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The Role of Food in Empowering Communities

by Phil Bartle, PhD

Training Handout

"Who eats with whom" is a factor affecting mobilization


One aspect of community empowerment, often overlooked in community development text books and teachings, is group eating. Like the celebration of a project completion, and many other important activities, something that may be seen as a vacation or "time off" among the people in general, is an essential part of the work (time on) of a mobilizer.

As a social scientist can tell you, there is far more to food than its physical benefits of nutrition and health. With whom we eat, when we eat, where we eat, what we eat and under what conditions we eat ... are all sociologically very significant. (If logic and nutrition were the only concerns, we would all eat worms).

These concerns are very important, therefore, to the mobilizer, first to know about the community and how to behave in it, and second for including this knowledge in strategies for empowering communities through mobilization.


The word "Commensal" is derived from the Latin (and Arabic) , meaning to share a table. In sociology, the concept of "commensality" is most simply defined as "the people that eat together."

Start with yourself: think of those people with whom you eat, and those with whom you do not eat. In general, the people with whom you eat include your family and your friends.

Those with whom you do not eat, for whatever reason, are more socially distant: much higher or much lower class or social status, strangers, enemies and serious rivals, and sometimes persons belonging to segregated language, ethnic, religious, gender, age or occupational categories.

These, of course are highly variable from community to community, time frame to time frame, and from society to society. They also vary according to social context; some persons you would eat with in a workplace cafeteria, but not eat with them in their or your homes.

As a generality (with many exceptions you can be sure), people tend to eat with other people where there is a sense of solidarity or trust. Sometimes that trust is more apparent than real; some people eat with some others to ostentatiously demonstrate trust when they do not trust at all. Eating with others is, like all cultural things, symbolic, and communicates many values and meanings.

Influence is Two-Way:

The association of (a) social status or relationships and (b) who eats with whom, is known and observable. That does not prove that there is necessarily a causal relationship between them, but it does suggest that there is such a relationship.

Which way is that causality? Experienced community mobilizers know the influence is two-way. How people judge each other may be influenced by who consciously chooses to eat with whom. Conversely, choice of who eats with whom may be affected by how people judge each other.

This has two implications for the mobilizer. (1) The job requirement of knowing the social and cultural features of a community, an important task of the mobilizer, is enhanced by knowing who eats with whom. (2) Setting up situations where people eat with others they might not normally do, is a means of introducing new social relationships, and of enhancing community empowerment by improving unity.

Unity is very important to the mobilizer. See Unity Mobilizing. If bringing people together to share a meal will improve that unity, then this is another tool for the mobilizer's tool box.

Three Eating Situations in Community Mobilization:

There may be many opportunities to allow community or committee members to eat together at a public occasion. The greater the knowledge a mobilizer has of the community, the more opportunities will be revealed.

Three general situations are as follows:
  • Feeding communal labourers during construction;
  • Refreshments served at executive meetings; and
  • Refreshments served at celebrations.

Providing food for community members who come out to a communal "bee" to donate their labour to cleaning the community area, or contributing to project construction, is a valuable undertaking for promoting enthusiasm for the work, and for promoting unity and solidarity.

In rural areas, farmers who may lack cash to donate, are likely to be willing to donate some of their crops for that. Meanwhile some community members, perhaps those not able to do heavy work associated with construction, would be willing to donate their time and effort to cooking and presenting the donated food.

It is easy to dismiss the labour of the implementing or executive committee. They contribute their time, their imagination and their knowledge to a community project. They must also be careful to remain transparent when handling community money, so as to maintain trust and enthusiasm of the people. If community members prepare small amounts of food, even as a token gesture, for their committee meetings, they will be less likely to be suspected of having hidden agendas to enhance their income by misdirecting community resources.

During the public celebrations to recognize project completion, the community is advised by the mobilizer to invite important and well known personalities to attend and officiate. This attracts journalists who will publicize the event. If the community can be seen as providing refreshments to important visitors an, better yet, to all who attend, then the confidence and solidarity of the community will be increased.

Choosing What to Eat:

The mobilizer does not choose what should be served. The job of the mobilizer is to stimulate the committee, if not the community, to decide that food should be served, when, what, where, how much and any other details. If a committee is formed to decide upon food to be served, their choices can be a good source of information for the mobilizer.

The choice of tabooed or controversial food, for example, can be an indicator of factional influence among the executive. Pork, for example, should not be served to Moslems, beef to Hindus, meat to vegetarians. If the committee chooses such food, then the mobilizer has a hint that the committee is biased towards other factions.

The mobilizer should try, quietly at first, behind the scenes, to convince the committee that it should be more sensitive to the varieties of food regulations among the community. If this can not be fixed quietly, the mobilizer might find it necessary to raise the issue publicly in a whole community meeting, indicating that the project is for all members of the community, not only specific factions, therefore the food served should be applicable to all, or else special preparations made to satisfy the food rules of some groups.

In many community projects, especially when important visitors are served refreshments, it has become the practice to serve world famous bottled (or tinned) soft drinks. This author does not endorse the growth of "coca cola- nization" or global brand loyalty by endorsing the use of such drinks. Boiled water, local drinks, and tea and/or coffee are preferable.


The culture of food and group eating, "who shares a table," is important to a mobilizer. Knowing eating patterns is an indicator of how well the mobilizer knows the community, and can be used as an indicator of how united or divided is a community.

Suggesting and encouraging the community and its project executive committee to arrange for various occasions where people can eat together will promote greater unity, solidarity and trust, which are important factors in empowering a community.

As with most things done by a good mobilizer, the mobilizer encourages a participatory approach, guiding and stimulating the community and its project executive to make decisions, rather than dictating and making decisions for it.


Food and Culture: http://lilt.ilstu.edu/rtdirks/SOCIAL.html

Margaret Visser: http://www.umanitoba.ca


Community Contribution: Meals for Donated Labour:


© Copyright 1967, 1987, 2007 Phil Bartle
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Last update: 2012.06.25

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