June 10, 2020, by Lexi Earl

Changing commensality during the crisis: the Nottingham Social Eating Network and Covid-19

This post is written by Marsha Smith.

The Nottingham Social Eating Network and its community food partners in the city mobilised to meet the rising demand for food aid support during the early stages of lockdown. In this post, I reflect on how the values of ‘social eating’ initiatives are being translated into emergent, localised food security practices.

Social eating

Luca et al. (2019) define social eating initiatives as ‘community-based initiatives that provide an integrated model for recovering and using surplus food, localizing food and providing spaces of interaction’. In Nottingham there are around 15 identified social eating initiatives that are operating across most of the wards of the city. These public meal services address food insecurity, support health and well-being, and enable participants to develop what may be termed food social capital by increasing access to, and engagement with, a broader range of ingredients, cooking techniques and meal types.

My PhD research explores the various practices that constitute social eating, with a focus on how they are valued by participants. The practices that social eating participants say are valuable to them can summarised as: commensality (Chou et al. 2015) or group eating practices; alimentary contribution wherein community-based meal services require a whole range of mealtime helping-out activities (Pfeiffer et al. 2015), and performances of care (Van Esterik 1995) or activities that express caring and nurturance.

Whether, through the collection, sorting and storing of foodstuffs, setting up the dining room so people can sit together in groups, or through the convivial conversations that transpire in the dinner-queue, social eating initiatives are suffused with opportunities to participate and get involved. Not only at the mealtime itself but before, during and after the eating event, people are able to derive value from the various participatory practices that make up a social eating initiative.

This ‘more than food’ (Baron et al. 2018; Blake 2019) approach makes these initiatives particularly vital in urban contexts in the current milieu of austerity: food insecurity coexisting with food wastage.

The case of Nottingham

The lockdown therefore may have seemed disastrous for the Nottingham Social Eating Network. With paying customers now quarantined at home, and with the capacity to engage in public commensality now curtailed, how did these initiatives respond? Did social eating become obsolete?

Alongside my PhD research I am voluntarily coordinating two WhatsApp groups sharing information with multiple social eating groups and their partners about the reorganisation of their  community food services. This unique insight has afforded the opportunity to consider social eating initiatives as the sites of dynamic translation between the broader challenges of feeding citizens during the pandemic, and how community initiatives themselves shape and construct these issues through the practices they engage in.

Instead of shutting down, the network redesigned their services and mobilised rapidly and effectively to produce and distribute thousands of meals across Nottingham. The values embedded in social eating could still be detected as groups sustained their meal services despite the operational challenges brought on by lockdown. Instead of becoming obsolete, these practices were transformed into a crucial feature of Nottingham’s Covid-19 foodscape.

Community commensality

As the government left the market to balance need and demand (The BBC 2020), many people experienced food insecurity for the first time in the city. Shielding and unable to shop, with home delivery slots limited and oversubscribed, plus new redundancies and benefit-application backlogs, a referral line manned by Nottingham City Council saw numbers of requests for food aid rising. The surplus foods that the groups had access to through their social eating activities were redirected and shared across the city. In fact, as restaurants and catering businesses closed, record amounts of surplus hit the circuit and were safely and effectively used by groups to augment their meal offers (FareShare 2020).

Sharing food in times of Covid 19

Commensality took a new form; meals were boxed and bagged up for collection and delivery by low-risk volunteers in kitchens where the usual food hygiene rules were intensified to encompass new CV19 risks. Meals may not be being eaten at the same table, but food resources are being shared out by groups to both existing and new customers. Although not physically in the same place, the commensal ethos of the Nottingham network was sustained through these services.

Alimentary contribution

Surplus stock repurposed for community eating

Similarly, alimentary contribution, usually practiced during the set-up, service time and clear down of social eating initiatives, was enfolded into new practices of food collection, production and distribution. The expansion of food aid requests and referrals joined up existing social networks of volunteers and customers with new partners to procure, process and provide meals. Multiple and diverse actors across the city converged to both receive and to contribute help. Taxi drivers became meal delivery services, carparks became socially-distanced food drop off spots where surplus milk, van loads of bacon and catering packs of grated cheese all interlinked to produce novel forms of localised alimentary contribution. At one point 15,000 short-dated sandwiches appeared, requiring immediate distribution, keeping the WhatsApp groups busy all weekend.

Performances of care

Perhaps the most striking practices that became co-opted into the pandemic responses were the performances of care articulated by the Nottingham Social Eating Network. Not only are they materially producing and distributing thousands of meals, but members are the human interface between vulnerable people and the food services that have sustained them. Door-knocking and waiting for a brief catch up chat, checking up on customers with phone calls, thanking and being thanked, putting extra food items in customers bags, paying meals forward and sharing spare food containers- are all examples of the myriad of caring competencies that the network and their partners have enacted across the city.


The values of social eating initiatives, expressed through the multiple, complex and dynamic practices are evidence of a potent local food security response that will retain its importance post-lockdown. Our broader food system is ‘a stretched web of rubber bands which can unravel when splits occur’ (Lang 2020), and as such, it is crucial to consider how this network and its partners have formed an effective, localised response to renegotiate these upstream food security determinants.

The interruptions to the ‘just-in-time’, complex and internationally-distributed food supply affected temporary, localised scarcity in Nottingham. However, as social eating initiatives embraced social disruptions, invoked new partnerships and provisioning practices, they are operating as provisional bridging mechanisms between broader and localised food security practices.

Nottingham citizens have been fed and cared for not solely by globalised food chains but through practices underpinned by values that cannot be commodified. The values of sharing, social cohesion, care and mutuality were just as effective a means of protecting people from food insecurity than access to a commercial product or service, alone.



Baron, S., Patterson, A., Maull, R. and Warnaby, G., (2018). Feed people first: A service ecosystem perspective on innovative food waste reduction. Journal of Service Research21(1), pp.135-150.

Blake, M., (2019a). More than just Food: Everyday food insecurity and resilient place making through community self- organising. Sustainability. 11(10), pp.2942.

FareShare UK (2020) ‘UK food waste charity given 360 tonnes more than usual as businesses close’. The Guardian online edition 10th April 2020.   Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/10/uk-food-waste-charity-fareshare-donations-lockdown?fbclid=IwAR3WDitLrEPJxoZNGGhQcvMxkWb-xAWooYl5mzoUgOhE-aZ7sjUvGPb-RU4 [Accessed 15.04.20].

Lang, T. (2020) in ‘ guidance, no forward planning for rationing’: what’s wrong with Britain’s food supply’, iNews online edition 25th March 2020. Available at: https://inews.co.uk/culture/books/professor-tim-lang-food-supply-britain-2518371 [Accessed 21.5.2020).

Luca, N., Smith, M., Hibbert, S., Doherty, B. (2019) House of Lords Select Committee Submission for ‘Food, Poverty and the Environment- ‘How to make a healthy, sustainable diet accessible and affordable for everyone?’, Written evidence (FPO0032). Available at: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/food-poverty-health-and-environment-committee/food-poverty-health-and-the-environment/written/105296.html on 24.4.20. [Accessed on 24.4.20]

Nottingham City Council website. Request a food parcel (2020). Available at: https://www.nottinghamcity.gov.uk/coronavirus-covid-19/request-a-food-parcel [Accessed 21.5.20).

The BBC online (2020). Coronavirus leads to food industry crisis in Europe. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-europe-52715288/coronavirus-leads-to-food-industry-crisis-in-europe[Accessed on 18.5.20].

Van Esterik, P. (1995). ‘Care, Caregiving, and Caregivers’. Food and Nutrition Bulletin, 16(4), pp. 1–11.

Marsha Smith has ten years’ experience working in award-winning community food initiatives. She contends that public meals at mealtimes, using surplus foods are a response to food insecurity and food wastage, but may also be understood as a new form of commensality, or group eating practice. Marsha is currently undertaking a PhD in social eating at Coventry University, she is a Visiting Fellow at Nottingham Trent University and an academic advisor to FoodHall in Sheffield. Follow her on Twitter: @eatingonpurpose

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