THE BLOG
12/11/2016 07:44 pm ET

Breaking Bread and Building Connection

The final weeks of the year are a sacred time for many religious communities and cultures. Though the observers--and observances--differ, there is one thing you can almost certainly count on: a celebratory meal. Like shorter days and cooler nights, the smell of something cooking is a hallmark of the holiday season. And while much of our attention--and in some cases, anxiety--will be devoted to the conversations we'll have around the dinner table, it's worth pausing to consider the meaning of the act itself. When we gather together to enjoy a meal, we are engaging in a tradition as old as humanity--one that transcends national borders and cultural divides.

What is it about food that brings us together?

Yes, it is a basic necessity. We all need a minimum of calories to make it through the day. But food provides more than sustenance. It promotes community. Our society segments and separates us in every way possible--by race, by class, by ability and education. Those at the bottom of the social ladder--the poor, the elderly, the differently abled--are often the first to be excluded from social customs, and their isolation has real health consequences.

But something amazing happens when we sit down together to share a meal. Gathered around a table, we are all equals. Through the ingredients on our plates, we share a common connection to the Earth and to each other. Breaking bread together breaks down barriers and builds connection.

A number of organizations around the world have recognized the enormous social value that comes from community meals. In Toronto, The Stop Community Food Centre has transformed the old concept of a food bank into a vibrant community centre that revolves around communal dining. Through the Stop's Drop-in program, community members of all backgrounds come together to enjoy nutritious, locally sourced cuisine. In addition to meals, The Stop offers community cooking and gardening classes, housing and legal support, and cultural programs, from arts and crafts to film screenings.

The Stop's programming doesn't just serve the hungry--it uses the power of community meals to fight isolation more broadly. In addition to families fighting hunger, The Stop's clientele includes the elderly, immigrants, and other marginalized populations. The approach is working. Nearly all of The Stop's beneficiaries report that they feel like they are part of a larger community.

Rock icon Jon Bon Jovi has embarked on a likeminded project in the U.S.--the JBJ Soul Kitchen. Like The Stop, Soul Kitchens invite community members of all backgrounds to share meals together, regardless of their ability to pay. Based in Bon Jovi's home state of New Jersey, the collaborative project allows diners who are unable to pay for meals to earn them instead through volunteer hours in the kitchen. Paying customers, meanwhile, help defray the cost of meals for their neighbors and keep the kitchen going. The result is a true community table, where neighbors can meet, eat, and socialize with equal dignity. The project reflects a theme that's recurrent in Bon Jovi's activism and music: the importance of home in all its forms, and the human need to feel seen and accepted for who we are.

Similar examples abound--and not just in North America. There's the restaurant in Rio de Janeiro where master chefs use leftovers to create free, gourmet meals for families in need. There's FoodCycle in the UK, which partners with supermarkets and an army of volunteers to reduce food waste and fight hunger. To date, FoodCycle has served more than 150,000 community meals. More than 40 percent of the organization's guests cite the chance to socialize as their primary incentive for participating.

I, too, have experienced the beauty of connection, great conversation and spontaneous laughter flowing naturally from a meal infused with the spirit of welcome. Every week, as part of my fall speaker series at McGill University on the subject of building social connectedness, I have hosted a Community Dinner. This gives me great joy because of its simplicity--all are welcome, and we sit together at one long table and build belonging. Call it a new twist on the meaning of food security: sharing a regular meal has been shown to reduce the risk of social isolation, leading to better health outcomes for all.

Of course, while we savor the company, we can forge an even deeper sense of community by collectively savoring the food we share. Few activities connect us more directly to the Earth than the act of eating. When we consume fresh ingredients, harvested from the soil, we anchor ourselves in the broader system of regenerative life to which we all belong.

In his beautiful essay The Pleasures of Eating, farmer, activist, and author Wendell Berry encourages consumers to learn more about the origins of their food, writing: "Eating with the fullest pleasure--pleasure, that is, that does not depend on ignorance--is perhaps the profoundest enactment of our connection with the world. In this pleasure we experience and celebrate our dependence and our gratitude, for we are living from mystery, from creatures we did not make and powers we cannot comprehend."

This year, as you sit down to enjoy your holiday meal, I hope you will take a moment to marvel at the vast web of life that connects your plate to your neighbors', and each of us to our bountiful and beautiful world. I hope that, despite the stresses of the season, you will approach this occasion with gratitude--for the company you keep, for the food you consume, and for the vital and vibrant Earth that produced it. And if you find yourself with an extra place at the table, I hope you will extend an invitation to a neighbor. Food may nourish your body, but community will nourish your soul.

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