When I first started this group, I simply sought to bring people together to support restaurants and other venues that focus on sourcing from local and sustainable organic farms and provide a forum to share ideas about health, wellness, and nutrition. However, as the group has evolved, I have come to intuitively understand that spontaneous conversations taking place among a group of strangers united for a common purpose over a shared, consciously sourced meal create an experience and mechanism for community engagement that transcend beyond the mere act of eating.
The feeling these dinners have evoked serves as a stark contrast to other occasions such as attending a networking event or even having dinner with friends. This feeling has been difficult to articulate why until I came across this NY Times article thanks to Kelly Mahoney (Kelly the Culinarian) which provides insight into the decline of informal social gatherings:
“In his controversial 2000 book “Bowling Alone,” Robert Putnam argued that community participation has been disintegrating for decades. Mr. Richman’s lyrics pin part of the blame on television: “People are moving to California who hate the beach and things / I think they’d rather watch TV than hear a real person sing.”
“It’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen,” David Foster Wallace predicted in his 1996 interview in the book “Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself” (a line that is also quoted in the new literary biopic “The End of the Tour”).
There are a number of obvious reasons the modern Internet may make parties an unpalatable option on a Saturday night compared to the pleasures of a screen. First, there’s the communal connection one may get without much emotional strain from social media, texting or instant messaging. The panoply of at-home entertainment options now immediately available renders quaint the impoverished selection at a 1990s Blockbuster. And if you’re looking for a new romantic partner, swiping for 10 minutes on Tinder may be more efficient than trekking an hour each way only to encounter the same people you always see.
Social media may have made it a snap to invite people to a gathering, but technological innovations have also made it easier for them to cancel.”
While I’m no cultural Luddite, I do recognize the detrimental effect that technology has had on the way we communicate, and perhaps this awareness helps explain why I find these dinners so refreshing, as they enable us to tap into a part of being alive involving more substantive interpersonal communication that has long been lacking. Reaffirming my own feeling, a guest at one of my community dinners mentioned having chosen to attend for her birthday because she wanted to have an experience that she didn’t typically have. At that moment, I knew that community dining could represent an opportunity for us to connect with each other in a meaningful way by helping direct our energy into activities requiring the kind of social engagement that enrich our lives rather than create isolation.
Yet many challenges to community dining still loom, namely because we constantly have access to so many different events and social activities which make it difficult to make a commitment more than a day or so in advance. However, in spite of these numerous opportunities to attend an event or take part in an organization – and I have taken many of these opportunities over the years – I can’t recall a single instance where I felt a strong, long-lasting connection to any cause or organization, as evidenced by the large stack of business cards I have accumulated over the years that represent nothing more than shallow, empty encounters. Putnam elaborates on my sentiments regarding the decline in social engagement:
“The most whimsical yet discomfiting bit of evidence of social disengagement in contemporary America that I have discovered is this: more Americans are bowling today than ever before, but bowling in organized leagues has plummeted in the last decade or so. Between 1980 and 1993 the total number of bowlers in America increased by 10 percent, while league bowling decreased by 40 percent. (Lest this be thought a wholly trivial example, I should note that nearly 80 million Americans went bowling at least once during 1993, nearly a third more than voted in the 1994 congressional elections and roughly the same number as claim to attend church regularly. Even after the 1980s’ plunge in league bowling, nearly 3 percent of American adults regularly bowl in leagues.) The rise of solo bowling threatens the livelihood of bowling-lane proprietors because those who bowl as members of leagues consume three times as much beer and pizza as solo bowlers, and the money in bowling is in the beer and pizza, not the balls and shoes. The broader social significance, however, lies in the social interaction and even occasionally civic conversations over beer and pizza that solo bowlers forgo. Whether or not bowling beats balloting in the eyes of most Americans, bowling teams illustrate yet another vanishing form of social capital.
At this point, however, we must confront a serious counterargument. Perhaps the traditional forms of civic organization whose decay we have been tracing have been replaced by vibrant new organizations. For example, national environmental organizations (like the Sierra Club) and feminist groups (like the National Organization for Women) grew rapidly during the 1970s and 1980s and now count hundreds of thousands of dues-paying members. An even more dramatic example is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), which grew exponentially from 400,000 card-carrying members in 1960 to 33 million in 1993, becoming (after the Catholic Church) the largest private organization in the world. The national administrators of these organizations are among the most feared lobbyists in Washington, in large part because of their massive mailing lists of presumably loyal members.
These new mass-membership organizations are plainly of great political importance. From the point of view of social connectedness, however, they are sufficiently different from classic “secondary associations” that we need to invent a new label–perhaps “tertiary associations.” For the vast majority of their members, the only act of membership consists in writing a check for dues or perhaps occasionally reading a newsletter. Few ever attend any meetings of such organizations, and most are unlikely ever (knowingly) to encounter any other member. The bond between any two members of the Sierra Club is less like the bond between any two members of a gardening club and more like the bond between any two Red Sox fans (or perhaps any two devoted Honda owners): they root for the same team and they share some of the same interests, but they are unaware of each other’s existence. Their ties, in short, are to common symbols, common leaders, and perhaps common ideals, but not to one another. The theory of social capital argues that associational membership should, for example, increase social trust, but this prediction is much less straightforward with regard to membership in tertiary associations. From the point of view of social connectedness, the Environmental Defense Fund and a bowling league are just not in the same category.
Duke law professor Jedediah Purdy notes how Putnam’s assertion continues to ring true:
“At the same time, there is evidence that Americans are withdrawing, both into their own lives and into communities of the like-minded. For all the quibbles it produced, Robert Putnam’s conclusion in Bowling Alone stands: Recent decades have devastated traditional social networks that were often cross-class and quasi-civic. A 2006 study found that between 1985 and 2004, Americans reported the average number of people with whom they can “discuss important issues” falling from three to two, with a quarter saying they have no one with whom to discuss such issues and 80 percent saying they turn only to family members. These networks are weakest among poorer and less-educated people. So is the share of those who say they more or less trust others.”
And in his NYC Teacher of the Year acceptance speech, former public school teacher and author John Taylor Gatto relates the weakening of our social bonds that communities forge and the impeded development of children to our network-focused public education system:
“Our school crisis is a reflection of this greater social crisis. We seem to have lost our identity. Children and old people are penned up and locked away from the business of the world to an unprecedented degree; nobody talks to them anymore. Without children and old people mixing in daily life, a community has no future and no past, only a continuous present. In fact, the term “community” hardly applies to the way we interact with each other. We live in networks, not communities, and everyone I know is lonely because of that.”
Two institutions at present control our children’s lives – television and schooling, in that order. Both of these reduce the real world of wisdom, fortitude, temperance, and justice to a never-ending, non-stopping abstraction. In centuries past the time of a child and adolescent would be occupied in real work, real charity, real adventures, and the realistic search for mentors who might teach what you really wanted to learn. A great deal of time was spent in community pursuits, practicing affection, meeting and studying every level of the community, learning how to make a home, and dozens of other tasks necessary to become a whole man or woman.”
French sociologist, political theorist, and historian Alexis De Tocqueville perhaps provided the most fascinating insights into the forces that give rise to vibrant communities and social order:
“Picture to yourself a society which comprises all of the world – English, French, German: people differing from one another in language, in beliefs, in opinions; in a word, a society possessing no roots, no memories, no prejudices, no routine, no common ideas, no national character, yet with a happiness 100 times greater than our own. How are they welded onto one people? By community of interests. That is the secret!”
De Tocqueville, in his book Democracy in America, also observed:
“Americans of all ages, all conditions, and dispositions constantly form associations…. The Americans make associations to give entertainment, to found seminaries, to build inns, to construct churches, to diffuse boots, to send missionaries…. I have often admired the extreme skill with which the inhabitants of the United States succeed in proposing a common object for the exertions of a great many men and inducing them voluntarily to pursue it.”
Law professor and attorney Edgar Cahn and Jean Camper nearly 50 years ago suggested “there are three rationales for citizen participation. First, they suggest that merely knowing that one can participate promotes dignity and self-sufficiency within the individual. Second, it taps the energies and resources of individual citizens within the community. Finally, citizen participation provides a source of special insight, information, knowledge, and experience, which contributes to the soundness of community solutions. The result is an emphasis on problem solving to eliminate deficiencies in the community.”
I believe we all inherently understand these ideas, but haven’t necessarily put this knowledge into words. Community dining may not change the world; that is not my purpose. It does, however, give me an opportunity to further develop a sense of purpose and self-efficacy by more fully participating in community life – an opportunity I want to extend to each of you.
Very few of us grasp the degree to which we are connected to one another, and how a world whose vertically integrated institutions that suppress individuality directly threaten our development as human beings also threatens the social bonds that make life possible. What we really all share is a desire to protect the freedom to voluntarily form associations with one another through our awareness of the forces that allow us to express our very humanity.
Together, we can use community dining as a vehicle to for this kind of self expression. Whether we express ourselves through regular social gatherings focusing on how we can optimally eat (i.e. veganism, paleo diet/lifestyle), the connection between food and medicine, deeper questions about life and spirituality (i.e. the relationship between nutrition and the yoga texts, the ethical treatment of animals, how we can feed the world, etc…) important community issues and how to address community issues (a debate on a particular issue, a panel of experts on a certain topic, or Jeffersonian Dinners could really interesting!), or simply how we can better connect with each other in our own neighborhoods, these gatherings make it possible to more actively engage in the world around us.
So I am reaching out to all of you to see who would like to take part in a brainstorming session to discuss how we can utilize shared, sustainably-sourced community meals to volunteer our time in a meaningful way, develop a plan to implement our ideas, and monitor our progress. The suggestions I laid out above are only my ideas. I would love to hear yours as well!
I look forward to continuing the discussion!
Paul Sippil, Farm-to-table Community Organizer and Crime-Fighter