Food, Belonging, and Community

What does food have to do with belonging, especially in the age of COVID-19?

I did not realize, before coming to the United States, how belonging to a community was an essential part of my life. I discovered it the hard way, as many expat, by how much I missed it. I felt like a plant with no soil to put its roots, exposed and fragile.

And then, I started to build a new one here, and food has been an amazing accelerator. With the French community first, through events organized by amazing associations such as SFBA, and online communities, such as “le groupe des mamans“, which has supported me in so many ways, and still does, from how to find good flour for baguette to cooking classes, to friendly messages when I was victim of a phone scam. Food was, and still is, a huge part of the conversation we have in these groups.

Having a job is surely an accelerator of community building: working with people passionate about hospitality, sustainability, delicious and nutritious food is a dream come true for me. Here in California, and in so many states, I now feel like I am part of a vibrant, supportive, action driven community. Most of my work is dedicated to study human behaviors, influence people and organizations to eat healthier and more sustainably. As the pandemic is hitting hard everywhere, I can see how this notion of community is central in this mission, and I came to wonder what makes a community, and how we can use communities to drive people’s eating behaviors.

The COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on community building and functioning is enormous. Its impact on the food system is devastating. This crisis allows us to see how dependent we are and how little we valued both.

The need of belonging is just above the need for safety in the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Right now, both these needs are severely challenged, to the point where I try to limit my exposition to media and have found myself craving for hour-long meeting with dozen of people. Who would have thought that these meetings are fulfilling the need for belonging? Whether it’s a work meeting, a nice barbecue with friends, a concert, or a visit to the library, the occasions to gather are a way to reinforce our sense of belonging.

A community might be a group of people who share common background: being French, being a woman, having kids… But it is not enough. A community need to have a common destination, something to share and receive from others that makes us feel esteemed, and allow us to grow and express our creativity. A place where we feel protected, welcomed, and accepted as we are. There is a word that describes this just for sharing food: commensality.

Commensality is a powerful tool to building communities, and its impact on our health, well-being, sense of belonging, and therefore on our society is huge. Why then is health almost the only thing we are interested in?

The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has published in July a report to stress the need for better coordination and greater investment in nutrition research. I couldn’t agree more, however, I was surprised to see that nowhere in this paper they talk about the impact of food on social cohesion, mental health, and how these subject are interrelated with overall health. We’ve been studying the impact of nutrients on health for decades, and still can’t find ways to make people eat healthy. Maybe we don’t address the issue the right way? The impact of our communities, cultures, beliefs, and tastes, on our food choices, is much more important than our nutrition literacy and scientific background.

As I read this article on how love neutralizes fear, and how fear has grown tremendously in the US for the last decade, I realize how important it is for us to keep on sharing what is important to us, to strengthen our communities by focusing on what we want to accomplish and why.

Food is the gateway to belonging. And during COVID-19, it’s more important than ever to recognize its role and understand how it impact the various dimensions of our society. This understanding is key to make a better food system and build a stronger, more resilient, and more inclusive society.

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