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The Spheres of Engagement: How to Communicate about Food

After I woke up to the difference we could make by eating organic, plant-based food, I wanted to share the news with everyone. What a great way to save money, eat fabulous food, and make a difference! I even changed my job title from "Chief Cook and Researcher" to "Food Evangelist." My sense of urgency made me want to grab a bullhorn.

Yet I knew that lecturing people rarely works unless they've asked for a lecture. Even when I teach cooking classes, leavening the lectures with demos and dialog makes the information tastier. In daily life, it's better to share lunch than to preach. Show how much you enjoy your hummus wrap and bring fabulous cookies to share. Maybe you'll inspire someone to do the same.

This seems slow and even impractical in some cases. I doubt either of my Senators would eat cookies from a constituent. To complicate matters, what works with one person in one setting or on one day may not work in a different situation or time. I've had three quite different chances to communicate about food recently. This led me to the idea of different spheres of engagement and the productive actions that can happen within them.

spheres of engagement

Spheres of Engagement


You can be most direct and have the most influence with yourself. Eating is a powerful way of expressing your values. You literally make them part of your body. Even Benjamin Franklin wrote,

Eat to please thyself, but dress to please others.

If you are food-insecure or a monk with a begging bowl, then you may need to eat whatever is offered. Sometimes the sphere of engagement you are eating with is more important. That's why I agree that all birthday cake is vegan during a celebration. But most of the time, most of us are able to choose water instead of milk, cobble together a good meal from what's available, bring our own food, or just skip a meal. Be kind to yourself and think about your long-term goals.

Those Who Ask

When people ask for assistance or advice, help and teach them. You may be more direct with a stranger in the grocery store who asks you a question than with members of your family or your close friends who haven't. You and I, dear Reader, are in the Those Who Ask circle together. I try to tell you helpful truths, backed by research and testing, as near to my heart as I can manage. Please share your comments, questions, and goals plainly with me.

One of the most powerful things you can do when you are trying to communicate about food is to bring people into this sphere.

Family and Friends

Communicate with your family and friends by sharing great food and showing them how to get it or make it. Have people over for dinner and contribute to potluck dinners. Invite them to join you on a trip to the farmers' market or out to eat at a healthy restaurant. Mention you've been to a VegFest or are inspired by a new cookbook. If they ask for a recipe or details, then you've made it to the sphere of Those Who Ask.

Share food you think everyone will enjoy or at least try. Sometimes this means making adjustments. For example, when I was asked to bring the pasta  salad for a dinner party, I used fantastic plant-based Just Mayo but white noodles. At home, I almost always use whole grain noodles, but I suspected this particular group wouldn't touch brown pasta. The salad got rave reviews, which gave me a chance to talk about the mayo. Maybe some of them will give it a try!

Co-Workers, Neighbors, and Acquaintances

For people you know but are not particularly close to, try to inspire by example. Bring healthy food to the lunch room and the bake sale. Plant vegetables in your front yard. Be interested and interesting. The questions will follow.

If you have a chance to link healthy, thrifty food to group goals, go for it. For example, I belong to a mindfulness group that follows the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh. I joined it in part because Thich Nhat Hanh recommends eating a plant-based diet at least 15 days a month for environmental reasons. We have vegetarian potlucks four times a year, which start with silent mindful eating. Yikes! I couldn't even ask quietly which dishes had dairy products or eggs. The participants seemed to be unclear on what vegetarian means, which may explain the chicken salad.

how to separate the vegetarian and vegan food at a potluck with a streamer and labels

Because eating plant-based food fit in with the group's stated goals, I summoned my courage to discuss this with the group. We agreed to describe the potlucks as vegetarian, with vegan preferred. We tried having people label their food, but that didn't work. Last time, I brought streamers with labels for the food tables, as shown in the picture above. The labels spell out what categories mean. We had a little trouble getting the dairy-based salad dressings on one side and the plant-based salad on the other last time, but overall the streamers worked well. To seed the vegan desserts with a scrumptious option, I brought Chocolate Hazelnut Cupcakes.

Government, Businesses, and Organizations

Pressure and persuade government, businesses, and organizations to adapt healthy, thrifty, and green food practices. These groups rely on your vote, money, and support to succeed. Feel free to use your full range of communications tactics, from talking to customer service and making phone calls to demonstrations and boycotts. Bring up your issues in phone surveys. Praise the positive when you find it and ask for improvement.Vote with your wallet and with your vote.

Autumn and Linda in climate change march with sign

Recently I've been trying to persuade the people at protests to change their eating habits to match their values. The sign shown in the picture above was aimed at the Buddhists I was marching with in the Climate Change March. The other side was aimed at the other people in the march and those following it from home.


Within your broader community, you can set an example of the new normal. When you live a healthy and compassionate life, you make it easier for others to do the same. That's the case even if you will never meet each other and have no special interests together. Years ago, I had to drive to another city to find a farmers' market with organic produce. Now there are two excellent markets closer to me serving hundreds of families. When you choose frozen cashewmilk cream instead of ice cream at the grocery store, another shopper or the cashier may ask you if it's good. (Answer: yes, oh yes!) Get in line at the falafel food truck. Others will notice and join you. When enough people ask for vegan options at restaurants or events, they become part of the normal menu.

Our Beautiful World

As you interact skillfully with the other spheres as an engaged cook, you'll help heal the world. What we think and do ripples out into the larger world. As Thich Nhat Hahn says,

It is impossible to be by yourself, alone. You have to inter-be with everyone and everything else.

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