If you’re anything like me, food is a part of life that brings joy, connection, community, learning, and even love. When I think of many years working in companies and colleges, I am floored by the missed opportunities to bring people together in a meaningful way with food. At colleges, people gathered over pizza. Boring pizza! (And if you’ve eaten pizza made with love, it is NOT boring!) At companies, food was typically mass produced, garnering common chatter amongst employees about how little taste there was despite the effort.
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity is that companies don’t intentionally and creatively create space for people and teams to connect THROUGH food (not just “over” food). Food can be a vehicle for stories and connections. When this is effectively facilitated, people aren’t reduced to that human at another desk or the person who has to sign budget forms once food is involved. I’ve seen this so many times when we have booked speakers who know how to skillfully build trust and dialogue between what appears to be groups in organizations that speak different “languages” at work (e.g. technology teams vs budget teams vs sales teams.) And when it happens, it is POWERFUL stuff!
How can an employer maximize teambuilding through food?
1) Connect through food stories: There are lots of ways to do this. Have folks design a menu together and either cook or supervise a catering team to prepare it. Have a potluck that comes with a food story – whether it is an ancestral story or a more recent awareness of a dish’s history – have participants share why they picked the dish. Another option is to more interactive – have participants teach each other a recipe by working side by side to prepare it, even if this has to happen outdoors during covid. I’ve seen this masterfully done by Michael W. Twitty, a well known culinary historian. For example, he has had university students of color cook alongside Jewish students using recipes for a Kosher Soul menu. These two groups of students may not necessarily mix socially on campus, but they build trust and community pretty quickly over chopping collards and mashing up black eye peas for hummus.
2) Eat together with a purpose: For centuries, people bonded over food—building long-term relationships based on a need to collaborate in order to grow, harvest, and preserve food. Today, easy access to food has eliminated the need for those relationships, leaving us with one less reason to interact. Cookbook author, Ashley English, offers a wonderful talk in which she discusses how eating together has the power to create scientifically proven social bonds, engender community preservation, and serve as a form of diplomacy. Her incredible talk is even better when your team participates in a potluck – even if this is done virtually! Teams can share recipes for others’ in their groups to prepare.
3) Get outside: Do you lead a team that actually lives within driving distance of each other? Have them meet up, outdoors, to learn about foraging! This is a covid safe way for people to engage – in person – over a common food topic while learning some unique skills. Want to amp it up even further? Bring in Alan Bergo, an international foraging expert and chef. Alan can lead a foraging walk in your closest woods and if the conditions permit, an outdoor cooking demo from the plants foraged together can even be arranged!
Food isn’t something to just something to gather over. Like a great piece of bread, food can be a vehicle to bring different flavors on your teams together in a way that sparks curiosity, collaboration, and even joy. Now let’s get cooking!