During the early stages of lockdown, the Nottingham Social Eating Network and its community food partners in the City mobilised to meet the rising demand for food aid support. In this blog I reflect on how the values integral to ‘social eating’ initiatives have enabled them to respond to the challenges of the pandemic.
What is Social Eating?
In Nottingham there are around 15 identified social eating initiatives that are operating across most of the wards of the city. These are public meal services, which in pre-Covid-19 times provided affordable, home cooked, nutritious meals for the public using foodstuffs from the surplus redistribution charity, FareShare Midlands. These public meal services address food insecurity, support health and well-being, and enable participants to develop what may be termed food cultural capital by increasing access to, and engagement with, a broader range of ingredients, cooking techniques and meal types. Luca et al. (2019) define social eating initiatives as ‘community-based initiatives that provide an integrated model for recovering and using surplus food, localizing food and providing spaces of interaction’. These spaces are part of a ‘more than food’ movement that recognises that eating together is hugely beneficial, both nutritionally and socially, and which seeks to normalise ‘social eating’ along with other networks across the region.
Whether through the collection, sorting and storing of foodstuffs, or setting up the dining room so people can sit together in groups, or through the convivial conversations that transpire in the dinner-queue, social eating initiatives are suffused with opportunities to participate and get involved. Not only at the mealtime itself but before, during and after the eating event, people are able to derive value from the various participatory practices that make up a social eating initiative (see also Chou et al. 2015, Pfeiffer et al. 2015, Van Esterik 1995). This ‘more than food’ (Baron et al. 2018; Blake 2019) approach makes these initiatives particularly vital in the UK, where food insecurity coexists with food wastage and social isolation.
Eating Together, Apart
The lockdown could have been disastrous for the Nottingham Social Eating Network. With paying customers now quarantined at home, and with the capacity to engage in public eating now curtailed, how did these initiatives respond? In this article I explore eating together, apart during the pandemic based on fieldwork participating in the network, where I observed how members began coordinating two WhatsApp groups and reorganised social eating services. These threads became sites of dynamic communication where the broader challenges of feeding citizens during CV19 were translated at a localised level, and as spaces where community initiatives shaped and constructed dialogues around food security. Using these platforms, the network redesigned their services and mobilised rapidly and effectively to produce and distribute thousands of meals across Nottingham. The values that participants identify as valuable in social eating could still be detected as groups sustained their meal services despite the operational challenges. In fact, instead of becoming obsolete, the network transformed into a crucial feature of Nottingham’s CV19 foodscape.
Eating together took a new form; meals were boxed and bagged up for collection and delivery by low-risk volunteers in kitchens where the usual food hygiene rules were intensified to encompass new CV19 risks. Meals may not be eaten at the same table, but food resources are being shared to both existing and new customers. Although not physically in the same place, the eating together ethos of the Nottingham network was sustained.
Helping out in new ways
As the government left the market to address demand (The BBC 2020), many people experienced food insecurity for the first time in the city. Self-isolating and unable to shop, with home delivery slots limited and oversubscribed, plus new redundancies and benefit-application backlogs, a telephone referral line manned by Nottingham City Council saw numbers of requests for food aid rising. In response, surplus food resources were redirected and shared across the city.
Practices of helping out or alimentary contribution were therefore also enfolded into new activities around food collection, production and distribution. The expansion of food aid requests and referrals joined up existing social networks of volunteers and customers with new partners to procure, process and provide meals. Diverse actors across the city converged to both receive and to contribute help. 800 boxes of fruit dumplings, 15,000 short-dated sandwiches, pallets of yoghurt, catering packs of grated cheese and van loads of bacon were distributed across the city. Taxi drivers became meal delivery services and carparks became socially-distanced food drop off spots as the network and its partners joined forces to create novel forms of localised helping out practices.
Socialising during lockdown?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the Nottingham Social Eating Network concerns socialising. If we see socialising not just as a form of friendly relating but as a way of showing care and nurturance, we can understand how the network forms part of a ‘more than food’ movement. Social relationships, despite social distancing are vital. Not only are the groups producing and distributing thousands of meals being social together, but members became the human interface between vulnerable people and the food services that are sustaining them. Door-knocking and waiting for a brief catch up chat, checking up on customers with phone calls, thanking and being thanked, putting extra food items in customers bags, paying meals forward and sharing spare food containers are myriad examples of the caring competencies that the network and its partners have enacted across the city.
Interruptions in the ‘just-in-time’ and internationally distributed supply chains created temporary, localised food scarcity in Nottingham. Yet social eating initiatives embraced social disruptions, invoked new partnerships and provisioning practices. Nottingham citizens are being fed and cared for not by globalised food chains but through practices underpinned by social values that cannot be commodified. Insights into the adaptability and relevance of local community food services are crucial. In the coming months and years, with the possibility of recession and climate change beyond Covid-19, social eating initiatives show us how to eat sustainably, how national crises may be responded to, and how local solutions are enacted.
An earlier version of this piece appeared in the CURB Blog, Coventry University.
Baron, S., Patterson, A., Maull, R. and Warnaby, G., (2018). Feed people first: A service ecosystem perspective on innovative food waste reduction. Journal of Service Research, 21(1), pp.135-150.
Blake, M., (2019a). More than just Food: Everyday food insecurity and resilient place making through community self- organising. Sustainability. 11(10), pp.2942.
Luca, N., Smith, M., Hibbert, S., Doherty, B. (2019) House of Lords Select Committee Submission for ‘Food, Poverty and the Environment- ‘How to make a healthy, sustainable diet accessible and affordable for everyone?’, Written evidence (FPO0032). Available at: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/food-poverty-health-and-environment-committee/food-poverty-health-and-the-environment/written/105296.html on 24.4.20. [Accessed on 24.4.20]
Nottingham City Council website. Request a food parcel (2020). Available at: https://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/coronavirus-covid-19/request-a-food-parcel [Accessed 21.5.20).
Pfeiffer, S., Ritter, T., Oestreicher, E. (2015) ‘Food Insecurity in German households: Qualitative and Quantitative Data on Coping, Poverty Consumerism and Alimentary Participation’. Social Policy and Society, 14(3), pp.483-495.
The BBC online (2020). Coronavirus leads to food industry crisis in Europe. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-europe-52715288/coronavirus-leads-to-food-industry-crisis-in-europe [Accessed on 18.5.20].
Marsha Smith is a PhD student at The Centre for Business and Society at Coventry University, she may be found at @eatingonpurpose. Marsha has worked with public health, local authorities, and numerous charitable food enterprises for almost a decade before undertaking a postgraduate research path. She is a Visiting RSA Fellow at Nottingham Trent University and an academic advisor to the FoodHall Project in Sheffield and the National Food Service. She will complete her PhD, entitled ‘Eating On Purpose? Using the Lens of Commensality to Understand the Value of Social Eating Practices to Participants of the Nottingham Social Eating Network’, in 2021.