It started with a red apron and a desire to connect strangers through good food.
When Jennifer Mitsche started teaching at George Brown, she noticed how many students treated their on-campus meals as just fuel, eaten quickly in between classes. A professor in the English and Communications department, her own research had shown her the vital connection between food security, community, and student well-being.
She set out to find a way to challenge the common ideology that students are too busy, or unable to make their own food. She leaned on her background in Theatre and Performance Studies to experiment with another kind of on campus lunch, one rooted in togetherness, food knowledge and self-care.
The art of lunch
“I had this idea to start ‘performing’ lunch in the college’s food courts,” she says. “So, we did—we put down a tablecloth, set out some tealights, and made a meal together, start to finish. We ate together and the table was constantly full—we’d eat with strangers and not be strangers at the end.”
And so, the Communal Lunch Project was born, aiming to address two big issues for post-secondary students: food insecurity and social isolation. An early partnership with Student Affairs established the pilot project. Every week, the team would break down a recipe and ask participants to bring one ingredient each. Then they met on-campus to set the table and collectively build a healthy, inexpensive meal.
The idea was simple: provide the space for students to connect over a slow, healthy meal even in the middle of a busy day on campus. Everything was designed to engage strangers in a shared/collective space — attendees could draw or write on the craft paper tablecloth when they arrived, and when it was time to pass ingredients around the table, this inevitably led to questions and conversations about food. For the larger events, a bright red apron, embroidered with the word LUNCH, was traded around as participants took a turn as a mascot for the meal.
Early in 2020, the research project received support from NSERC’s College and Community Social Innovation Fund to develop a lunch club framework with a capacity to translate across Canadian campuses. With this funding the project’s reach could extend beyond GBC by partnering with Meal Exchange, a food-focused organization that recruits students in nation-wide programming, and collaborating with Joshna Maharaj, a chef, author, and activist.
Making communal meals virtual
But when COVID-19 quickly shut down the idea of in-person events, the research team had to quickly pivot to transform the project into a virtual initiative.
“Our website was originally designed to simply be a resource for students to access recipes and sign up for in-person lunches,” says Jennifer. “Now it is the lifeblood of the idea.”
This website and Instagram space (@communallunch) have become a virtual table where students can learn about food and participate in online events focused on food, with project assistants guiding the activities. The site will feature content that aims to teach students how to integrate a communal eating philosophy into their daily life by helping them develop cooking skills, reflecting on food justice, and by carving out the space to cook together.
The project’s virtual iteration has become even more crucial as students learn and socialize remotely. Its programming encourages them to find time every day for this act of self-care and to develop their food knowledge.
“Going virtual may have been the best thing to happen to this project, because now we’re building everything in close communication with the students we’re trying to reach. It has its own life now,” says Jennifer. “It’s virtual today, but we hope it will evolve into a hybrid project in the years to come, reaching other campuses across the country.”
This article was updated March 15, 2021.
The Communal Lunch Project is just one of many community-focused research projects currently underway at the college. Learn more about social innovation research at George Brown.