an affordable price as their accommodation doesn’t offer the facilities to cook. “When a family is accommodated in a hotel, we know that food is a real problem because few hotels allow people to cook,” explains Myriam Lortal, Head of the Department of Prevention and Fight against Exclusion at the City of Paris. “It forces them to buy things that are ready-made, not necessarily of high nutritional value, and of significant expense.”

By giving hotel residents access to the shared kitchen they not only are empowered to make choices about their diet, but they also get the chance to meet others and create connections. “The idea was to give hotel residents the opportunity to cook what they want with other people and make it a chance to exchange social links,” says Lortal.

Three women in a shared kitchen cooking together
Credit: Armée du Salut

No dishes without ingredients

Having a place to cook isn’t sufficient however, because access to a kitchen doesn’t necessarily mean access to ingredients. “We realised that some people were interested in the kitchen, but didn’t have the money or the access to buy groceries,” explains Diakite.

Even those who had access to the solidarity supermarkets complained that they had been receiving “the same tins of food for four years,” so they stopped going there. “We quickly realised that we were excluding our core audience: those who have no resources,” says Diakite.

We quickly realised that we were excluding our core audience: those who have no resources
— Dialika Diakite

Once the challenge was clear, it was straight on to finding a solution. Through a partnership with the association Linkee, which collects unsold products including meat and cold cuts, a varied and changing offer of products is now available to residents.

The City of Paris also funded a weekly distribution of fresh fruit and vegetables. Both residents of the Palais de la Femme and hotel residents benefit from it, though the latter get priority on this distribution as the residents of the Palais also benefit from monthly vouchers to buy food elsewhere.

Kitchen talk

Once beneficiaries have their groceries, it is down to cooking. In practice, several rooms share the use of each kitchen station and can access it on three different time slots, the idea being that they will cook enough to go on for a few days. People who share the same workstation organise themselves to take turns.

Initially it wasn’t easy to convince people to go to the Palais de la Femme to cook with strangers. “We go to the hotels to present the scheme to the families,” says Diakite. “It reassures them and legitimises their presence in the kitchen. Some have just arrived and don’t know the neighbourhood. Even if we gave them an address, they wouldn’t have the courage to come.”

Reaching out to residents has paid off, as the shared kitchen now has a consolidated group of users that come every week. The project has also helped to create social contact between hotel residents.  “They come to cook, but there is also a social dimension, a way to meet people,” says Diakite. “People living in the same hotel for months, years, never meet. Then they come to cook, and by talking they realise they’re coming from the same hotel. That’s how isolated they are. Now, some of them are friends and see each other outside of the Palais activities.”

People living in the same hotel for months, years, never meet. Then they come to cook
— Dialika Diakite

Making it your own

“A beneficiary living in the Palais de la Femme once saw a woman from the hotel preparing a cake in the shared kitchen,” recalls Diakite. “She didn’t know how to prepare cakes, so she asked to be taught.” The two women asked and obtained the permission to use the shared kitchen to set up a workshop and a few weeks later it took place.

Credit: Silvy Crespo
Credit: Silvy Crespo

Residents feel invested in the project and make it their own by bringing new ideas and taking the initiative. “For example, one of our regular attendees who has been living in France for ten years but had never seen the Arc de Triomphe proposed a group trip,” says Diakite. “They organised it. They prepared a little picnic, and another resident who followed history studies acted as a guide. It shows that they have appropriated the system, which was the objective.”

Many residents also volunteer in several activities and workshops that external organisations run at the Palais de la Femme. For example, Graine-Île-de-France organised a series of do-it-yourself workshops for children’s snacks; Cook Trotteur proposed to create innovative recipes from unsold food; and Toques en stock offers nutrition and health workshops.

Ask and you’ll get it

Residents’ involvement is valued by the project in a way that their feedback and input is regularly solicited and put into practice. For example, as part of the design phase of the project, hotel residents were invited to describe their ideal kitchen. Based on their comments the City of Paris made a significant investment in equipment material.

The municipality made sure that all hotel rooms had fridge and freezers to preserve the cooked food. It also bought the necessary tupperware and invested in a truck and coolers to help with transporting the meals from the kitchen to the hotel.

“Residents can bring up their needs, they know that their voice is taken into account and that they have legitimacy within the establishment,” insists Diakite. “As we go along, we build on the needs we can identify, or what beneficiaries can bring to our attention. In addition to the initial issue which was food insecurity and access. For example, we now have a partner hotel residents can use to do their laundry.”

Further feedback from hotel residents spurred the idea of introducing a mobile shared kitchen. Residents that live in hotels that are further than 10-15 minutes away from the Palais de la Femme found it difficult to organise themselves, with children and prams, and carry one week equivalent of meals back to the hotel.

In November 2021, a kitchen truck was organised to solve the issue. The truck is parked on market pitches to have access to water and electricity and, in it, up to three people can prepare their meal at a time.

Four people stand in front of a truck transformed into a mobile kitchen. Two people are inside the truck cooking.
Credit: Armée du Salut

Spreading the good word

Solutions like the kitchen truck can help reach out to more remote areas of Paris where people are hosted, as the city raises the challenge of a balanced coverage of its territory. “Even with the increase in food aid structures and distribution that the city has seen during the pandemic, there still are areas of the city that are poorly covered. This creates inequalities in the access to food aid,” says Flavia Goiran, Policy Officer in Charge of Food Aid at the City of Paris .

Combining emergency aid with things that can be considered lighter but that are rights nonetheless, like access to culture, it's something the city is very keen to develop
— Myriam Lortal

The emergency status of the pandemic has seen a significant increase in small spontaneous initiatives around food aid. “It was a bit anarchist. We need to make sure that the offer is based on actual needs and is where these are,” notes Goiran. “There are areas where there’s too much offer, and areas where there’s nothing. Since the most vulnerable are also the least mobile audiences, we need to make sure we cover the territory. For this we need to make an inventory of the offer.”

The impact of the pandemic has also pushed the city to question and review it Food Aid Strategy. For example, the positive experience of the Palais de la Femme has inspired the city to introduce more shared kitchens based on its model in other districts in Paris, and to see the effect of combining food aid with other needs that might seem less essential.

“Combining emergency aid with things that can be considered lighter but that are rights nonetheless, like access to culture, it’s something the city is very keen to develop,” says Lortal. This is why people looking for food aid in Paris might end up having breakfast while watching a performance in a warm theatre on a cold winter morning.

Wilma Dragonetti Eurocities Writer