By Claire Chauvel
Social Connectedness Fellow 2017
Food is a universal need and key pathway to connectedness. Consider the phrases “a seat at the table,” “let us break bread,” or “the way to any man’s heart is through his stomach.” These are among the most tangible metaphors for community, belonging, and acceptance. And when people share a meal, it can be the perfect opportunity to develop and launch inclusive initiatives.
Anthropologist E.N. Anderson maintains, “Food is used in every society on earth to communicate messages. Prominent among these are messages of group solidarity… Food is central both to bringing people together and keeping them apart.” Similarly, food studies expert Dr. Alice Julier notes that families are “bonded together, learn the rules of life… (and create) shared experiences” over meals.
With that in mind, organizations like Food Sweet Food, Perennial Plate, and The Big Lunch are leveraging the power of food in the name of understanding, belonging, and dignity. Here are their stories — some “food for thought” on how we can foster social connectedness through cuisine.
Food Sweet Food was born of a desire to understand the world through food and counter xenophobic rhetoric in Europe. Today, the organization has produced a series of documentaries on French TV channel Planète+, a Refugee Food Festival, and a Refugee Food Stories platform (currently under development). It is the belief of the founders that it is “around the table, place of life, pleasure, peace, and equality [and conversation,]… that we recognize the spirit and humanity of a people.” In short, “whetting one’s appetite” begets curiosity, which is the key to belonging and the celebration of plurality.
Food Sweet Food’s Refugee Food Festival, jointly organized with the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), travels across Europe to, in the words of participating Yemeni chef Saber Hajaj, “create bridges between countries.” In 2017, the festival visited schools in Normandy, with the support of the French department of Calvados, where three chefs from Yemen, Syria, and Iran cooked for 1,500 students over the course of a week. The food was served on specially designed placemats that featured maps of Yemen, Syria, and Iran, highlighting the distance between these countries and France. They also included information on the definition of a refugee, how many refugees live in France, and reasons why the refugees had to flee their homes. In addition, the chefs and their families spoke to the students about their journeys to France, as well as their hopes and dreams. Many students brought their placemats home to show their parents and asked for the recipes. The event inspired interest, connection, curiosity, and understanding in the community about refugees. One of the students noted, “It was really great – it makes us want to get to know refugees.” Moments like this, sparked by the power of food, can catalyze systemic change.
Across the Atlantic, filmmakers Daniel Klein and Mirra Fine, also see food as an entry point to effecting change. Through Perennial Plate, a weekly web-based program showcasing farm practices, sustainable food, and multi-generational stories, they hope to combine the power of a meal and storytelling to bring people together and start a dialogue, particularly about immigrants and refugees in America. Tolerance and acceptance, as opposed to the prevalent narrative of fear and distrust, is what Perennial Plate hopes to promote. Klein highlights “that when a person knows someone of a different background or ethnicity, his or her perspective on that ‘group’ changes.”
Similar to the above stories, the UK-based Eden Project annually hosts the Big Lunch, which aims to celebrate “community, commonality, and connections” through a communal, inclusive meal. The idea is simple: through a Big Lunch, all sorts of friendships, projects, and ideas can flourish. “It gets people together and talking — and with a few inspired folk, it can lead to people doing more within their community, and tackling the issues that matter to them most.” A survey conducted by the Eden Project found that 94% of those who partake in the Big Lunch believe it has a positive impact on their community, 88% of organizers feel better about their community after hosting a Big Lunch, and 74% of those who host feel that a Big Lunch increases the shared sense of community.
These organizations have all successfully used food as a tool to build connectedness and community. If you have “acquired a taste for” their work, put your apron on, get chopping, and set a table for as many people as possible. You can also get involved in a local community food-based initiative, open a chapter of one of the aforementioned organizations, or share a meal with someone new. Eat to your heart’s content and connect!
 E.N. Anderson, Everyone Eats: Understanding Food and Culture (New York: NYU Press, 2005), 6.