Melting Pot Lunch No.2 – The Links Between Food and Social Connection
Age Better in Sheffield has been dabbling with the links between social connection and food in various ways since its inception. In order to achieve their aims of making Sheffield a city we can all be proud to grow older in; there have been cook and eats, Father’s Day pie and peas, Christmas Day dinners, Age Better Champions meeting up with their beneficiaries over coffee and cakes in cafes and Access Ambassadors eating wraps together at their monthly meetings. Age Better in Sheffield also delivered an 8 month pilot of a project called Me’n’u that was its most serious endeavour into food and social isolation. Although the associations have not yet been examined to identify evidence of what works and what cultural and social factors we need to explore further.
From delivering the Me’n’u pilot, I have identified some areas to explore. The aim is to inspire those to make friends through food!
Why is it good for wellbeing to eat together?
The benefits of having a healthy relationship between social connection and food should not be underestimated. For example in older people, those who ate regularly with another ate 2.3 more portions of vegetables than those who ate alone. Moreover, children who do not eat dinner with their parents at least twice a week also were 40 percent more likely to be overweight compared to those who do. They are also less likely to truant from school and do better in tests when children ate with their parents.
One study on chimpanzees who ate together had produced more oxytocin, the hormone responsible for feelings of happiness, belonging and trusting others. Food sharing has been found in humans too, even amongst unrelated individuals, increases oxytocin levels. Physiologically, oxytocin acts in the brain by reducing anxiety and fear, enhancing social memory and activating neural reward circuits. It increases cooperative behaviour, reduces aversion, promotes trust and generosity.
It is unquestionably therapeutic to eat with someone; as an excuse to talk and to reflect on the day. Often, talks over dinner open up into deeper discussions and by using food as a vehicle to spend time together – discussions can happen regularly. Eating with someone is a small act and requires very little organisation beyond the usual food prep but can make a huge difference to our wellbeing. In the end, the word ‘companion’ (Lat: com [=with], panis [=bread]) may be more literal than previously thought.
Food and Identity
Throughout my time running the Me’n’u pilot, I found there to be a strong link between food and identity. We express our identities through our culture, language, heritage, clothes, jobs, interests and likes and dislikes. This is the same for the food we eat and who we choose to it with. An examination of loneliness would suggest that it is the feeling that our true selves are not accepted or our identities are not acknowledged in our social circles. Consequently meaning that, if we eat alone, we lack opportunity to share our identity with others. One way to ameliorate this might be through food. I believe, when we recognise the isolated person’s identity through food, we will be able to crack into the link between social connection and food.
But how can we do this?
One factor to consider is that residents across the city saw themselves as belonging to small villages. I found especially across Sheffield, tribal behaviour to be a fundamental part of participant’s lives and will dictate much of their decisions as a consequence. This is essential to their identity and the parameters of their community. I found it difficult trying to get volunteers to agree to travel outside their area to share a meal with a lonely older person. They prioritised someone in their own community over the subjective feeling of loneliness. This demonstrates that tribal behaviour is strong in the city. It could be used to our advantage if we focused on small behaviour changes within small areas.
The food people ate is a huge expression of identity. Older people had a strong sense of identity with the food they ate. They wanted what we might think of as traditional food; fish and chips, meat and two veg and pie. The older people who were more willing to try new foods or did not place their identity in traditional food seemed more resilient and less lonely.
That is not to say that everyone is the same, despite liking the same food. When engaging with older people, I made the mistake of seeing food, loneliness and poverty as connected. This caused some older people to feel alienated and confused as they were not suffering from poverty but loneliness. Despite many people in poverty feeling lonely, there is no silver bullet for administering interventions.
How do we, as foodies, use this knowledge to the betterment of Sheffield? Do we simply acknowledge the tribal nature of Sheffield and use these silos to create stronger identities? Or do we try to challenge these identities in the hope of bringing people together? Should we work around the isolated person’s relationship towards food as this is part of their identity or actively try to instil behaviour changes to improve one’s wellbeing?
How are we going to make change stick?
An older gentleman I came to know called David became very eloquent about his experiences with loneliness over the time I was carrying out the pilot. David’s wife died at the beginning of last year and turned his world upside down. He was in an inconsolable state for months whilst being passed from bereavement counselling to charities and group therapy. Whilst having counselling, he realised that we was lonely and was able to reflect on what he could do to ameliorate this. He now attends two/three lunch clubs a week. He also went on to talk about how times when there was no organised activity; he felt very lonely. This was the case I mornings, evenings, weekends and holidays. The lunch clubs he went to were an opportunity to meet with friends and give purpose to his day. He acquired cooking skills and ate more healthy meals than if he were alone. Although he knows that this is not the only solution, he acknowledged to me that this kept him going.
In this example it is clear that sharing food was not the only thing to improve his wellbeing. But working in unison; the interventions, his social network, the community organisations and his reflections were able to improve his wellbeing. The takeaway message is that we need to be able to work together to ensure that the links between social connection and food are really unearthed, captured and employed to better the wellbeing of the people of Sheffield.
Another message is that we need to empower people to share meals with others without intervention or if they need it, to empower them to reach out to the network of options listed above to improve their wellbeing. David having counselling enabled him to identify what his needs were and how to attend to them. We need to demonstrate the impact of making small changes – that they can instil in their own lives.
David was encouraged to invest in their social networks. As food is steeped in ritual and dependency – sharing food could be the perfect vehicle to bring people together. Maybe by promoting these links we can enact real change that will have a lasting legacy for that person.
If this has inspired some food for thought, please get in touch. It would be great to hear from you.
By Sophia Arthurs-Hartnett
Volunteering Coordinator for Age Better in Sheffield