One very common feature in the ecovillage and cohousing movement is the practice of sharing meals together. This takes place in many forms, ranging from sharing every meal to arranging shared dinners on a weekly or monthly basis. Systems of shared dining are often subjected to experiments and changes, as the ultimate form that meets the needs of the different individuals forming a community can be hard to find. Therefore, the practice of shared meals offers excellent co-creation processes to design solutions that community members can all consent to. Furthermore, it is a field of mutual exploration between different community projects.

Impact on the individual

Eating together traditionally takes place around the daily routine of a family. In an ecovillage the family is extended to include more people who become part of the intimate space which was formerly reserved for the small family. For individuals, who previously had no family for daily dining, shared meals can precisely meet the longing for community that convinced such individuals step into these projects. This applies to families too, who often engage in community in order to offer a different lifestyle to both adults and children. It can also allow people to function as a family in different ways than usual. However, when new practices such as shared community meals are introduced in a family, something is at risk of being left behind: the intimacy of the small entity that is the family. This is worth considering, in the excitement of participating in shared meals. How do we preserve the intimacy of small groups, like families, when the community takes over spaces that were previously individual or meant for the family?
Respecting that both individuals and families might need their own space as well, days with no shared dinners can be introduced. This can also manifest in providing the opportunity to bring food prepared for a shared meal back home, or through other methods that allow individual needs and wishes to be mindfully incorporated into the shared community practice. This also takes into account allergies as well as personal preferences about food culture – eating in silence, blessing the food, having preference for raw food, fitting meat into a sustainable life style, avoiding of gluten or sugar, etc. When forming community food culture, the individual often must compromise, which is a balancing act in itself.

Influence on community

The glue of a community lies particularly in shared daily practices, such as eating together. The need for eating is universal, so sharing a practice that unites everyone is inherently community building; in theory it no one is left behind. It offers a space for informal dialogue and meeting community members one might not normally encounter, thereby creating and maintaining relations. Furthermore, forming a community of practice in preparing and serving food for each other is of high value, as these practical tasks foster avenues of cooperation and dialogue between people. Working together can actually be an act of conflict prevention.
Shared meals also form an excellent entry point for newcomers, guests and volunteers to a community, where new contacts and plans are made. These ways of developing community cohesiveness are often found in such daily practices, and the act of eating together is essential for this.
Intentions that inform practise
The decision to have shared meals comes from the combined intentions for both community building and wishing to meet practical/ecological parameters. Acknowledging the power of shared practices in food preparation as a community building practice can create opportunities for community members to grow together.
The ecological benefits of not having kitchens running in every household around mealtime and reducing food waste can be part of the intention for setting up a shared meal system. There may also be a wish to create free time for people by sharing work tasks rather than spending time on the individual tasks of shopping, cooking, and cleaning in every household.
A moment of gratitude shared before eating can express the intention to value the systems that produce our food, as well as the privilege of having food and sharing it in community. Our wish for creating a new relationship with both people and planet can also be expressed this way. These intentions are often shared in eco-communities, but can also create resistance for people who hesitate to mix the practice of eating with intentional or spiritual practices, such as blessing the food. Determining how to combine and relate intentions with practice is a choice for every community, and will show the specific values of each community – even when it has to do with the daily act of eating.

The importance of structure

Shared food systems often attract ‘structure oriented’ people who engage in the design of structures behind the practice. Structures represent the ways that intentions are lived, by designing patterns and guidelines for the food system. This can influence how the cooking teams are put together, how the financial aspects are managed with regard to reimbursement for expenses and payments, and whether people should subscribe or unsubscribe, pay for a month or for only the meals participated in. Issues of fairness are also addressed, such as whether sick or elderly people can participate in the practical tasks less than others. These structures tend to change over time if evaluations show the need. Adaptations may include increasing or decreasing the days according to seasons or changing from fixed groups to random groups in order to get to know new people. Almost all ecovillages have an established structure for shared meals.
In summary, the practice of shared dining includes all of the GAIA dimensions of sustainability, contributing to community glue (social), decreasing food waste and promoting shared resource utilization (ecological), showing intentions (culture/world view) and finally economizing time and money (economic).