What we’ll lose if the pandemic puts an end to the sharing of food

Laveta Brigham

Our mission to help you navigate the new normal is fueled by subscribers. To enjoy unlimited access to our journalism, subscribe today. My 2-year-old has a hard time sharing. Open a bag of Goldfish crackers, and good luck getting one or two for yourself. Lucky for him, now that he spends […]

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My 2-year-old has a hard time sharing. Open a bag of Goldfish crackers, and good luck getting one or two for yourself. Lucky for him, now that he spends most of his time within the confines of our home, he no longer has to do nearly as much sharing as before.

When my son’s Bay Area daycare shut down in mid-March, so did many of the opportunities for him to learn—and grapple with—the art and discipline of accepting that we don’t get everything to ourselves all the time. It’s an important lesson for toddlers. But lately, I’ve been thinking about how the pandemic, and all of the new restrictions the crisis has introduced into our daily life, has cut down on opportunities for us adults to learn to share as well. Case in point: Food, once the most communal of all necessities, is no longer a public good—in either the personal or the professional realm.

“Gone are the days of that big, glass jar of gummy bears in the office,” says Diane Swint, head of marketplace for ezCater, an online corporate catering service. The Boston-based company, which initially took a hit from the shuttering of offices in many states, is now trying to pivot its business. Last month, ezCater launched Relish, a service that allows companies to keep feeding employees both on site and remotely by offering individually-wrapped food distributed via contactless delivery. It’s a smart move for the catering company, but also indicative of the necessary and consequential shift away from more communal, family-style meals and buffets, once common in many corporate cafeterias and lunch rooms. 

To be sure, the pandemic isn’t only impacting the eating habits of office workers. Dinner parties with friends have also taken a hit, at least in many parts of the country. So have wine tastings or sitting at a bar, shoulder to shoulder with other people.

Food isn’t the only thing we share, but eating is a particularly good example of a shared activity because it’s necessary, and because we engage in it throughout our lives—unlike playing with blocks, perhaps. It’s also, inherently, one of the most social activities we partake in, from childhood to old age, in personal and professional settings. (My grandparents, whom I spent lots of time with as a child, once told me I couldn’t have a friend over because there was “no meat in the house.” I tried to explain that my 8-year-old friend wasn’t coming for the kebabs, but it didn’t go over well.)

Just how much does sharing food impact and inform us, in addition to nourishing our bodies? A study conducted by researchers Kaitlin Wooley and Ayelet Fishbach, published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at whether eating food from a shared plate, compared with eating food from individual plates, can increase cooperation between two individuals. Not surprisingly, the results of the study showed that “shared consumption increases cooperation among strangers.”

Sharing food is like glue for societies. And yet, here we are, in a world where individually packaged food is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. Even when the pandemic is behind us, individuals and organizations will be left with new habits. To be sure, these new practices are rightfully instituted and enforced to protect and keep us safe from harm, but some will not only change the way we eat, but profoundly alter the way we interact.

“Snacks that you have to stick your hands in to get is not gonna happen,” Robby Kwok, senior vice president of people at collaboration service Slack, told me in a recent interview. Doing away with in-office snack bowls might not sound earth-shattering (and frankly, it’s probably something that should have been nixed a long time ago). But what about the missed opportunity to sit next to strangers at communal tables in restaurants? Or the inability to sample your friend’s food—another no-no now that we’re all hyper-aware of hygiene. 

To be sure, food isn’t the only commodity with sharing potential. Another study, conducted by researchers Zoe Liberman and Alex Shaw, examined the impact that sharing secrets has on children. As it turns out, kids infer a lot from the sharing of secrets, primarily that passing secrets from one individual to another is an even stronger indicator of close ties than the sharing of a physical resource—like a cookie. (Yes, cookies were part of the study.)

“If you see people eating the same food from the same bowl, you make inferences around their relationships,” says Liberman, co-author of the study and an assistant professor at University of California, Santa Barbara. “But we also learn a lot from sharing non-physical things like time and secrets.”

Unfortunately, time and secrets aren’t something I have a lot of. But the point is, there are non-touchable things that can teach us about sharing. There is a reason why Zoom, the videoconferencing service, is booming. Same goes for Twitch, the Amazon-owned streaming platform for gamers. We all feel the need to connect—to share—even when breaking bread together isn’t an option. 

“Humans are incredibly socially motivated,” says UC Santa Barbara’s Liberman.  

Human beings are also incredibly innovative. According to this recent article from Fast Company, Dixie cups were the “breakout startup” of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. Believe it or not, before that outbreak, communal metal cups were common, and shared by hundreds of people. Gross, right? Then again, so are in-office, glass jars of gummy bears. 

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