This blog looks at the way social eating is promoted as a response to food waste, and how food waste helps people connect. This ‘killing two birds with one stone’ strategy takes surplus produce from outlets and supermarkets and turns it into a social activity, where people can come and enjoy a warm meal and some company. When people think about food waste, they often imagine things rotting in their bins. But is does not always have to be like this. There are numerous projects and charities around the UK that use good, healthy surplus food to promote social eating and helping people connect while simultaneously cutting food waste. Places such as Super Kitchen and the Sheffield University Wellbeing Café uses food waste to help people connect and maintain social interaction.
What is Social Eating?
Before your mind wanders, let me just clarify that in this context I am not referring to ‘Mukbang’, the South Korean online trend of people eating large meals in front of a webcam for a live-streaming broadcast. Although related, that would be a completely different topic.
Social eating can be described as the consumption of calories in a social setting whether or not a person planned to eat, but it can also make someone feel better. This type of social eating is based on the idea that people just want to sit down for a hot meal, chat and have a social interaction while eating some nice food. Record numbers of people in the UK feel lonely and isolated and social eating environments such as the Super Kitchen and the Wellbeing Café provide them with both company and food. Some people just want a night off or don’t feel like cooking but still want someone to talk to. These people can be single parents who want to escape from their daily routines, the elderly whose partners have passed away, or students who can’t afford their own hot meals.
Many social eating programmes focus primarily on the elderly, over-50s are more likely than any other group in the population to experience changes in their social relationships. A study of loneliness and isolation amongst Meals on Wheels clients on Sydney’s Northern Beaches found that the majority (65.9%) of their clients valued personal contact with MOW volunteers as highly as the meal. As well as food, MOW services provide clients with the opportunity to socialise with others while sharing a meal.
Social Eating vs Social Isolation. Graham speaks about his battle with social isolation. The film is part of an upcoming documentary about surplus food and the social eating movement (source)
University of Sheffield Wellbeing Café
The Wellbeing Café is Sheffield Uni’s own approach to social eating and cutting food waste. It was set up by two of my friends Michael Kind and Anna Mullaney and has just celebrated its one-year anniversary. The Wellbeing Café brings the two social issues of wellbeing and sustainability together to provide a communal space with a pay as you feel meals made from food that would have been otherwise wasted. It attempts to tackle a number of problems: food waste and the social isolation that is an ever-present feature of student life.
Having a meal in a communal fashion is just one of the ways of proactively aiming to foster a sense of belonging among students and non-students alike. For some students like Gracie Marlow it is a place where “you’re surrounded by people that understand, and sometimes that is just a nice place to start”, while for others like Hugh Francis “it’s somewhere when you can just chill and relax and forget about the day or the week, however bad it’s been, and just colour in!” (Quotations taken from Forge Press article).
The food served is collected and cooked by students in collaboration with Foodhall, the local food waste project. The Wellbeing Café is not just a café, it is also an environmental protest at a food system where we throw away 7 million tonnes of food and drink per year. Not only does the Café save food waste, it also inspires its visitors to become less wasteful themselves, meal by meal. After helping to organise the first few Wellbeing Cafés and seeing its successes now, I became more mindful of the food I bought and the food I saw people throw away. This method of education genuinely inspires people to make a difference. People no longer picture the mould in their bins when they hear ‘food waste’, but they are reminded of the comforting, delicious meal they had last week and the nice conversations with the people on their table.
Community food kitchens and cafes are a fantastic way to save food waste. In 2015-16, Super Kitchens in Nottinghamshire alone have dished out 18,500 meals and have saved over six tonnes of perfectly edible food from landfill. They also provide a platform upon which supermarkets can showcase their surplus produce, rather than trading it off in secret, without the fear of being exposed for rejecting perfectly edible produce and inefficiency.
Social eating is promoted as a positive response to food waste, food poverty and social isolation. Food waste projects help people connect because they are communal, cheap and accessible. They are great because they strive to be sustainable and generate as much of their own income as they can. These projects not only help decrease our food surplus but they also act as a network of members that support each other and promote social eating. The reason the Wellbeing Café idea took off so quickly was not just because there was free food (even though students love free food), but because it had a welcoming atmosphere where people could take a break and feel at ease. The solution to food waste and social isolation by no means lies solely in the concept of food cafes, but it sure is a good place to start.