Creating connection on campus with food
By Paige Hewett
Food has many contexts; fostering a sense of belonging and community is one we should not overlook, especially on post-secondary campuses. With the current reality of COVID19, the importance of community is further underlined, particularly in a society grappling with racism and inequality.
In an opportunity to pursue independent research through my graduate program this past Fall, I was led to consider whether in an age where young adults express a lack of belonging in post-secondary education could a more deliberate approach to food-oriented activities and spaces help to foster that missing sense of community? I investigated the potential for food-oriented activities to generate a greater sense of community and belonging for students on post-secondary campuses, particularly as it relates to academic success and student wellbeing.
Students across Canada find it challenging to foster community and achieve a sense of belonging while at university or college. Campus-life strongly correlates with a loss of community and deteriorating indicators of wellbeing. Yet, it is just that which is critical to students’ success, satisfaction and retention, (1) and further, their overall wellbeing beyond school.(2)
The prevalence of students reporting mental health issues including anxiety and depression is rising,(3) and while there are many factors affecting this, a lack of community is a common theme. For racialized students in particular, finding community can be even more difficult than for their White counterparts.
Building and fostering community on campus has been a higher education institutional goal for decades,(4) however, challenges include the evolution of the typical student, students’ dependence on technology (expected to be greater post COVID19), and the increasing size of institutions.(5) While most universities and colleges have been offering no shortage of intramurals, student clubs and campus events for students to choose from, evidence suggest something is still missing; rarely are these activities leveraging the universal power of food to create the conditions for community building.
Food and food-oriented activities provide an interesting lens through which to consider community. Food is a shared experience;(6) it serves as a tool to understand human aspects such as identity, social class, gender roles, ethnicity and culture.(7) Food has the potential to unify people and bridge diversity,(8) as well as provide a sense of meaning and a catalyst for learning.(9) Known within academia by the term commensality, eating with others generates considerable positive effects on a person’s overall wellbeing.(10) Eating socially creates a sense of belonging through shared conversation.
In the Western world (outside of the context of COVID19), the frequency of shared family meals has been declining while the amount of time spent eating out or eating alone has been rising.(11) Eating has become increasingly privatized and individualized
as people enjoy fewer meals eaten with others and shorter meals altogether.(12) Technology can become a distraction from face-to-face connection and people are being distanced from the food that they eat and who and where it comes from by global food systems.(13)
However, research supports that people prefer to eat in a group rather than alone, young adults in particular.(14) Indeed, we all share a basic human need to belong,(15) and belonging is a determinant of community. By achieving a sense of community, people have a greater likelihood of positive mental and physical health, feelings of happiness and overall life satisfaction.(16)
While there is no single solution to counter the complex issue of social isolation amongst the student body in the face of massive societal shifts, there is an opportunity to draw on the universality of food to better nourish the minds, bodies, and spirits of the diversity of students. Integrating food-oriented spaces and programming onto post-secondary campuses is an interesting approach. Improving the environments in which students eat could encourage students to spend higher quality time eating, socializing and connecting. Additionally, designating communal kitchen spaces on campuses would allow students to pursue food-oriented programming that offers more inclusive food experiences outside of the typical dining halls and cafeterias. This could include diverse cooking workshops and family style social dinners in small groups. These initiatives could extend beyond the campus to the local food community by hosting experiential trips, offering volunteer opportunities or facilitating connections with farmers, artisanal food makers and other food industry professionals. Institutions should be challenged to critically assess their own foodways on campus and take action to improve them.
While this research was done prior to the current reality of physical distancing and temporary gathering restrictions as a result of COVID19, the essence remains true. Our human need for connection and belonging was never more evident than under the government-imposed lock down. Social media and food purchasing trends point towards a rediscovery of food and cooking. As we continue to adjust to our new normal, let’s embrace these learnings.
The power of food extends beyond the context of postsecondary campuses and students to society at large. We all stand to benefit from sharing a meal and engaging in food-oriented activities in search of connection, belonging and community. Moving forward, look to leverage the power of food to unify those around you.
1. Strayhorn, 2012; Davis et al., 2019; Davis, Hanzsek-Brill, Petzold, & Robinson, 2019
2. Harris, Minniss & Somerset, 2014
3. Levine, 2019
4. Taub, 1998
5. Taub, 1998
6. Chavez & Poirier, 2007
7. Boutaud et al., 2016; Pollan, 2008; Rosales, 2015
8. Chavez & Poirier, 2007; Parasecoli, 2014
9. Sumner, 2013; Gross, 2014
10. Fischler, 2011
11. Warde, Cheng, Olsen & Southerton, 2007; Fischler, 2011; Plessz & Étilé, 2019
12. Fischler, 2011; Plessz & Étilé, 2019
13. Sumner, 2013; Sumner, 2008
14. Fischler, 2011; Spence et al., 2019
15. Strayhorn, 2012; Lambert, Stillman, Hicks, Kamble, Baumeister & Fincham, 2013
16. Coulombe & Krzesni, 2019; Strayhorn, 2012
Recommended citation format: Hewett, Paige. "Creating connection on campus with food". Food Focus Guelph (92), Department of Food, Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of Guelph, July 13, 2020