Food; the secret to building relationships?

This week I took a group of young people to Costa coffee at Westside plaza for lunch. Pre-packed sandwiches and caffeinated drinks aplenty, my expense receipts skyrocketing into the double figures (£22!). Three eager young people, the newest Cyrenians volunteers in our efforts to increase youth participation in our Mediation & Support service’s development.

Making sure young people are fed is one of the most natural things I do as a youth worker. Every project budget includes a line for fruit, crisps and mountains of sugar disguised by hypnotic plastic packaging. This has never been part of some well-thought out pedagogical approach. I could probably connect it to nostalgic memories of entering my Nan’s house to the smell of freshly baked rock cakes and yorkshire puddings, but in reality it’s just one of these things I’ve always done. Mostly without thinking…and if I’m in a rush it’s something I may even forget to do. Because frankly, who cares?

In November I was co-delivered a workshop at the National Youth Work Conference in Glasgow, alongside a fantastic young woman, 16 years old. We were presenting the development and delivery of a project we had both participated in the previous summer. I wanted to talk about the improvement in mental health that participants reported. She wanted to talk about the food. I wanted to talk about how the project was inspired by an Australian approach to health and well-being. She wanted to talk about the food. I wanted…she wanted to talk about the food. You get the idea.

Why was she so hung up on a few bags of Walkers and a Capri-sun?

When she walked into the space and saw the food, she told me, it wasn’t just food to her. It meant that the little money she had in her pocket was hers, she didn’t need to pay for her lunch. It gave her freedom to make her own choices. When she saw the food she realised that I had taken the time to go and get that for her, I had thought about her well-being. When she saw the food and was told that she could take anything at anytime without asking, she realised we trusted her and considered her an adult and it helped her to trust me. If i forgot to pickup up snacks, who would care? She would care, that’s who.

I was reminded of this just this morning when a colleague of mine, having spoke to one of the young people who joined me on our Costa lunch this week said ‘I heard you took J out to lunch, she was very excited’. Instinctively I scoffed and made a sarcastic comment about the quality of the food and how I’d only bought her a sandwich, implying the young person had no right to be excited. My colleague stopped, and gently repeated that I didn’t just buy her a sandwich, I took her out to lunch. That’s how she saw it and this was a big deal for the young person. Young people don’t get to go to Costa for lunch, it’s too expensive. Again I had forgotten that my experience isn’t the same as the young people I journey with. Something I do automatically doesn’t seem automatic to them, and it could mean much more than ‘just a sandwich’.

Is food the secret to building relationships? Or is it just another tool to build trust and show people you care? I don’t know but I think I’ve just resigned myself to having to spend £22 quid in Costa every week!


I think that food is often a way of building relationships, a way of building trust and a way of showing people that you care. When we meet with people, whether in our personal or our professional life’s, we often combine that meeting with food and/or drink. We say that we want to meet up for a coffee, a drink or a meal. Although the food and/or drink is good, what we are really saying is that we want to meet up for the conversation…for the relationship. Often food and/or drink can soften the awkwardness of meeting. Food and/or drink can start a conversation or can give welcome relief when conversation is difficult. The act of eating and drinking is something to talk about…how is your meal? Do you take sugar with your coffee? So food and/or drink does provide a way of helping relationship to grow, which reminds me…it’s lunch time!

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Great piece Alan, thanks. What I took from it was that the offer of food breaks down barriers, which when you think about it has done for many, many years throughout many different cultures. The ‘breaking of bread’ is a communication of peace, the family meal is an act of unity and connectedness, the ceremonial dinner for a celebratory gathering and so forth. It is an act of kindness that as you suggested can be seen as just a simple gesture and yet for others much more meaningful, even life affirming.

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