The Perfect Recipe for Building Community

Food programs, classes, and generational sharing start at the library

By EveryLibrary Contributor Julia Skinner

Library programs connect communities by bringing people together for shared experiences, conversation, and learning. When we include food in our programming, it opens up incredible new possibilities for sharing between generations and patron communities, fostering curiosity and building needed skills in the process.

Why is food the key ingredient? The meals we make and share have been the backbone of familial and community connections since ancient times — food is central to all of our human rituals: Celebration, grief, and everything in between. We are connected by our shared experience of pivotal food memories, even though those memories may differ considerably by income, geographic location, culture, and age. Our literature, art, and scholarship are filled with examples of how food connects us. Sharing food is perhaps the most intimate way we connect with other humans: Putting our love and care into a dish, offering it to others to nourish and teach them.

Librarians put on many successful programs that tap into a variety of patron interests and food memories, while addressing the needs of the people they serve every day. A quick ask on Twitter (thank you, everyone who responded!) revealed a range of programs including cheese and book pairings, all kinds of workshops and demonstrations, collaborations with community groups and restaurants, and samplings of the foods in fiction books for patrons to enjoy. Special collections use food as a connection in a range of ways, including UNC Greensboro Libraries’ Vintage Viands series, where staff member prepare a range of dishes from historic home economics pamphlets as a way to publicize that collection.

Even when programming partners are far away, librarians have found solutions. For example, when the City Libraries Townsville wanted to hold a wine tasting, the winemaker shipped a series of wines, and then held a virtual tasting. The winemaker was patched in to present remotely, offering tasting notes on everything the patrons were drinking.

Food’s potential for library programming isn’t limited to programs about food, of course, and can support other initiatives such as fostering civic engagement. For example, the Lancaster County (PA) Historical Society asked kids to vote for their favorite cookie during story time to teach them about the voting process.

Food education has powerful positive effects upon the lives of food insecure patrons. Many in our communities face difficulty balancing home cooking and healthy eating with scheduling demands, limited finances, and the lack of healthy food options, among other pressures. Cooking instruction enhances wellness through increased knowledge, increased confidence, and by supporting healthy choices, which are particularly critical in food deserts where regular access to healthy food is limited. At-risk youth benefit from cooking instruction as an effective engagement and skill-building tool and as a way to avoid the “erosion of cooking skills” in the larger culture.

Libraries offer a critical connection to sustenance for food insecure patrons, for example by offering free lunches to low-income children during summer break, as the San Diego County Library has done for over a decade, hosting community food pantries, and listing food assistance in resource directories, alongside other community resources (like housing assistance or emergency hotlines). Libraries can also learn from other organizations implementing food-related instruction, such as Carver Neighborhood Market in Atlanta, which regularly presents free cooking classes and demonstrations that offer low-income visitors the chance to learn about healthy food preparations with affordable ingredients. Other initiatives outside the library world, like Equity at the Table serve as great models for including voices across food-related industries, as well as resources for accessing local collaborators within those industries.

One of the most critical ways food can be effectively included in library outreach efforts is as an intergenerational experience, around which different communities can gather. Community gardens, farms, and kitchens offer spaces to learn about growing and preparing food, allowing elders and other experts in the community to pass on knowledge to younger generations. They also present a space for individuals within the same generation to share knowledge with each other. This sharing can build bridges between varied life experiences, for example, by sharing foods and stories between immigrant communities, or between new community members and longstanding ones. One such example is the Adventure Cooking Club, organized by Megan Emery at Chattanooga Public Library, where immigrants to the community share dishes from their home country with other patrons. Research has shown that these sharing practices benefit all participants through constructive social interaction, knowledge sharing, and skill building.

One study found that participants who learned healthy eating skills from community elders — rather than outsiders with less knowledge of the community’s history and culture — were more likely to retain the information, as their teachers were trusted within that space. Another showed that cooking classes were a critical way to fill knowledge gaps for those who did not learn to cook from older family members. This lends further support to the value of empowering older community members to lead community cooking and food education programs.

Halifax Public Libraries have harnessed the potential for food outreach in incredible ways. A quick look at their events calendar shows 67 food-related programs in fall 2018 alone, covering everything from cooking classes to potlucks to teen dinner and movie nights. Halifax’s Tastes like Home initiative, which documented the food culture and stories of Halifax residents from a range of backgrounds through workshops, resource sharing, presentations, and events, is an example of how libraries can harness patrons’ interest in food to develop enduring artifacts that help everyone understand their community’s history more fully.

Oregon Humanities’ Conversation Project brings together people from a range of diverse backgrounds and experiences to talk about important issues, with an emphasis on allowing discussion to evolve naturally rather than arriving at a conclusion or consensus. One of the big issues they talk about is food, with topics ranging from what we think of as ‘good’ (or bad), to our relationship with seafood.

One particularly powerful program idea comes from Chattanooga librarian Megan Emery. In this program, patrons would swap sourdough starters (natural yeast starters for bread), which begin through capturing wild yeast in a flour/water mixture and which require ongoing care and feeding to maintain viable. Fermentation is a cooking process that puts us in intimate connection with our immediate environment, offering a snapshot of place, time, and the people who encounter a food.

By sharing these snapshots, we share pieces of the places that matter to us, as well as pieces of ourselves, by offering something that we have cared for and nurtured to be cared for and nurtured by others. To me, this illustrates the central power of food to inform the work we do in libraries: By sharing our knowledge, time, and skills, our own knowledge becomes greater and our community is nourished in the most infinitesimal and grand ways.

About the author

Julia Skinner is a food historian, chef, and library professional. She is the founder and director of Root, a food history organization using the power of food to build connections between individuals and their history and communities. She also is the fermenter at Ladybird Grove and Mess Hall in Atlanta. She has a PhD in Library and Information Studies from Florida State University, and came to both libraries and hospitality because of their shared commitment to enhancing knowledge, building interpersonal connections, and creating space for everyone to have a seat at the table.


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