Let’s face it. We’re a generally isolated and lonely bunch of social animals. If you’ve ever walked down the street or taken a trip on a bus or train, you can probably relate to my tendency to avoid making eye-contact, looking down at that all-important text message or Insta story instead of engaging with the living, breathing human located within arms reach.
It’s okay, because they’re most likely doing the same.
Social Media and/or Social Isolation
The average US adult is spending an increasingly significant portion of their day (three hours and 43 minutes, to be exact) engrossed with the illuminated rectangle in their hand. Our mobile phones have indeed become our best friends—normally the first thing we interact with in the morning and the last thing we see before drifting off to a meme-filled slumber.
You may be shocked to learn that a 2017 study found that Americans spend only 4 minutes a day ‘hosting and attending social events,’ which covers all types of parties and organized social gatherings. This means that all of the weddings, Christmas celebrations, girls nights, and family barbecues equate to just 24 hours over a period of a year.
Who sat down at the table for breakfast with you this morning? When was the last time you just showed up at a friends house to simply ‘hang out?’ Have you recently enjoyed a meal out with your partner without having your phone as that constantly-interrupting third wheel?
Most of us know the true value of social connection; yet, in a world of deadlines and Netflix, stressful days and the overwhelming urge to cancel plans, it seems as if all of the benefits of social connectedness (increased longevity, enhanced immune system, reduced rates of anxiety and depression, boosted self esteem) don’t matter when Ariana Grande posts a picture of her breakfast or there’s a pending victory in Fortnite.
The Power of Food
The way in which we eat and buy our food has also become devoid of social interaction. We choose UberEats over busy restaurants and buy our morning coffee with just a few words to the person manning the Starbucks drive-thru. I know I’m not the only one guilty of waiting in line to use the self check-out instead of allowing an fully-capable supermarket employee to scan my items.
But it doesn’t have to be this way.
We have a shared humanity around the simple fact that we all eat. Unless you’re a Solyent enthusiast (gross), you have the opportunity to buy and eat your food in a way that connects you with other people—and most likely makes both you and the planet a little bit healthier.
All in a Day’s Work
I feel so inclined to write this because I am fortunate enough to experience the ‘power of food’ on a regular basis. And while this isn’t intended to be a shameless promotion of the organization I work for, The Community Grocer deserves it. As the name suggests, it does some pretty rad things when it comes to community and groceries.
My typical not-for-profit workday begins early. I’m up at 4:45 am and out of the house well before most people hear their first alarm go off. Equally driven by choice and necessity, I arrive early at the public housing estate in which our pop-up affordable fruit and veg market is held. It’s a process of catharsis, moving tables and boxes alone, with the only noises coming from awakening birds. It’s beautiful to witness the transition of night to day, and the shift from an empty space to an activated hub that embraces the spirit of the local community.
It’s as if time stands still as I watch the sun approach the horizon and stand in a space that one would never guess could become a vibrant and busy marketplace. But all of that changes rapidly when volunteers and the first customers of the morning trickle in. Boxes get emptied and produce gets displayed. The color palette is vast as leafy greens get placed next to freshly cut pumpkin and dark red beets complement all of winter’s favorite citrus fruits.
I understand that the unpacking and displaying of produce is aesthetically pleasing elsewhere (i.e. the apple pyramids at Whole Foods), but the environment created through this example of the alternative food system is one of the things that sets it apart from traditional grocery stores. The space beckons engagement, it facilitates looking at and talking to other shoppers. There are no self-checkouts and no sterile bright lights, and the smell of luubaan (Somali incense) distinguishes this market from almost all others in Australia and implies that there is a communal ownership of the space—it is our market.
The Community Grocer prides itself on selling fresh fruit and vegetables at prices significantly cheaper than other stores but what I think makes it really special is its ability to foster healthy, connected communities. The Australian-grown produce market has evolved to now include spices, fabrics, and baked goods for sale. No less than four or five languages are heard simultaneously. It boasts occasional classes, a free BBQ lunch, and most importantly, a space where people from all over the world, from all different backgrounds, and from all different age groups can truly connect.
It’s a space where names are known, recipes are shared, and small gestures of kindness take place. Australians are able to try and enjoy Eritrean coffee (formerly, I wouldn’t have known what Eritrea was, let alone where it is on a map). Uni students are able to chat with people born several decades before them. People share recipes for mushrooms, bitter melon, and okra with those whose cultural preferences have never included them. The market becomes a place where barriers of age, gender, income, culture, and race are broken down as people come together to gawk over beautifully-colored eggplant or smell freshly picked basil.
I arrive at the market already desperate for a third cup of coffee, but always leave feeling energized, inspired, and invigorated. I learn something new everyday and establish connections with people that I never would have otherwise.
Damn, that’s some nutritionally and socially healthy fruit and veg.
Find Yourself a Food Community
Not only are alternative food systems correcting some of the environmental issues brought about by their conventional counterparts, but they’re also providing the means for some much-needed social cohesion. Farmers’ markets, co-ops, community gardens, CSAs and box schemes, and food-related social enterprises are popping up as some of the best ways for disadvantaged populations, asylum seekers, and the general public to come together over a common need for sustenance.
So, put that iPhone in your hand to good use; find your nearest farmers’ market, look for a local food-related social enterprise, join a co-op, or invite some friends over for dinner. Harness the power of food by making it social.