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Eating together: Food, storytelling, and community change



By Andrea Wenzel
As the demographics of neighborhoods change, so does the food on their tables. In multiethnic communities, food can bring diverse residents into contact in restaurants and the aisles of grocery stores. But can cross-cultural eating lead to better understanding between residents? What role can food play for organizations working in diverse communities? 
USC’s Metamorphosis project has been researching civic engagement and interethnic relations in Alhambra, California. Over the past decades, Alhambra has shifted from being mostly White Anglo, to 53% Asian, 34% Latino, and 10% Anglo. Area restaurants mirror this changing demography. New restaurants abound, but they tend to be associated with the Asian community—and at times this has brought controversy. 
We wanted to learn more about where community members in Alhambra were eating—and if they were eating together. 
Can restaurants be places for residents to interact and share cultural knowledge?
Learning from residents about their food practices
Residents were surveyed to learn about their food practices—including where they ate. Eight restaurants were chosen where survey respondents reported eating cross-culturally. These were then observed and participants were interviewed about how they thought about food and their community.  
A picture emerged suggesting that craving dim sum or tacos or hamburgers does not necessarily correlate with how people see their experiences with ethnically Chinese, Latino, or Anglo residents. But residents who were uneasy about how their community was changing often expressed their anxiety in how they talked about food. Some expressed a distrust of restaurants catering to a particular ethnic group. 
Even residents who did eat food from other cultures tended to talk only with others at their own table—who mostly shared the same ethnicity. Cross-cultural interactions did take place between restaurant staff and patrons, but these commercially structured conversations rarely ventured beyond questions about dish recommendations. 


Here is a map of restaurants identified by residents in an online survey


Identifying food-related spaces in the community that are meaningful to residents 
While research suggests that restaurants are unlikely spaces for intercultural bridging, several participants referenced non-commercial interactions around food that offer more promise. These included neighborhood parties, city initiatives with food and music, as well as interpersonal connections involving food that developed through community organizations. The nature of these interactions and their potential for bridging will be explored in a future phase of this research.
Facilitating dialogue and sharing across boundaries through food 
Organizations working in diverse communities, particularly those who wish to form coalitions across cultural lines, may do well to consider how they integrate food and the sharing of meals into their operations. Organizers have long known that food can be a key component and incentive to mobilize participation, and many already use meals (or even cooking classes and cookbooks) as an opportunity for participants to share their cultural heritage. Potlucks should not be seen as a panacea, and food has as much potential to alienate as to connect. However, when implemented with respect to cultural difference, activities involving food may offer opportunities to facilitate dialogue and contribute to a sense of shared community. 

You can read more about this study here.

How does your organization use food in meetings, events, and other programs? Do you serve a multiethnic population? Are you interested in exploring how food related topics and activities may facilitate bridging between cultures? We’d love to talk with you about it! 
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