The Food Table: An Intimate Space for Learning

By Ari Pinkus posted 11-19-2013 04:15 PM


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.


 The views expressed here reflect those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of NAIS. Please contact the author at with comments and suggestions for future blog posts.



12-02-2013 01:49 PM

Ari, I love this blog post! For 27 summers, my husband and I ran a residential summer theatre program for high school kids called ETC School in a ramshackle Victorian house on a mountain in Pennsylvania. I can't tell you how much learning happened not only at the table--I recall, in particular, this moment when several NYC private school girls began talking about how awful it was to kill deer. Mark, born and raised in great poverty in Sullivan County, PA said, "Have you ever seen a deer starve out your window? Because I have. And when my family kills a deer, it feeds us for weeks." Poof--assumptions busted, new understandings forged. If I live to be 100, I'll never forget that moment. And, the kitchen! Cooking became a way of learning about acting--generosity, risk, willingness to go beyond the minimum. Everyone helped and it was easy to see who "got" that concept and who didn't. Sometimes I think my best teaching happened in the kitchen. So, thank you for reminding me of those moments with your gorgeous piece.

11-21-2013 05:32 PM

Hi Wynn, thanks for your thoughtful comment. We all ought to work to set a new tone at the table. Have everyone drop off their devices in a nice box before sitting down to eat. Encourage youth to bring their most inspiring stories to share. I think we'll find that our good expectations lead to better outcomes.

11-20-2013 10:34 AM

Nice piece Ari. I can't help but play a little bit of the contrarian, however. As a former teacher and father of three, I know how difficult it is to guide, facilitate and stimulate good conversation around the table, whether it's the lunch table or the Harkness table. It's an art. It needs to be learned. When it happens, as you say, it's wonderful and everyone benefits. I'm afraid our current culture of online and smart phone communication, however, works against the important experience of gathering together to discuss relevant topics.
You mentioned Millennials. What I often see 13 to 32 year olds doing, even in restaurants together, is staring into their smart phones. It's bizarre to behold. That there are good examples of stimulating conversations happening among the young out there - Boys' Lunch example - is very good to know.
On your great point about design for interaction, it's notable that research on monster homes (or Starter Castles, as I like to say) is showing that the inhabitants spend less time speaking to each other and more time apart. The endless space encourages disconnection. An interesting response to the American belief that bigger is better.