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Food Culture and Service

You know what they say… April showers bring May flowers and the end of study abroad! Okay, I guess I’ve never heard anyone say that besides me. Everything has been super busy lately with finals and classes wrapping up for the semester. Last Wednesday, my program hosted a dinner to celebrate the end of the term. It was a great opportunity to have a variety of delicious, typical Spanish tapas! 

The final exam in my Food & Culture course asked primarily about the differences we observed between the culture of food and charitable food services in Spain versus the United States. My reflection about our community service experience discussed the variation of professionalism and volunteer-customer interactions between Spain and the United States. For example, the Saint Egidio organization has a strong emphasis on building and maintaining community among the homeless population in Barcelona. As I was volunteering, Alba, the woman in charge on certain nights, explained that the church plays an important role in the lives of these people by not only providing sustenance but also by providing support. The church’s dedication to this goal is evident through its variety of food events, special Sunday meals, and the guidebooks they created to help impoverished citizens access food kitchens and sleeping shelters throughout the city. Furthermore, Alba described an annual event held by Saint Egidio that I found very heartwarming. The church holds a special day of prayer once a year for those who have passed away in the local homeless community. Alba stressed the importance of this event: “it helps for them to know that someone will remember them when they are gone.”

This type of community-building is not so common in the United States. Whether this stems from the presence of larger homeless populations or cultural differences in the United States cannot be said certainly. However, a cultural difference was very clear when I volunteered for the second style of food distribution, which I discussed in my previous post.  There were several obvious differences between this type of food service and the equivalent in the United States. One was that a large variety of people came to receive the free meal; there were men in work attire who looked like they had come from work, groups sitting together and laughing, and couples eating together. This array of attendees was not limited to homeless people living in Barcelona, rather, anyone who could use the help of a free meal. Back home, although anyone would be welcome to receive the dinner provided for those in need, it is very unlikely that there would be anyone other than homeless individuals.

Another important aspect of this service event that would not be prevalent in the United States was a strong sense of professionalism present throughout the experience. The tables were set with tablecloths and flower arrangements, and specific rules were given to the volunteers serving the attendees. Though volunteers in the States are expected to be respectful and helpful at all times, the standard for service at this event was much higher. Before the dinner began, the staff briefed the volunteers on the proceedings of the evening. We were each assigned to three tables and were tasked with delivering food to the people at that table. However, there were a lot of rules pertaining to the process. Despite the simplicity of these rules, I became slightly overwhelmed as a volunteer in this environment. 

My experience volunteering at Saint Egidio is emblematic of greater food cultural values within Spain. I have noticed that food is more commonly viewed as a social experience that Spaniards prefer to have among friends and family. This became most obvious to me because Spaniards enjoy taking their time at restaurants and having long and meaningful meals. This might be why the people at Saint Egidio see their service work as a chance to connect with the people they are helping. The community aspect of their organization definitely exemplifies the Spanish dedication to creating bonds through the culinary experience. 

Another value that is evident in Spanish food culture is the formality that is guaranteed with a meal. While Americans might prefer to eat things to-go in order to maximize time, Spaniards enjoy the cultural customs that come with the experience of consumption. This is clear through the dedication to maintaining a traditional dinner environment at Saint Egidio’s restaurant style service events. The importance of treating attendees in a traditional manner, with several courses and aesthetically pleasing table settings, upholds the Spanish cultural standard. At the same time, this commitment to making everything a pleasant experience shows extra care for the mental well-being of attendees. One issue prevalent within volunteering groups is that it is against human nature to receive charity. It is not uncommon for someone in a comprising situation to feel too prideful or embarrassed to accept help, whether in the form of money, food, or shelter. The fact that Saint Egidio upholds a restaurant-like standard creates a more pleasant atmosphere for the attendees because they receive five-star treatment. I would imagine that this encourages people to return, as well as helping maintain the diversity of people present. This same consideration is relevant to the homelessness outreach and reiterates the importance of creating bonds.

What has become strikingly apparent after my volunteering experiences and semester living in Barcelona is that the United States and Spain have drastically different perceptions when considering the value of food. The fast-paced nature of America versus the slow-paced nature of Spain, along with the strong emphasis on food as a social element in Spain, exemplifies that Americans lack a deep understanding of food’s importance. This stems partially from the dominance of the fast food industry in the United States, though also due in part to the difficulty in tracking from where one’s food comes. The large-scale nature of the food industry in America makes food seem disposable, plentiful, and inexhaustible, which results in unnecessary food waste and a lack of conscientiousness about personal consumption. These problems may exist on a smaller scale in Spain, and there are certain individuals who are the exception in the United States. However, the differences in cultural and historical backgrounds have led the United States and Spain to develop extremely different food cultures.