Ask 10-year-old Emma Gaddy about dinnertime, and she describes neighbors feeding neighbors.
She doesn’t know anything different. Neither does her sister, 4-year-old Caroline. Nor do Luca Sabino, 7, and his sister, Adeline, 4.
Ten years ago this month, their parents and four of their neighbors – some friends and some strangers – started a meal share in their Belvidere Park and Woodcrest communities off Capital Boulevard in Raleigh.
“It’s nice for families and neighbors to come together and meet each other and feed each other,” said Emma, a fifth-grader at Conn Elementary School. “If it’s not your night to feed, you can just take a nice walk over to somebody’s house and grab the food.
“I think it’s something I will pass down from generation to generation.”
Not only do they eat healthy – home-cooked meals at least four days a week – they pare down time spent cooking, eliminate the daily stress of what’s for dinner, whittle grocery bills and try new dishes.
Most importantly, they’ve built community.
“For us, it’s really about how food creates community,” said Krista Padgett who helped organize the meal share after friend and neighbor Katie Sabino read an article about the idea in Real Simple magazine.
“Certainly, the fact that I only have to cook once every two weeks and I eat a home-cooked meal Monday through Thursday means a lot, but it’s really about the actual community and interdependence that can start with food,” said Padgett, 41. “We rely on each other heavily, and we are involved in each other’s lives – a lot.”
The initial meal share agreement was for 30 days. They never looked back, or fretted a name.
“It’s about people who pick up your kids when you can’t, who help out when you’re unemployed. People who bring you food after surgery, and the people you live with when you get divorced,” Padgett said. “The importance of the food has diminished over time, and the importance of community has increased over time.”
Worldwide, meal-sharing platforms model the growing phenomenon referred to as a sharing or peer economy, or collaborative consumption – all socio-economic ecosystems that champion exchanges of human, physical and intellectual resources, much like Airbnb or Uber.
Some cities use meal-sharing to feed the less fortunate through buy-one-get-one partnerships with restaurants. Others have community meals in which hosts prepare food and folks stop by, have dinner and meet new people.
Internationally, travelers to foreign countries experience foreign culture at the dinner table in a native host’s home.
Here, Padgett said, meals – always at least a main and side-dish – range from vegetarian to family recipes, whatever the day’s cook is eating. If someone’s off-kilter, Chinese take-out it is.
Katie Sabino called their meal-share program a “lifesaver” for her and husband, Ryan, especially before they became parents.
“We were being fed better meals than we were preparing for ourselves, and then we all started taking care of each other in a family way,” said Sabino, 38.
It’s how dinner is done.
“People walk into our house on Tuesday nights and pick up their food,” Sabino said. “The kids absolutely love when people come for their dinner, and it absolutely blows all of our minds that we have maintained it this long.
“On the other hand, we can’t imagine life without it.”
Trey Marchant “really was pretty skeptical” about joining the meal share, especially with neighbors he didn’t know well. But he quickly warmed to the idea.
“I remember sitting down at my house to eat my first meal-share meal and thinking, ‘Wow, this is pretty cool.’ I went and picked up a meal for free and didn’t have to cook it.
“I was sold immediately.”
Marchant, 53, a divorcee who cooked frequently with his ex-wife, credits his meal-share “second family” for expanding his repertoire of dishes, especially since someone in the group gifted him a Rachael Ray cookbook.
“They call me Rachael Trey now,” he chuckled.
His most-requested dish: cornbread waffles, served as a side-dish complement to his chili.