What do I care most about? My family tops the list, of course. And after them? It would have to be community and food, tied for second—and, to my mind, inextricably connected. In fact, I believe to my core that there’s no better catalyst for community-building than food.
And it’s not just my opinion. Research supports my personal experience spanning more than two decades of eating with people to build bonds, solve problems, and (yes) change the world.
The food-and-community connection starts at the dinner table.
Growing up, food was the focus for my family. For us, eating together always resulted in us sharing who we were as individuals in the family through our perspectives, opinions, and personal experiences. And we always ended up talking about what we would be eating next as a family.
We were essentially confirming that yes, we would soon be spending time with each other around the table again. The sharing of meals sustained our connections, strengthened our bonds, and shaped the family we are today. That forging of community at the most basic level continues to this very day. I hope the experience in your family is similarly nourishing and nurturing.
Through food, we create community.
Just for fun, in 2013 I started renting buses in Los Angeles to take family and friends around L.A. neighborhoods or across the vast city to eat different foods. It started with Lebanese food (the food of my people, with delicacies that aren’t always easy to prepare at home), followed by a donut tour and a taco tour.
My food tours morphed into neighborhood tours: Hollywood, Watts, San Pedro, and South L.A.. Those in turn led to dozens more food-themed excursions like bacon, BBQ, cheese, potato, pie, burgers, and dumplings. Without realizing it, I had begun to deliberately bring people into communities to eat and understand community. And it hit me:
Through food, we connect. Through food, we create community. And through food, we can STRENGTHEN communities.
Breaking the ice, building community.
If you know where to get the best pupusas or fresh lumpia in a city like Los Angeles, or the location of L.A.’s only Portuguese bakery, then you’ve earned a certain level of gustatory authority. Of course, everyone has their own opinion of what “the best” means—and they’re usually happy to share it.
In professional conversations, somehow we can get started on a food topic and stray down a rabbit hole debating the best BBQ in the city or where to get Armenian manti dumplings (or that one spot in Glendale that has Georgian dumplings). It dawned on me that corporate leaders, elected officials, other civic and community leaders—almost everyone I interacted with—had a connection to and fascination with the conversation about food. No matter their constituency or cause, food is the common denominator.
Food lets us be vulnerable. That’s a good thing for community building.
If you’ve read anything by Brene Brown (or seen her TED Talk), you’re familiar with her concept of embracing and harnessing your own vulnerability as a vital step to finding the courage to nurture your best self, whether personally or professionally. I’ve observed the same phenomenon thousands of times: When food is involved, people come together better and move forward together better. Why is that?
I think it’s because when we eat, we’re more likely to reveal our vulnerabilities. By “vulnerability,” I mean openness. We drop our armor when we’re consumed with the pleasure of a delicious bite. When two strangers, mouths full, smile at each other and give the “Yeah, that’s good” nod—they open themselves to being in community.
They do it because they feel safe doing it. It’s analogous to a watering hole on the Serengheti, where different species gather to fulfill their common need to rehydrate and recharge. Don’t you feel safe at your kitchen table, favorite coffee shop, or a potluck dinner?
And as we work in and build community, local restaurants, bakeries, and food stands are our desert watering holes. They’re the places of safety. They hold the energy of the surrounding blocks and the communities that travel to eat there. We are FAR more likely to allow ourselves to be vulnerable when we feel safe. And that’s when positive change begins.
How food can help solve problems in a community
In my community work, I’ve found that food can be jump-start meaningful problem solving—and sometimes on a pretty large scale. Here’s what I mean:
If you want to understand a new place, go eat local and talk to the people cooking, serving, and hosting. The best restaurateurs/chefs embrace the burden of having to nourish the communities they feed. They have to understand the people that make up their community if they want to be successful. The ancillary result is their deep knowledge of the community, its people, its bonds, and its challenges.
Take it one step further and ask the person at the next table what they ordered and why. All these steps can lead to life-changing conversations as you learn what’s important to people and their communities.
When people understand what’s important to each other, they lay the groundwork for problem solving. When you convene people who hold different opinions and ideas about how to move forward, the conversation will go farther when there’s food.
(Pro tip: Finger food, served without plates and utensils, break down differences and build bonds faster because passing chips, cookies, or M&Ms is a close and cooperative social interaction. Who doesn’t pass the tortilla chips and guac with eye contact, a smile, and a “thank you?”)
And that, my friends, is where solutions start.
If you want to know a community, eat with the community.
Here are five things you can do now to start making your own food-and-community connections:
- Explore new communities or unfamiliar places by eating where the locals eat. Don’t just go to Yelp; ask people who are community leaders, trusted sources, etc. Ask a local chef where he or she goes out to eat.
- Try EVERY restaurant. Yes, the food at some will probably fail to impress you, but you’ll gain authentic insights into neighborhoods and their people.
- Back at home, Invite your neighbors over for dinner—or for cookies and coffee in your front yard just to start.
- Learn where your food comes from. Make the effort to get to know the people who prepare and serve your food. Ask to thank the chef. And then ask where they get their ingredients or why they cook these dishes. Everyone loves it when someone takes an interest in their passions, and restaurant folks are no exception. (Note: This works at local eateries, not so much at the chains.)
- Finally, something super-basic: strike up a conversation with the next table. “It’s my first time here; what’s good?”
You have your marching orders. Get out there and make your own food-and-community connections!
I’ll leave you with this, from Chef José Andrés, about why food matters:
Food is fuel, food is health, food is culture, food is our past and future, but most importantly…
Food is love and it brings us together in difficult times.
If that’s the case—and I believe it is—then I’ll go back for seconds every time.
And one more thing: Join a Secret City Tour
Blended together, the tastes–and people—of Los Angeles make it a city unlike any other on the planet. Venture into L.A.’s communities and discover food, people, culture, and community. Hope to see you on the bus very soon!