38. Buurtmoeders Catering – Neighbourhood Mothers Catering
38.1. Short description
Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is an initiative of three girlfriends who live in Nieuw-West – one of the areas that the “wijkaanpak” has defined as a so-called “attention area”.
Within the framework of the “wijkaanpak” residents may apply for funding for so-called resident initiatives. And we saw that a lot of international women – of our international background – came together and somebody had the idea to apply for a cooking book. And they made that cooking book. In the neighbourhood, with all those residents – women that live there made their own recipes, with pictures and all. But that’s where the story ended. And we thought: see, that’s such a pity! There are a lot of subsidies that are invested into those kinds of things, but they don’t have a structural character. What you really want is that those women are trained…and that that idea of the cooking book is professionalised. And that those women structurally gain from their initiative. Within the neighbourhood. That was the beginning of it all. So we thought: well, why wouldn’t you ask those women that made the cooking book if they want to structurally offer their cooking activities – in the form of a catering service?
In fact, the start of the catering project is related to the initiators’ own experiences, as women of Turkish and Moroccan descent who have regular jobs themselves, and strongly support the idea that women should be financially independent so as to be able to develop themselves in whichever way they like to. The initiators saw, however, that, to this day, many women (in particular, but not only, women of Moroccan and Turkish descent) are still reliant on either their husband’s income or on social assistance benefits, and that existing re-integration and/or emancipation initiatives fail to successfully address this particular issue. They therefore thought of professionalising certain “basic” activities that these women do, and of establishing a kind of (cooperative) platform that women can join to make/raise their own income by doing that which they do best – in this case: cooking.
If you look at it anthropologically also, the generation before us at least, […] they were taught how to cook ever since they were little children. And to care. So you could say that those women have been learning how to cook their whole lives. And to be good in what they do. Also concerning caring, towards your parents, your children, your husband. It’s part of your identity. Those are core competences. […] Everybody has a talent, their own strength let’s say. Well, in business you talk about competences then. Well, look at this! And what you see is that there is a mismatch in society, or at least in the municipality, that they do not approach those women on the basis of what they can do really well. […] When they see a woman with a headscarf, then that’s often perceived as “pitiful”. And stupid. That’s the first prejudice. And then they also talk to them as though they are deaf and dumb. They just can’t look past that. It’s not an accusation! But that’s how it is – those are the facts. Often not knowing Dutch well, or wearing a headscarf, well, that means you’re stupid, incompetent. While those women can do a lot.
The idea of Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is that mothers, or, more broadly, women in the neighbourhood, collectively form a catering service. Every mother/woman is specialised in certain dishes, but alone they would not be able to take on large orders. Together, they can. Neighbourhood Mothers Catering therefore seeks to coordinate women who would like to have a bit of an extra income and brings them together,
and those women can, from the beginning, work from home – their kitchen has to comply with certain conditions – but they can cook their best dish from home. And sell it. So then they are not being pitiful, they’re not holding their hand up, but they are making a product that companies, individuals, governmental organisations, can buy, and order.
38.2. Conceptions and ways of addressing users
The way in which Neighbourhood Mothers Catering addresses its “users” – in this case the mothers/women of the neighbourhood – is by focusing on the capacities that these women already possess, rather than on those that they are lacking. As the following quote also indicates, Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is clearly following a capacity-building approach:
It started from a kind of frustration also that women, or mothers – and then especially those with a lower education – that they are often approached on the basis of what they cannot do. They cannot speak Dutch well; they do not have any qualifications; etc. And you see that social initiatives, or organisations that play a role in that, that they try to emancipate women and give them a role in society from that perspective. […] While we think that financial independence can play a big role for the emancipation of mothers, of women, and for their role in this society. And so also for their integration. […] In the end, every person has a talent. And those women too. So go and look at what they already can do, and try to help women develop themselves from that perspective.
The women that take part in Neighbourhood Mothers Catering are recruited mainly via via – through the personal networks of the initiators, or because somebody heard about the project and approached the initiators asking if they could join. Sometimes it takes a bit of convincing for women to participate, as many of those who are receiving social assistance benefits – one of the groups of women that Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is targeting – are afraid they may be penalised if they were to engage in (paid) catering activities.
The first question is often: “is something going to happen to my benefits? Are tax offices going to come after me? Or is DWI (the municipal Work and Income Service) going to get mad?” […] They are terribly afraid. Because, especially when you are talking about people on benefits, […] those people are financially less well off. So the risk for them is simply too big, whereby they are also very anxious and hesitant to act. Until we explain that “it does not necessarily have to affect your benefits”. Which means that you are limited to… or rather, that you say: “you have the opportunity to go until…” – rather than talking about limitations – say that they have the opportunity to earn up until x amount of money extra. And that could just be that little bit of support and space that these women need to discover themselves in another way. To give them that bit of self-confidence. And perhaps that then they will take that step towards…even just a part-time job. That is also secretly the thought behind it all.
If women decide to participate, though, the kind of guidance that they receive depends on the personal circumstances of each and every one:
Guidance can be in any kind of form. […] Take the simplest form, and that’s a lady for whom doing the groceries is already a pretty big step. A person like that is guided in how to do her groceries. How should you conserve your receipts? What is important, and why is it important? How do you declare your costs? What are the costs that you made? […] Then we look at the dish – delivering on time, the quality requirements… So it goes from those simple kind of things – the guidance – to how do you make an invoice? We have ladies that are self-employed, but that maybe do not know much about the administration yet. Or who find that a bit scary. Well, then you have to explain to them, or you organise a course on how to handle your administration. […] And, in addition, we also consider the acquisition of clients, and getting in touch with clients – the matching – as a form of guidance. Because those women are often not able, or they are not part of circles from which they can get assignments. And we do. We can switch between their world, and the world in which we are. And we couple those two. We are able to couple those two worlds, and get assignments/orders out of them.
Indeed, there are different kinds of women who participate in the Neighbourhood Mothers Catering project. Some do it as a regular job; others see it more as a way of making a bit of extra money. By now there are three women who, with guidance (for instance, concerning food safety issues and/or administrative issues), have managed to become self-employed, and are thus acting as a kind of supplier/subcontractor of Neighbourhood Mothers Catering – meaning they also send in a job application for every order that they do. There are approximately ten women who receive social assistance benefits and when they participate in the completion of an order for Neighbourhood Mothers Catering receive an additional “compensation for volunteering” (vrijwilligersvergoeding). For these women:
…there is maximum, something that we always keep in mind, because you cannot ask those women to work every day because there is a certain maximum amount that you can give to people for volunteering. They cannot go over that, or they will get in trouble.
And, last but not least, there is a group of women that is perhaps not receiving social assistance benefits and “that is not too ambitious, but that does like it to get a compensation for volunteering every now and then because all the small bits help. And so they also do a catering job every now and then” (Project initiators).
38.3. Internal organisation and modes of working
From the very beginning, the project initiators intended Neighbourhood Mothers Catering to be a cooperative that would fund itself – they were going to guide the professionalisation of the women’s cooking services, and the profits that the catering orders would generate would be used to pay the participating women. However, to get the project started, the initiators took part in a competition that enabled them to get a hold of 5,000 euros.
To start (in 2011), we – as the board of the Association of Neighbourhood Mothers in Amsterdam (Stichting Amsterdamse Buurtmoeders, or STAM) won a prize from the municipality of Amsterdam. That was within the framework of the Women-Monitor. Which showed that a lot of women, especially women with a Turkish and Moroccan background, were not working, that only 27 per cent was working. And that many young women, between 20 and 60 years old, didn’t work, and were not financially independent. So we then applied with the Neighbourhood Mothers concept, to win that prize. And we won the main prize of 5,000 euros. With those 5,000 euros we set up the association, the website, the material and well, basically paid for the initial costs.
When they won the prize, in fact, they were “simply” three single individuals – the association (STAM) did not exist yet. At that point, the initiators resorted to a friend of theirs, who happened to be a logistic consultant, to set up the association and get the project started. As the quote below indicates, setting up the association was a strenuous process, yet one that eventually turned out to be worthwhile:
We got this kind of lotto-feeling, you know, you get a card on which it says 5,000 euros, and then you think: ok, what now? Very nice and all, but how are we going to get that money? It says so on the card, but it’s not yet on a bank account. And then it turned out…because we had this idea of a cooperative, where those women would work together. You know, one is good in making desserts, the other can make a good soup, and another can make a good steak. Well, you don’t just want a steak. And you don’t just want a dessert. But if they do it with the three of them, than you can serve the client in its totality, and three women have a job. Well, that’s of course a great idea. But, how are we going to organise this? And then, one of the conditions of the subsidy giver – because it was of course just a hidden subsidy, they may call it a prize, but it’s just a kind of subsidy – and you cannot give that to a company, it has to be an association. […] So I took it on me to set up that association, to figure that out. So I set up the association, and well, there is so much hustle and bustle that comes with that, you cannot even imagine. So before you can even start doing something… But then we also saw chances: if you are going to set up an association, then don’t just do it for catering. Let’s then try to expand that whole concept of catering – because it all started with cooking, because those women can often cook really well – maybe you can expand that whole idea to other branches too, like child care, care…you could set up Neighbourhood Mothers Care. Or something like an atelier we thought, because maybe those women can repair clothing or sow really well too, you know, sowing curtains, or whatever. It was very much based on our own experiences too: I don’t feel like sewing my curtains, you don’t have the time for that if you are working full-time. And I don’t even know how to. But those women do. So why would you not just buy each other’s services? So that’s how the whole idea grew. And that’s how we realised that the burden of having to set up an association, that that was also an opportunity to make it even bigger. So then we thought: this whole thing of the association is actually a good thing. Because the association can approach the women, and help them. And then you can place them in different branches, where they can develop themselves. And then you can start those other projects through the association as well.
At the moment, Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is still “a project” of the association STAM, which, in turn, is composed of the three initiators. The board of STAM does, however, due to the lack of time and knowledge on specific items, resort to professionals from time to time, whom they manage to pay out of the turnover of the catering service (the project leader being one example hereof). In practice, the board of the association is extremely hands-on: from marketing to administration, from the trainings of the women to the delivery of their dishes – all of it is organised by the board of the association together with the project leaders they hire, and, increasingly, also with other (welfare) organisations. As a matter of fact, STAM is now, in collaboration with a social enterprise located in Nieuw-West, in the midst of turning the “project” into an actual “cooperative“:
The association remains, and her goal, i.e. guiding, supporting those women. But Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is now going to be part of a cooperative. Because in a cooperative you can make profit. In an association you can do that, but it’s different, legally it’s a different structure. And for that cooperation we deliberately looked for a collaboration with Coffeemania, because Coffeemania has a status whereby it can offer women a traineeship (“werktestplek”) […] Because at the moment we don’t have that yet, and Coffeemania can add that – offer traineeships to those women.
Noticeably, the approach towards Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is mainly commercial. In practice, the board of STAM has a business minded view – the idea is that the women cook, STAM assist the professionalisation of the process, and the women subsequently sell their services. In this manner, it is also supposed to fund itself. That STAM wants it to be in the form of a cooperative is to make sure that the profits that are generated also come back to the participating women rather than to any stakeholders. At the same time, the board of STAM also realises that they are targeting a particular group of women, who thus also requires a particular kind of approach. Hence, “success” is measured in relative terms:
From day one, I think our approach was different, it was more of a business approach. After all, we say that we want things to be lasting. We don’t want to be a 1-day-fly. We don’t believe in that. But we do believe in different approaches. For a woman for whom getting a volunteering compensation of 20 euros is already a huge financial independence – because those women really exist – then that’s fine no? You don’t have to push that woman – also because it is not realistic – to become self-employed. That doesn’t work. There are different situations, and it’s important that you approach people according to their situation, and help them from their position. Because we always say that they have to be able to, they have to want to, and they have to be allowed to – those three things always have to come together.
38.4. Interaction with the local welfare system
Let’s be honest… I don’t think the municipality is accessible. You have to take a whole lot of steps just to see, to understand how it all works, to figure out if there are any funds available anywhere. And then you still have to figure out how to get access to those funds. And what is also new for us…see, we come from regular businesses. And we don’t know that whole municipal, participation, association, projects, programmes, one city district here, the other one there… Really, when we entered into this whole thing we were business minded. So we thought, ok, you have the municipality, then you probably have a few departments, and then there is a fund, on which hundreds of parties are living, and then they divide that money. But it turns out to be more complicated than that. So that’s also something that we are slowly discovering. […] It’s not transparent – while the entire world is basically screaming for transparency, towards everyone. So, as far as I’m concerned, this whole thing…(i.e. the municipalities and the world of subsidies) it’s not transparent, or not accessible.
In reality, Neighbourhood Mothers Catering is a project that was started by single individuals in reaction to the current re-integration/emancipation programmes/initiatives, which they think often do not approach women in very a positive or sustainable manner. Although they got a (subsidised) prize to get the project started, the interaction with the municipality was, especially in the beginning, minimal. Moreover, it was an initiative of women who are not all that familiar with the world of subsidies, and who never intended the existence of the catering service to be dependent on municipal grants – they want it to be a self-funding cooperative that will thereby be able to have a more lasting impact.
However, STAM does collaborate with social enterprises and (welfare) organisations that have similar goals – i.e. helping women to gain a certain level of financial independence – or that could somehow help them in the organisation and functionality of the catering service. For example, to know the steps they had to follow to professionalise the cooking services they have made use of the “Ondernemershuis” – a municipally funded service that provides information and advice for starting enterprises – and for the delivery of the dishes they have sought to collaborate with other associations that are working with people with a distance from the labour market (e.g. Stichting Fietsdienst). Moreover, they realise that they are operating within a particular (bureaucratic) setting where certain rules and regulations apply, which they need to adhere to if they wish to expand their initiative:
That’s why I got in touch with Coffeemania, to see if we could work with them…because they have the possibility of taking on women with social assistance benefits…they also have people that can guide them in that. Because we had some talks with Pantar (a municipal re-integration service), and they thought it was a great initiative, and they had quite a few women that wanted to do a traineeship (werktestplek) while keeping their social assistance benefits…but there were all sorts of conditions attached to that. They had to have a traineeship with so many hours of guidance. So I thought: what, do they have to come and do this in my kitchen at home then? […] And then you have to comply with all sorts of ARBO-conditions. […] So if I put them behind a table and a chair, they say “eheh”, because there has to be a desk, and a certain chair, and I don’t know what else more. Well, we couldn’t offer that. And then what, I have to guide them? Yea, sorry, but I have other things to do too. I can’t do that. So yea, those are the kind of things that I was up against. Then you do not have the possibility of helping those women that you actually want to help. But they can do that here (at Coffeemania), because they are open, the staff is always around, the kitchen meets all the requirements, and they also have – it’s part of their whole concept – they have a lot of people that are doing some sort of re-integration programme here. So they can do that too. So then we thought: well, that’s a nice addition, we can work together in that.
38.5. Development and dynamics
The driving force behind Neighbourhood Mothers Catering have been individual residents who wanted to come up with a sustainable, lasting concept that would help women gain a certain degree of financial independence, at their own pace. A remarkable aspect of the project is the fact that there were no professional municipal/social workers directly involved in the set up of the whole project. This means that the startup of the catering service has been a “learn-as-you-go” kind of process that perhaps took more time than the initiators ever anticipated, but it also means that it is a concept that keeps evolving, and that remains open to developing itself further. Finally, it is a concept that its initiators firmly believe in, and which they are eager to expand, both in terms of the kind of services they could “sell”, as well as the locations they could “serve”.
We are constantly looking for: what can we do now? Thinking about new kinds of collaborations…looking for chances and possibilities. And grabbing whatever comes our way. […] The way this whole thing started also – the thought that: why does everything have to be temporary? Why can’t we all think a bit more long-term for once? Set up lasting things so that people can do things a bit longer also. And enjoy their own accomplishments longer too. Otherwise it’s huge peaks and valleys, where the valleys become even deeper, or harder. And if you have that thought, then it’s not smart to take every step that you want to take so quickly, without thinking it through. So we deliberately chose to take it easy. So not take on 100 neighbourhood mothers immediately, give them hope, and then say “oops sorry, didn’t work”.
We want to expand the concept further. That’s why we do it at the neighbourhood level… We want to build the website of the cooperation in such a way that you as an individual, man/woman, two-earner households, that do not have the time to cook a healthy meal, that they can buy a subscription with a Neighbourhood Mother in their neighbourhood, and that they can get a healthy meal twice a week for example. […] So that you have Neighbourhood Mothers in every neighbourhood that do not only handle large catering orders together, but also on a smaller level, cook a healthy meal for the neighbourhood. […] It stimulates the social cohesion within such a neighbourhood too, the interaction between a highly educated two-earner household, and their neighbour with six children. And that’s how you hope to have an effect on those children too, that they get in contact with each other. […] You hope that those children […] maybe go and visit the two-earner household once. And that the child says: “hey, I want that too. And what he does, I can maybe do that too”. […] And another side-effect, one of the main ones, is of course that those children see that their mother is working. And that she is earning money. That’s a really good example. A lot of children don’t have that. […] Because we still think, despite all these idealistic things about emancipation – super! – still, a mother is a different kind of example for the children. […] Fathers also participate, but mommies have a bit more visible of a role. That’s why it is important for the mother to set a good example. And show that working is part of you, of who you are, and of who you are going to be. And that you are developing. Seeing other things. That’s a richness. The more knowledge, the broader your horizons. We really see that as a kind of richness. And if children see that in their mothers, then they will start thinking “that’s normal”.
Our plan is to make it much broader, as an association. […] There are a lot of easily accessible branches in which these women can play a role and be financially independent. So we thought, ok, catering, caring, well, child care. […] And like that there are some other branches of which we think that they are easily accessible, and it’s not too much of a hassle to guide women into those branches. And the intention at some point is to scale it up. We started in Nieuw-West, but we also want to scale it up to other city districts of Amsterdam. And if possible, also to other cities in the Netherlands.