A Community Meal & a Café Meal

From Guest Blogger, Irena Forbes

Recently, I had the privilege of spending time at a community meal.

I say spending time on purpose. This was not volunteering at a soup kitchen, nor an “I’m feeling good – good deed”. This was sitting down to enjoy a good lunch with people I just met, people who live in different circumstances than my own. I love meeting people, whether I’m on a plane and talking to a businessperson or at a community food program.

Visiting this program was more benefit to me than the people I assumed I would be helping. This dawned on me as I thought about the power difference between charity recipients and volunteers. I tried to think about my involvement as “spending time,” hoping to equalize power. Words are important.

Not all community meals are charitable. Many free meals are no longer considered ‘charity meals’. Food security advocates are working to equalize the power difference between guests and volunteers. Some inspiring examples include Christmas at the Creamery in Nova Scotia and Community Food Centres in Toronto.

How do we acknowledge and equalize power difference at community events? What can we do to share power with those who have less because of their gender, race, education, language, religion, family, age, social class, or geographic region? How do we make guests feel the same way as we do when we eat at a restaurant?

Restaurants operate by a golden rule: the consumer is always right. A server’s job is not JUST to feed people. It is about the experience the guests have. I have not done my job unless guests feel appreciated. The food should be steaming hot and tasty. If not, I should report back to the kitchen manager. I ask about guests lives and I found out how their day is going. I learn something from everyone.

No matter what meal you serve – community lunch, dinner party, snack at a senior homes – every person should walk away feeling acknowledged. Choosing what is on our plate is important. When serving food, do not make assumptions, do smile, and do ask people IF they want something, how much, and if they want more (within the food budget). Share power with guests as much as possible.

The community meal I visited is working hard to equalize the power between guests and volunteers. One volunteer told me he had been going for 14 years, and then he talked about how he got to catch up with a friend he had not seen for a month. Guests joined in and helped out as if they were at home. Everyone I met loved what they were doing, cared about the food, and knew the people they were eating with.

As I was thinking these things, I thought about how serving potatoes that morning was the most important thing I could be doing. I asked guests how their day was, and commiserated about how wet it was outside. I was guest to their regular day – this was my first time at THEIR community meal and I was accepted with graciousness despite my nervousness.

With all of these musings… I have a challenge for all of us (especially me). A charity community meal setting should be no different than being in restaurant or café as much as possible.

Today, I had the privilege of spending time at a community meal.

Image Above (Creative Commons): Couple Waiter Table

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