How to organize a community potluck: An interview with Lindsay Wells

Lindsay Wells is a resident of the Acadia Park neighbourhood—the student family housing area at the University of British Columbia (UBC).  She is also a Community Assistant (CA)—a part time position with UBC’s Student Housing and Hospitality Services.  One of her responsibilities is to host the monthly Acadia Park potluck dinners.  I asked what the secrets are to hosting a successful neighbourhood potluck.  Here’s what she had to say.

How did you get started hosting neighbourhood potluck dinners?

LW–I have been a Community Assistant since 2013. My role is to provide resources to residents–whether they’re students, partners, children, grandparents–and to provide activities that connect neighbors with other neighbors, as well as providing resources if people need help getting settled in the community.  When I started, I was the Parents and Tots coordinator.  After a year in that role, I moved on to Family Activities, and that’s when I started organizing our monthly “Community Connections Potluck”.

The community potluck had been run by a previous CA, but I had never attended it or even known it existed before I took over.  When I took on the role of Family Activities coordinator, my supervisor told me I could continue it if I wanted to.  It seemed like a great idea to me. Food is a great way to draw people in and gives people a way to share part of their culture with others. Our particular community has people from all over the world and potlucks help them introduce their favorite foods from their native countries. Potlucks held consistently also allow neighbors to strengthen connections with each other and simply get people out of their houses, especially when the weather is unfavorable.

What is a potluck?  How does it work?

LW–Simply put, it is a meal where everyone contributes. You bring a favorite dish to share with others.  You don’t have to bring food for every person that’s in attendance–just prepare enough food for your own family, plus two or three more people.  I try to encourage bringing main dishes so that there’s an assortment of food. However, sometimes people feel overwhelmed with that, and just bring a side dish, or appetizer, such as a vegetable or fruit tray or chips and dip.  Since I don’t make people sign-up to bring a particular category of food, sometimes many people bring a lot of the same thing–for example, all pasta dishes or potato dishes or meat dishes, leaving no vegetarian options. Sometimes it works out really well and you have a huge variety of foods and sometimes it’s very similar dishes or a bunch of sides and not a well-rounded meal. But, overall, people usually leave satisfied and are happy for the opportunity to meet with others and connect.

Where do you do this?

LW–We have a free common space in our community center. It’s held in a large activity room, similar to a gymnasium (but without the basketball hoops) supplied with plenty of tables and chairs.  There is also a community kitchen attached so we can wash dishes afterwards or finish food preparations.

What is your role in this?  What do you do?

LW–I am the main organizer. In order for the potluck to happen I have to plan and advertise in advance, usually a month but at least 2 weeks prior. I also have to reserve the space in the community center and be in charge of set-up and clean-up on the day of the potluck.

Our potluck is called the “Community Connections Potluck” and is held every second Friday of the month. Every month, I create a flyer advertising the event to be posted in our community center, as well as common areas around the neighbourhood. We also have a local resident newsletter in which I write a little a blurb about it with a calendar of events that is distributed to residents’ homes every month. Facebook is also a great tool for advertising a potluck. Using this, I create events for the potluck, inviting all members of our local community Facebook group, and it posts notifications and announcements pertaining to the potluck for me.

Another part of my role as CA is to welcome newcomer families as they move-in to the neighborhood. I make sure to personally extend an invitation to these families as they move-in (ideally in person, but also through email). It’s a way to offer a hand and introduce them to the community.  Sometimes people that are new don’t bring food and that’s OK because we just want them to feel welcome in the neighborhood and to see how it works. Often, it’s their first introduction into what our community is like and the kinds of activities that we offer.  It’s a great way for them to meet other newcomers like themselves or other neighbors that have been residents a long time.

What do you provide?

LW– We provide the space to meet, tables, chairs, drinks and dessert of some sort, like brownies, ice cream sundaes or pies.

Do you feel bad if not many people show up?

LW–I don’t consider it to be a failure if not many people show up.  It’s great when we have multiple families, but the room we hold our potlucks in don’t have the best acoustics and can get really loud with many people in attendance, making it harder to understand other people in conversations. A few months ago, we only had two other people come besides me. (The rest of my family was missing due to illness.) One was a friend of mine who regularly comes with her two year old daughter and the other was a brand new resident, also new to Canada. Despite being small in numbers, I considered it a very successful potluck. We were able to have a more intimate conversation and both my friend and the new resident were able to connect in a way that may not have happened otherwise. Living here in Vancouver, in winter, it can get really dark and people tend to stay in their ‘caves,’ and you don’t know what people are going through in their own homes. I think potlucks are a fantastic way to remedy “cabin fever” or the “winter blues” by providing a space to meet and eat with others.

If you moved to a new neighbourhood, how would you set up something similar?

LW–That’s a great question. I think it begins with the small everyday interactions we have with our neighbours. You have to be willing to put yourself out there first. Get out of your comfort zone and be willing to get to know your neighbours. It can be intimidating in the beginning, but somebody has to initiate, so why not you!? It is as simple as starting with a friendly smile or “hello!” when you see someone. Then as you see each other more you can introduce yourself, then ask them questions about, like, “How are you?” “Where are you from?”, “How long have you lived here?”, “What do you do?”, etc. Over time, it will naturally progress into more organic and deeper conversations and you may find out you have a lot more in common.  If not, that’s okay too, but at least you’ll be able to put a name to a face. As you continue to make the effort to be a friendly neighbor, you’ll be able to strengthen and form new connections and hopefully build a foundation for organizing a neighborhood potluck.

Any final suggestions for someone who would like to hold a neighbourhood potluck?

LW–A potluck doesn’t have to take weeks of planning, but it helps to be organized and have one or two people in charge of the details. Once a time and location is set, be sure to have clear directions as to what people are required to bring. For example, do they bring their own plates, cutlery, & cups? Are drinks provided? Depending on the type of potluck you want, food themes or assignments may be helpful (like salad, bread, main dish, side dish), but it is not required. The whole idea of a potluck is that people bring something to contribute, so it’s not rude to be specific if needed.

There are all kinds of online tools available to create a potluck event or sign-up list, but it is entirely possible without technology. Simply ask two or three people to bring a main dish, two or three people to bring a salad and then two people to bring a dessert and drinks (if you’re going to have that many people) and you’ll have a complete meal! Any potluck can be successful with proper organization and guests who are willing to share and show up. In this community setting it’s fairly simple, but doing this outside of Acadia Park might require a little more work on the part of the organizer.

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Acadia Park has both hard infrastructure (a community room) and soft infrastructure (paid community assistants) that make events like the monthly neighbourhood potluck easier to organize.  You may not have such infrastructure, and this will make organizing such events more challenging.  Still, I hope that Lindsay’s suggestions will prove helpful to anyone thinking of organizing a potluck.  Yes, it does require a place to gather, a bit of work, and a bit of courage.  But, you can do it if you want to.  Why not give it a try?

Do you have any potluck suggestions that we missed?  Please share them in the comments!  And let me know when you’re having your next potluck.  I’ll bring the potato salad.

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