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Palette Cleansing Thinking



Dana Olărescu


During the pandemic, I authored a recipe book inspired by health remedies from Eastern Europe and Traditional Chinese Medicine: Towards Resilience: A Manual in Support of the Immune System. In it, I drew parallels between the state of the planet in the Anthropocene and its repercussions on our bodies, while focusing on industrial agriculture’s disastrous effects on land and humans. How can we reflect on the necessity for awareness of the relationship between extractive land practices, food slavery, and invisible workers’ vital contributions?



Image: Alexandra Boanta

Dana Olărescu, The Most Inclusive Place, commissioned by the Open City Project, 2022


Though I am a socially engaged artist rather than a therapist, healer, or food specialist, when I travel to new places to create work, I learn about the landscape, the people, and local complexities by placing food at the centre. Despite the fact that eating is a universal act performed by everyone, we have little agency in the current global food system that is crippling our health and wellbeing.


"When conservative policies obstruct long-termism, how can the current food system be redesigned?"

As part of the Re-imagining Nelson research commission with In-Situ in Nelson, Lancashire, I have so far spoken with primary school children; college students; women who have sought asylum in the town; individuals who are passionate about food; food business owners and employees; people who run services supporting those who cannot afford to purchase food; youth workers; artists; food-growing educators; and civil servants.


Dana Olărescu, Workshop on Food Politics at Victoria Park Pavilion, Nelson



And in doing so, I have observed multiple initiatives using innovative tools to address the inequalities of the broken food system. Among others:


As a way to create community, Curry on the Street cooks and provides free, wholesome food in Nelson, Colne, and Burnley


Chef extraordinaire Gill Watson was so appalled by the food scarcity inflicted by the austerity cuts that she has established a system to rescue supermarkets' food waste - fruit, vegetables, and products which are past their sell by date and can no longer be legally sold to the public - and redirected it to schools and families with children across Pendle


Believing that access to food is a matter of dignity, Food for All operates a points system which means that users can purchase a week’s worth of surplus food for just £5




Image: Dana Olărescu

Pak Choi growing at The Good Life Project , Nelson




"While ecosystems of care have been crafted to sustain wider communities in the area, little is done to enable these initiatives to become self-sustaining, autonomous, or permanent."

However, systemic fault lines means that some of these initiatives which directly combat the government’s slow violence are prevented from running their services as they see fit. Some are unable to order their own food, as the purse strings are held by higher-ups who are often part of separate organisations; others lack a permanent base, so are unable to expand. Access to kitchens is also limited, while access to fresh organic food is negligible. The fundamental impediment is not lack of money (although money always helps), but the tyranny of ingrained power structures where those at the top are unaware of the inequalities they oversee. While ecosystems of care have been crafted to sustain wider communities in the area, little is done to enable these initiatives to become self-sustaining, autonomous, or permanent. When conservative policies obstruct long-termism, how can the current food system be redesigned?


"Despite the fact that eating is a universal act performed by everyone, we have little agency in the current global food system that is crippling our health and wellbeing."

In workshops with certain groups, we looked at food system transformations, as seen through the lens of specific needs. The indefatigable women at Marhaba Café cook Middle Eastern delicacies week in, week out, using food as a political tool to promote cultural values and alleviate racial tensions. With experience of running food businesses back home, they wish to be empowered to replicate these in Nelson too, as a way to address community health. They also talked about employing a circular system at Marhaba Café where they would grow vegetables, fruit and herbs to cook with. What would the food system look like if women had a primary voice in its production?




Image: Dana Olărescu

Menu made by St Paul's C of E School pupils



"What would the food system look like if women had a primary voice in its production?"

“Apples from the trees taste so much better than those from Morissons”, asserted one St Paul’s C of E Primary School’s pupil. The class immediately identified a currently empty polytunnel in the schoolyard which they would love to use for growing food. Looking at seasonal produce, they have created menus for the school canteen, including kale ice cream and monthly celebrations of diverse cuisines. What would the food system look like if processed food was no longer consumed by children? What would health look like?


"Prototyping alternatives to the status quo requires creativity which draws upon everyone’s strengths and lived experiences."

Prototyping alternatives to the status quo requires creativity which draws upon everyone’s strengths and lived experiences. I could spend another year in Nelson and still not uncover all of the initiatives fighting austerity cuts. For that reason, I launched a collaborative challenge. On 30 April, in partnership with In-Situ and Building Bridges, I hosted an experimental food festival which was co-created with locals.




Image: Dana Olărescu

Image: Diane Muldowney

Experimental Food Festival, Nelson


I shared the remainder of my budget for the commission with anyone interested in cooking a dish for the festival. The dish had to be made within a budget of £20 (provided by In-Situ) and all the ingredients had to be sustainable in an attempt to decipher what that meant to everyone. What does a sustainable, healthy, regenerative food system look like to different individuals? What does Nelson’s food system look like at the moment? Over 25 people attended, some brought food, others participated in the discussion, and we all ate together at the end.


"What would Nelson’s food system look like if it was governed by locals?"

The sharing of stories behind the ideas of sustainability connected various threads in the room. These included passing down traditions and preserving recipes from family members; growing their own food to avoid reliance on produce from shops (it was followed by a plea for all to bring their food waste to the participant’s garden in order to build soil); foraging herbs and learning to make in-house versions of staples such as buttermilk; cooking traditional dishes that reminded some of their homelands; purchasing ingredients from independent and local shops; creating dishes out of ingredients found in the cupboard or fridge to save money; as well as reflecting on workers’ conditions and understanding to read behind labels when corporations brand certain items as ‘sustainable’.




Image: Diane Muldowney

Experimental Food Festival, Nelson



Image: Diane Muldowney

Experimental Food Festival, Nelson



It was eye-opening to learn about different value-systems and personal choices, but above all, the room beamed with collective desires to transform the food system into localised economies. What would Nelson’s food system look like if it was governed by locals? Using culture as the key ingredient, people mobilise to create changes. The momentum is crucial to building on from this initiative, and to turning a feast into future policy.





Dana Olărescu is a socially engaged artist with a focus on challenging minority exclusion and environmental injustice. Through participatory methodologies that democratise access to art and knowledge, she aims to give agency to underserved migrant groups and people habitually excluded from decision-making processes, so they can become active co-producers of culture.


Her projects have been supported by, among others, the Arts Council, Counterpoints Arts, UCL Culture, and Urban Wilderness, and presented at institutions in the UK and abroad, including Tate Modern, the London Short Film Festival, the Low Carbon Design Institute, Art Gene, x-church, ArtHouse Jersey, Art Walk Projects, Incheon Art Platform (South Korea), and La Virgule (France).




About This Is Nelson and Nelson Reimagined


This Is Nelson is the cultural strand of the Nelson Town Deal led by In-Situ and Building Bridges. It will engage with Nelson’s communities through a programme of activities and events and the reactivation of places and spaces.


As outlined in the Nelson Town Deal website and literature the £25million investment offers a ‘once in a generation’ opportunity to improve the future of Nelson, promising new hope and a brighter future.


Nelson Reimagined, the artist-led strand of the This Is Nelson programme will embrace this forward-looking aspect of the Town Deal - focusing on the longer-term impact the investment could have; creating a sense of shared ownership and pride around the future of the town; and making space for bold and brave collective imagination and speculative world-building in the programme.



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