If you’re looking for a way to foster community among your neighbours, a communal meal—done well—is ideal.
That’s because food is a universal language that breaks down barriers and unites people of different backgrounds, says food and social justice activist Nick Saul. “There is something about food that has been bringing people together since we started to walk, forage and communicate with one another,” he says. “We could light a fire, and people would eat and tell stories and share—I think it’s something in our DNA.”
Saul has seen the value of a community supper countless times as co-founder, president and CEO of Community Food Centres Canada, a national organization that builds and supports food-focused community centres in low-income neighbourhoods. At these centres, community members can get involved in the production and preparation of healthy food that is served respectfully.
According to Saul, food can either stigmatize and embarrass people, or empower and connect them. But any community can benefit from having people come together over a meal, he says. Here are his best tips for hosting your own community supper.
1. Get the word out well in advance
Have a small organizing team that is as diverse as possible and reflective of the community. This ensures that people of all backgrounds will hear about your event and feel included in the planning.
2. Take inspiration from the community
Your plans, from the food to the decorations, should reflect the many different people in the neighbourhood. Saul suggests having different cultural food options, plus vegetarian dishes and those without diary or gluten to ensure everyone can enjoy the meal.
3. Make sure everyone feels welcome
If you are planning on discussing community issues, making the event adults-only makes sense. But there is no need to be hasty when making that decision. There are several options, says Saul, such as organizing childcare or providing children’s activities at the same location as the meal.
4. Decide what your goals are
Saul says the event could be planned around a theme or a type of food. People could discuss a certain issue, such as gentrification, affordable housing or community gardens. Or it could just be about bringing people together.
5. Splurge on real dishes
Through his work with food centres, Saul has seen the difference small things like cutlery, plates and glasses can make for many people. “They should not be plastic and disposable. I think that sends a message to people that they are disposable,” he says. “In our context of working with a lot of low-income people, we have learned that they often feel isolated, alone and not cared about. So I am really convinced that if you make that meal with love, people feel that—and, as a result, they feel that they matter, too, because someone took a lot of care.”
Another great way to be involved in your community is to volunteer with a food centre. Community Food Centres Canada has eight centres that offer volunteer opportunities in many areas, including fundraising, helping prep communal meals, community garden support or kitchen help.