Engaging, educational conversations frequently happen around a food table. I learned crucial life skills with each bite and breath while in school, including how to get along with people and to stand up for myself. I remember sitting at the lunch table in high school when some classmates and I started discussing religion. We spoke from different faiths and nonfaiths – Christianity, Judaism, Jainism, Islam, Hinduism, atheism – and debated the nature and essence of God. The atmosphere intensified as we made our cases and probed one another about our belief systems. I do not recall anyone persuaded by peers’ arguments, but remember us parting ways that afternoon with a deeper respect for world religions and for one another. I saw a unity in our diversity around the table.
My experience is just one example of how lunch, often a down time for students and teachers, can be turned into an intimate, stimulating forum for learning. Or as Oprah's chef Art Smith puts it in his book, Back to the Table: The Reunion of Food and Family: “Lunch is also a good opportunity to meet friends and associates who, while not part of our families, add richness and depth to our lives.”
For instance, in the new Independent Teacher article “The Power of Boys’ Lunches in Middle School: Breaking Bread, Breaking Misconceptions, Learning Together, and Building Community,” author William Piper explains how the Boys’ Lunch at the Middle School at University School of Milwaukee (Wisconsin) started as an anti-bullying program six years ago, but to his delighted surprise has evolved into a space where children and teachers learn from one another as they enjoy meals together. It’s been so successful that the school has developed a Girls’ Lunch.
Collective creativity, too, bubbles to the surface in these kinds of structured, yet intimate settings, as Jonah Leher explains in The New Yorker article “Brainstorming Doesn’t Really Work.” Steve Jobs had this in mind when he designed Pixar’s headquarters in the 1990s with a central atrium space where everyone in the company was forced to go – and run into each other, Leher writes.
In the piece, Leher offers expert commentary: “If you want people to work together effectively,… findings reinforce the need to create architectures that support frequent, physical, spontaneous interactions,” [Harvard Medical School researcher Isaac] Kohane says. “Even in the era of big science, when researchers spend so much time on the Internet, it’s still so important to create intimate spaces.”
Millennials, ages 13 to 32 years, agree that they prefer intimate, communal space when eating, according a recent Washington Post article, “For Millennials, Food Isn’t Just Food. It’s Community.” And when the San Francisco Unified School District hired the design firm IDEO to rethink the lunch space recently, it enlisted its high school students for help.
“ ‘When adults dine, we don’t just think about the food,’ explained Orla O’Keeffe, the executive director of policy and operations. ‘The food is important, but so is what’s going on around it: the ambience, the service, the company. Why would we assume kids are any different?’ ” as Courtney Martin reported in her recent New York Times article, “Improving School Lunch By Design.” Additionally, Alice Waters, owner of Chez Panisse Restaurant and founder of The Edible Schoolyard, addresses children and the dining experience in a recent interview with the Center for Ecoliteracy.
For such reasons, I continue to enjoy brunch and dinner parties. Each one is an opportunity to share and learn about people, events, culture, and ideas – from the mundane to the sublime. These gatherings mixing old and new faces are like fresh oxygen to me, with conversation swirling and stirring my imagination. As the smells waft through the air, the words linger there. Many an idea comes about when listening and talking over meals. I’m grateful for a food table piled high with learning opportunities.