How Pandemic Unexpectedly Built My Community Around Food—& How We're Continuing

July 9, 2021

As a Londoner born and raised, community never really featured massively on my radar. We knew our neighbors and some of the families that lived around us, but were we a community, did we share common interests, did we look out for one another beyond saying hello and talking about the weather when we met on the streets? I don’t think so. I don’t think I’m alone in this experience; whichever country or place you live in, modern life has greatly inhibited our sense belonging to where we live and to having camaraderie with the people that live around us.

But this, like so much changed last year. It was my local community who brought me a sense of belonging and togetherness when I was at my most isolated. The national lockdowns many of us experienced in 2020 and into this year left so many feeling scared and alone yet all over the world, these fears brought us something magnificent; they brought us together. Within days of the first U.K. lockdown being announced, one of my wonderful neighbors created a street WhatsApp group through which we held a chili plant growing competition and garden bird drawing contests for our children; we’ve offered to do each other’s shopping and helped each other in ways we wouldn’t have done pre-lockdowns. In short, we have developed our own community. I’m sure this is the same for many people across the world. COVID will have a lasting impact on every single one of us, but building this relationship with the people in my neighborhood has been an amazing experience and one I plan on continuing.

But how do we extend our community beyond our street or building to include those that perhaps don’t share our postal or zip code; and how do we maintain what we have built and continue this spirit in all of us? What if we were to look at our commonalities for inspiration? Food. We all have something to say about food. For me, food is the ultimate uniter; meals around the table as a family, horrible meals at school shared with my fellow pupils, street parties to celebrate national occasions, the list is endless! Food to me is more than sustenance: it’s my language, my way of communicating love, caring, compassion, a way I can share my cultural heritage and experience with others. Sharing food and its ingredients are, to me, a wonderful way to bring people together, to start a dialogue and to learn something new.

I was blown away by the restaurants that were forced to close to customers during lockdown but still managed to use their kitchens to produce hundreds of meals for hospital staff as well as those in need. There were parents on local Facebook groups who offered to make extra meals for children who were home and not receiving the free school meals they normally would. Others, including my mum, made extra food for the elderly in their area. Food is powerful. A 2017 study by the University of Oxford found that communal eating and sharing of meals with others has a massive impact on our mental and emotional health, creating and enforcing social structures that in turn make us feel more secure and settled in our lives. Joining our neighbors to enjoy a meal is a simple social act that builds trust, shows a willingness to come together to eat something that may be new to someone and to share part of our lives with those around us.

Food has been a way for people to integrate into a new society or community for millennia. The fact that curry is now considered one of the national dishes of the U.K. speaks volumes to the integration of Indian-heritage migrants to British society through their food. Communal dining, big platters of food passed down the table, bring-a-dish parties, families passing recipes down generations—we have always shared food and meals and we shouldn’t stop now. Try simply sharing any extra produce you grow in your garden, herb box or allotment space, working with local charities that provide food and meals for those in need or maybe helping a neighbor who is a little busy or less mobile with their grocery shopping. Perhaps we can also use food as something to look forward to, the promise of group celebrations or picnics in nearby open spaces with our friends and neighbors.

And what of the global community? If ever there was a time when we all need to come together, to look at our similarities as opposed to what divides us, it is now. In my mind, the same element of kindness, sharing, empathy and understanding applies to my global neighbors as well as my immediate neighbors. The world is calling out for us all to stand up and take care of one another and indeed the Earth itself. Let us look at our eating habits and how the farming techniques used to produce some of the food we take for granted effects the land, soil, and water in homes of others. Let us look at how some of us have abundant wealth and privilege in terms of food and how others, even in our own countries, do not. We may not be able to help everyone but by taking small steps to heal and grow our own community, we take small steps to heal our global community.

Perhaps you eat a salad made by one of your neighbors, full of homegrown leaves and vegetables which helps you to see what you can grow in whatever space you have available. You may realize that you no longer want to buy produce sprayed with all manner of pesticides. Maybe the Himalayan salt used by someone else in your community makes you realize that the air miles travelled by the salt are unnecessary and there are amazing, more local to you salts available. Or perhaps the amazing spice blend you use, grown by farmers paid fairly for their products in Sri Lanka, is so loved by someone who tries your food that they too realize that they should look at the ethical standards of their spice producers. By looking at our micro, we can have an impact on our macro.

Community and food are so intrinsically linked and there is so much we can do for both. There are many things that I have learned in the past 18 months from the kindness of others. Quite simply, food builds communities.

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Photo: Hillary Ungson via Unsplash

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Reena is an Ayurvedic practitioner in training, reiki healer, children's yoga teacher and passionate cook. She lives in London with her children with whom she tries to be as creative, adventurous and holistically healthy as possible. Follow her on Instagram @sereenkitchen to join in on the crazy.

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