This is a final class project in collaborative consumption by Ines Khoudja, Candace Kiersky, TJ O'Brien, and Rena Lee, all students in Professor Barent Roth's class, "Sustainable Business" at Parsons The New School for Design. Publishing their work is part of Shareable's initiative to recognize the activity of college students in the sharing economy and catalyze more.
While walking through the school, we notice that a majority of the students are eating alone in the classroom, on a bench while reading, or even while walking. A few others are eating in groups but the content of their lunch is most likely from one of the many take-out options in the area. In spite of their variety, all the nearby food options tend to be harsh on the body and the wallet! Many students are easily discouraged from cooking because of time constraints, repetition of the same dish, not wanting to eat alone before going to class, and concerns about how they will transport their food.
As part of The New School’s Sustainable Business course, our group of four (Ines, Candace, TJ, & Rena) focused on the moment of lunch – thinking of a way to eat healthy, low cost, and sustainable meals together. Inspired by endeavors like MealKu ( beta.mealku.com), we saw that the act of sharing home-cooked meals would be an effective way to reduce the cost of food and become more aware of what we are eating. When a student is cooking for one person, s/he could easily cook a meal that serves two or more people. The quantity of ingredients wouldn’t change drastically and the energy used would be the same, but the ultimate experience of a shared lunch would have much added value that is beneficial socially, economically, and environmentally! Thus, our resulting collaborative consumption system is called MealShare.
HOW IT WORKS
We have created a blog platform (www.tnsmealshare.wordpress.com) to connect the “MealSharers”. If someone wants to join the system, s/he can easily propose a meal for a specific date and time on indicating the specifics of the meal: with meat, veggie, vegan, gluten-free, pork-free, etc. through our shared Google calendar. Once the meal is published to the calendar, any student can join the meal according to their schedule and to their diet! When two students have joined and the group of three is complete, the meal is closed. This lunch will bring these three students together whether they already know each other or not: they will meet, sit, talk and eat! (There is a take-away option if necessary since the benefits of the homemade meal are still significant without the socializing aspect).
The basis of MealShare is reciprocity. Proposing a lunch starts a loop of sharing, each member of the group will cook for the two others once. This way, you don’t have to cook everyday and you know that you will enjoy two delicious and healthy meals served to you. Everyone saves time, energy and money!
PROTOTYPE & DISCOVERY
We started experimenting with this sharing system at school towards the end of October and we soon realized that the main motivation for people was less about food and more the act of sharing! Students realized that it was an opportunity to slow down, take a break to eat, rest, chat, and get to know other students whether they are their classmates that never had the opportunity to speak with or students from other majors. The New School is attended by an incredible diversity of people from different cultures, ages, and fields. MealShare is an opportunity to build a more connected school and a sense of community! The enthusiastic participation of the MealSharers demonstrates the need for more diverse social interactions within the school.
At the same time, based on feedback received from participants, one of the barriers is also “eating with strangers.” Two elements contribute to our system’s overcoming of this obstacle: the first was our common belonging to the same university. We already share buildings, computers, knowledge, and friends, so sharing meals appears as a natural step further. The second element is that food opens up an amazing variety of discussion. It is an opportunity to discover new cultural practices, recipes, and personal stories surrounding food and cooking.
IMPROVEMENTS & ISSUES
Sharing meals is a way to bring us together, so we decided to use the MealShare blog ( www.tnsmealshare.wordpress.com) to post photos and descriptions of the different lunches that have been shared, along with students’ recipes and reviews of each other’s cooking. We hope that publishing these positive experiences will encourage other students to join the movement.
One question is still up in the air: can the system grow without monetary exchange? We found that some students don’t have the ability to cook because they don’t have convenient access to a kitchen, have difficulty transporting food, or just because they believe they are poor cooks. How can we integrate them into the system? We have evaluated the average cost of the meal for each person at around $4, so we consider this an appropriate cost for students who wish to participate without reciprocating meals. However, we are wary that this exchange of money for meals could weaken the communal bond around cooking, encouraging one-time participation and weaker social connections. A payment also introduces the question of appropriate pricing—how can we fix the price with so many different cooks and foods? Beyond that, money introduces a different kind of relationship between the group members, as paying money at the end of a shared meal might feel uncomfortable.
We are still in the process of refining our meal sharing system! Please give us your opinions and insights on how we could improve and scale up MealShare!
We’d also like to acknowledge and thank the inspiration for our project, MealKu (www.beta.mealku.com) which is a larger meal share with a website to connect and deliver users’ meals in New York City. Our New School MealShare system is similar in utilizing the efforts and resources of existing cooks to make homemade food accessible, but different in our emphasis on the act of eating together on campus.