Last night I went to Canadian Mennonite University. There was an event called Germinating Conversations: Eating together at the Table. The conversation was done in connection with celebrating World Food Day, (and no I didn’t get any cards either). The blurb at the top of the event page states the following:
Eating is one thing that all people have in common, but what do we eat when we are together? Who grows it? How did it get to our table? What was the impact on the land? Does it nourish? Is there enough? Does it taste good? Does any of this matter? How might these questions be informed by our faith?
Join us for “Germinating Conversations: Eating Together at the Table,” a three-course roundtable conversation with growers and eaters who think hard about these questions.
The evening was lead by a table of seven individuals representing both growers and eaters. They also represented a fairly wide spectrum of views. There was a rather overlong introduction, (some of the information could have been in written form). Then the panel spent the next 55 minutes carrying on a discussion around two topics.
The first was on the question of whether or not it was important to think of food as a gift. There was a variety of opinions expressed around this. As the facilitator had said, we weren’t solving problems. We were starting conversations. In this section they did a good job of this. One of the good questions raised was whether or not seeing food as a gift, diminished the value of the work put into it?
The second section revolved around the question: What issues need to be taken into account for a healthy food system. Individual answers started with such things as soil management and then onto to the availability of enough to feed the world’s population. The discussion then shifted towards the questions of relationships particularly between grower and eater, or more properly between producer and consumer. With one panelist in particular focused on eaters coming out to see farmers in action.
After this discussion, we were encouraged in our tables to talk things over together and submit a question to the panelists. We were one of several tables to submit questions. Ours was not used. Not surprisingly, because our question didn’t fit into the pre-formatted producer-consumer dichotomy that the organizers had created. It certainly seems that some conversations aren’t worth germinating.
Our question was: If we can’t form relationships around the table, how can we form relationships with the people who produce our food? (This may not be exact as we handed it in and I’m working from memory).
Eating Together as the Heart of any Food System:
The fact this question wasn’t asked wasn’t my only reason to believe that the organizers don’t believe eating together is important. There was also a nice little poster showing ten things you can do to get involved in building better food communities. Only two involved eating or cooking together. In both case it was as a means to and end. Pass on traditional food preparation. Hold a 100 mile potluck. There was nothing all evening about the simple value of eating together.
Let me state before I continue. This problem is not limited to those who advocate for sustainable agriculture or food security. The same holds true for those who seek ever new gustatory experiences. The gourmands are equally guilty of focusing on the food and not the eaters.
Eating together is an end in itself. Our first experience of food does not come from visiting a farm. We learn about food at our mother’s breast (or from a bottle). Then we learn about it by squishing it in our hands, and rubbing it on our faces as we try and maneuver it into our mouths. Hopefully we learn this from caring parents, grandparents, or other relatives.
As a species our first experiences of food were not around the produce of the tilled soil, but rather that which lay to hand. We formed society around protecting each other, our food, and eating together.
Yet we live in a world that is increasingly fragmented. We have more single people in our society than ever. Isolation and loneliness are increasingly high. One of the results of this is that more people than ever are eating alone. Some people do indeed enjoy this, but it’s not so for everyone.
Not only that, but eating alone is often a by-product of our “let’s see how much activity we can squeeze into a day” mentality. Our world moves at a breakneck pace. Eating together can slow that down.
Eating together is not the answer. It is part of the answer and, I would argue, a foundational part of the answer. Knowing and respecting where our food comes from is important. Eating healthy food is important. Having enough food for all is important. However, I believe, unless we put more focus on eating together we will never achieve these goals.
Please feel free to offer your opinions on what I’ve just said. If you would like me to clarify anything, I’ll try and do that.