Peer to Peer Dining Builds Community One Meal at a Time

Meal sharing is nothing new. From time immemorial, people have been sitting down to eat together. But now, technology provides us with the tools to connect with people known and unknown, from all over the world, over food. We can visit places and eat with local families rather than in the hotel restaurant; we can get to know travelers by cooking them breakfast; we can strengthen ties in our neighborhoods by hosting and attending food events; we can hone our chef skills on a group of foodies; we can utilize food as a way to build community.

From grilled cheese sandwiches to homemade kombucha to roast duck, meal sharing platforms offer something for everyone by connecting people on a peer-to-peer basis around food. Right now, most meal sharing is found primarily in metropolitan areas and is harder to find as you move away from the cities. But, that may soon change.

With numerous platforms positioning themselves as key players, meal sharing might be the next big sharing thing. The platforms focus on different aspects of meal sharing and this benefits the movement as a whole. The more options people have to share in a way that works for them, the more likely they are to get involved.

Meal sharing a colorful breakfast of berries and cream

In startup speak, the opportunity for growth in the meal sharing market is massive. Afterall, we all need to eat several times a day, many people eat out regularly and the community of foodies is expanding. If the potential can be harnessed and technology leveraged effectively, things in the food industry could be disrupted as people turn to shared meals rather than take-out and restaurants.

“Our goal in the next few years is to have more hosts around the world then the top three major fast food restaurants locations,” says Jason Savsani, founder of Meal Sharing, a platform that brings people together for home-cooked meals around the world. “That would really say something if we succeed. That the world stood up and said, ‘I would rather trust my neighbor for food, then a major food corporation.’”

The variety of approaches to connecting people over food creates a wide open environment with endless opportunities. For instance, if you want company for lunch at a local restaurant, check out COlunching; frequent travelers, and hosts that love to entertain travelers, can connect via Cookening; Mealku is a pay-it-forward, meal sharing barter system; Is take-out more your style? ShareYourMeal connects neighbors who have extra portions with those who need a portion; Meal Sharing takes a “make what you make” approach, encouraging people to prepare for travelers food they would eat on typical night; Eat With Me enables people to plan “cool food events” and invite others to join; Feastly facilitates everything from a gourmet Valentine’s Day meal to a 50-plus person ice cream event. EatWith out of Tel Aviv emphasizes fun and safety -- they background check hosts. And there are many more platforms, each with a unique angle.

At this Feastly meal in Washington, D.C., Feasters picked their own farm-fresh salad vegetables

Feastly co-founder Danny Harris tells the story of the first Feastly meal, cooked by his mom, who is what he calls, “the typical Feastly chef.” She loves cooking and people always want to eat her food, but in the past, barriers to entry into the restaurant world prevented her from monetizing her skills.

“Who has a million dollars to open a restaurant?” Harris says. “Feastly lowers the barrier to entry and lets somebody like my mom, who has these incredible abilities, start to do one-off meals and to explore the concept of working with recipes because they have thought of one day opening a restaurant.”

This meal in Cambodia provided the inspiration for Meal Sharing

In addition to connecting chefs and foodies, meal sharing also creates a social atmosphere where people can get to know their neighbors, connect with people who they might not otherwise meet, learn about different cultures and expand their circle of community. Details including menu choices, dietary restrictions and payment are handled online, leaving people to enjoy the experience of connecting and eating.

“We’re less interested in what’s on the table,” says Harris, “than in giving people an opportunity to connect; letting them meet friends, letting them meet potential significant others and letting people really connect with those in their community, around the table.”

At this Feastly meal titled "Look What My Mamma Taught Me," Feasters learn how to cook Middle Eastern food.

For those looking for something less committal than eating with strangers, ShareYourMeal provides an easy alternative. A hyper-local service, the site lists people who have extra portions of a meal that neighbors can come by and pick up.

“Others platforms are focused on chefs, or sitting together and getting to know each other,” says ShareYourMeal ambassador Wibe van de Vijver. “But with ShareYourMeal, you just pick it up and take it away. It’s a very lightweight way to connect to your neighbors and a fun way to see what they are cooking, and maybe have a quick chat.”

ShareYourMeal chef Anne prepares food for pickup in New York City

The diversity of meal sharing platforms is also reflected in the various funding models. Some are based on peer-to-peer exchange, some are nonprofits, some have seed funding and others take a fee from each transaction. Tapping into the sharing community, as well as the vast foodie community that appreciates some adventure with their food, these platforms are growing, they’re drawing attention from the media and they’re starting to creep into mainstream awareness. But they still have a ways to go before we’re all meal sharing on a regular basis. It may, however, just be a matter of time.

“The first thing that needs to happen is collaborative consumption as a whole needs to be mainstream,” says Savsani. “With the rise in popularity of Airbnb and ride sharing, these platforms are breaking down and redefining what a stranger means. Ultimately, they are helping other forms of collaborative consumption grow.”

Van de Vijver seconds the importance of the collaborative consumption movement as a whole in supporting the meal sharing movement.

“Everyone I discuss the project with says, ‘I’m not sure if I know which meal to trust,’” he says. “A few years ago, everyone said the same thing about Airbnb. But we’ve discovered that the power of the internet, where you can build reviews and profiles, is very strong. “We should trust each other more,” he adds. “It has a very positive outcome if we do so.”