By Eva Neely
Food is a central focus to our lives, and also a focus in many Neighbours Day activities. Eva Neely has been researching how food practices can be used to promote health holistically, with a specific focus on health promotion in schools.
Food is central to our lives, and also a focus in many Neighbours Day activities. We have all experienced it in some way, the social value of eating together, whether it was the fun moments of sharing a meal with family and friends, feeling special because someone had taken time to bake for us, or making a meal for a new mum needing support. But less often do we think, and write, about the benefits of food for our social wellbeing. We are more inclined to think about the nutritional value food offers us.
However, there is real value in the social aspects of food, and how eating together makes for healthier relationships and communities. After intensive reviews on international examples and studying the impacts of people eating together, I found that food practices are rich resources for fostering social relationships. The results in my research have shown that food practices operate through certain mechanisms to encourage social interactions and relationships, leading to increased levels of connectedness.
Sharing food encourages relationships and connections by:
- allowing people to see human sides of each other,
- acting as a common denominator,
- creating a relaxed environment,
- encouraging the sharing of resources,
- inviting people to learn about each other’s diversity,
- mediating care and commitment, and
- providing an inclusive environment.
The two-fold positive role of food in our lives
The particular value of food practices, as relevant to Neighbours Day Aotearoa, lies in the two-fold role food takes on. On the one hand food is something that connects us all, we all need to eat, and for the most part, we all enjoy doing this in company. You will seldom experience someone responding to a dinner invitation with “Sorry, I don’t eat!” On the other hand, food practices are culturally diverse, and this doesn’t just differ between cultures, but the way I celebrate Christmas or have my dinner is likely to differ from the ways you do this. In short, we all eat, but we all eat different foods at different times, in different environments. Food offers a practice that can bring diverse individuals together for a shared valued activity, but equally allows us to learn through multiple senses about other people’s ways of doing things. Coming back to the original idea, we are connected to our neighbours because they live close to us. This can pose challenges compared to other communities in which a shared interest connects people.
Food can help bridge this lack of commonality and allow entry points for relationships to develop. It enables us to connect with people with whom we may not have anything in common, and gives us reason to converse, share, and praise.
Conversing, sharing, and praising are valuable forms of interaction needed to develop relationships. Food practices, such as a BBQ, offer a context for this interaction to occur through a relaxed environment. My results have shown that people are likely to feel more comfortable with people they do not know very well when food is present. It can give people something to hold on to, something to talk about, and as mentioned, can reveal human qualities putting everyone on an equal footing.
Neighbours Day Aotearoa is precisely about connecting diverse individuals, it is about knowing your neighbours, and being there for one another in times of need. Food practices provide a valuable resource for the establishment of neighbourly relationships, as well as for ongoing relationship maintenance (for instance bringing a cake around to neighbours as a gesture of care).
Developing ideas around food as a connector may enable better engagement of populations that have been less engaged in neighbourly activities so far. For instance, young people, as shown in my research, value the sharing of food. Food may be a valuable asset for attracting young people to participate in neighbourly activities, at which they can show their skills and connect with diverse people. Linking with people from different backgrounds, with a wide variety of skills, is crucial for a well-connected community and can lead to strong, resilient communities with high levels of trust, mutual reciprocity, and a sense of community.
Eva Neely is completing her PhD at Massey University. Her research focuses on how food practices can be used to promote health holistically, with a specific focus on health promotion in schools. She has been working in many fields related to health and wellbeing over the years and would love to hear from you! She can be contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org