Our modern societies are facing the erosion of social bonds, resulting in a significant part of the population feeling abandoned, excluded or useless. Diane designs a new type of communal place in the form of lunchrooms available to all, offering a new opportunity for social interactions to the inhabitants of a neighborhood. She is revolutionizing the way we address loneliness by empowering citizens to become agents of social cohesion and learn again how to create valuable social bonds.
The New Idea
Diane acknowledges the importance of qualitative social bonds as a primary need. She believes and has experienced that loneliness has little to do with gender, age or economic situation; every human being needs to create social links to thrive. Observing that people -especially in cities- do not reach out to others naturally anymore, and realizing the system in place to fight against this phenomenon is incomplete, she offers a new opportunity for social interactions to the inhabitants of a neighborhood, regardless of who they are and their social category. To help people strengthen their “socialization muscle”, she has designed a new type of communal place to which anyone can come to connect with other people. Her work revolutionizes the way we address the loneliness curve by empowering citizens to become agents of social cohesion.
Because she wants to avoid the pitfalls of a stigmatizing solution that would potentially leave behind people not feeling affected by the issue (even if they potentially are), Diane is using a very discrete and disguised way by taking the sharing of food as an excuse to recreate social bonds and break natural barriers. Indeed, Diane convenes people around a meal, another primary need and something that everybody needs and does every day all over the world bringing together people with very different backgrounds. She puts them in an active and not victimizing position that helps reinforcing communality by making local lunchrooms (“Les Petites Cantines”) available to a whole neighborhood. Inhabitants use their Petite Cantine to cook together and then share the meal they have prepared with others. The exercise is not about helping isolated people per se, or about separating caregivers from their beneficiaries. It is instead about creating a sense of belonging amongst participants who know that they can count on their neighbors, and vice-versa.
Each petite cantine is economically self-sufficient and coordinated by an employee playing a conductor role -the “Canteen Master”- who helps participants find their own dynamic. This Canteen Master empowers people from different backgrounds to communicate with each others; s/he is also responsible for maintaining the canteen’s diversity to ensure a social, cultural and generational mix, , offering people who normally never talk to each other the opportunity to do so.
Nowadays, intergenerational and social bonds are fading. Reaching out to others seems less natural, especially because traditional social ties that linked individuals to institutions -such as religion, family, political parties and trade unions- are weakening. Communal places like churches, village squares, grocery shops and wash places…- are vanishing. And the use of technology is replacing a lot of physical interactions, which disinvites people from the process of cultivating interpersonal relationships since everything can be done online (shopping, administrative actions etc.). Our new urban lifestyles amplify this phenomenon: anonymity in cities is unavoidable, and increasing divorces and mobility for work or studies represent new risks for loneliness, affecting all social categories.
As a dramatic consequence, isolation is worsening across Europe, regardless of one’s economic situation. A recent study showed that in 2016, five million French people over 15 years of age feel lonely (as opposed to four million in 2010), and 26% of French people feel abandoned, excluded or useless. This is not a specifically French phenomenon since on average, 18% of the European population has less than one contact with people outside work each month. This isolation has deep consequences. People are increasingly self-centered, distrustful of institutions and insecure, which contributes to the rise of extremism. Studies have demonstrated the link between isolation and intolerance, since loneliness feeds a vicious circle in which isolated people find it even harder to reach out to others. Loneliness is also an important determinant of one’s health; it accelerates the loss of autonomy and causes both depression and suicide. Indeed, isolated people are twice more likely to die prematurely than people with an active social life.
Solutions that address this isolation exist, but they are incomplete because they tend to focus only on the most visible victims of isolation: people suffering from high economic poverty, for example, or the elderly. They therefore leave behind a large swath of the population that, while perhaps not conscious of it, need more meaningful social interactions. Moreover, existing solutions are often stigmatizing. They repel potential beneficiaries who are not yet equipped to admit their own vulnerabilities. And many initiatives that try to help isolated people often infantilize them by drawing a distinct line between caregivers and beneficiaries. Finally, existing solutions tend not to foster social and intergenerational diversity, since they convene people from similar social categories (the “needy”, the “elderly” and the “unemployed”, for example) and rely on volunteers who create social bonds artificially. instead of helping society tackling the problem at its root cause and learn again how to naturally develop social bonds.
Diane sets up a new kind of communal space that is accessible to every inhabitant of a neighborhood. Each petite cantine operates between four and eight times a week, allowing neighbors to come together regularly and as often as they want. Diane gives everybody the opportunity to join this kind of social space without having to give any justification or explanation. Sharing a meal becomes the means by which participants create social bonding without having to talk about it : loneliness is never mentioned explicitly.
Every meal is an opportunity for people to meet and engage while cooking together. The project is an exercise in the collective: together participants set the table, eat, and wash dishes, whoever they are and whatever is the reason of their venue. To maintain a certain alchemy in this unusual set-up, the “Canteen Master” plays a fundamental role. S/he ensures the best experience possible for the participants in terms of nutrition and (above all) interactions by orchestrating the cooking session and tactfully supervising the bonding process between people, making sure all members find their place. This Canteen Master helps the group take ownership of their shared space and adopt new practices in terms of interactions with others and in terms of food consumption habits, all without assuming a patronizing posture. Using the cooking process as an excuse, s/he deftly interacts with participants to create opportunities for them to engage (eg: “Could you help me cut these carrots” or “Can you pass me the salt?” or “Do you know that Annie used to be a seamstress?”). The Canteen Master gives everyone the opportunity to feel useful and interact organically.
Considering Canteen Masters the cornerstone of petite cantines, Diane pays great attention to their selection, training, and the welcoming procedures she equips them with. She helps candidates develop high levels of empathy and emotional intelligence through a strategic mix of theory, practice and immersive experiences with existing Canteen Masters. Diane also coaches trainees in non-violent communication protocols to navigate touchy topics (e.g., religious dietary requirements) that may arise during cantine meals. Eventually, a Canteen Master’s vocabulary has to be chosen strategically. Terms used must reflect the fact that there is no hierarchy among visitors. Loneliness, beneficiaries or volunteers are not discussed, for example, but relationships, members and community are. This way, the Canteen Master creates a sense of community by making sure everybody feels equally treated and valued.
To build a foundation for this community spirit, Diane only opens a canteen with the help of those from the neighborhood. Indeed, even before she’s found a physical space for a canteen, Diane focuses on building a first circle of neighbors that will actively contribute to its creation. This way, a sense of belonging is created at the very beginning of the journey. The process also enables Diane to strategically rely on the community members’ network and creativity to find an affordable place to rent, potential financial partners and sustainable food suppliers.
Diane has also understood that the spirit of a canteen relies on the diversity of its members, and on the fact that the place is not designed only for the lonely and vulnerable. The choice of the neighborhood and location are therefore key. She always chooses to locate a canteen in a densely populated neighborhood with plenty of mixed-used real estate (ie: places where homes, offices and shopping facilities coexist). This guarantees both diversity of the group and a high frequentation rate, two very important levers Diane has identified to secure the business model and the liveliness of the community. The Canteen Master is vigilant about ensuring that all participants feel welcomed so that the space does not become a senior club or soup kitchen. Each canteen also relies on a strong network of around 30 local and operational partners built at the launch of the canteen -companies, medico-social practitioners, associations, social centers, universities (…), using them as prescribers so as to reach out to a large and diverse range of people, including the most vulnerable.
One example of this diversity centers on participants’ age. One third of canteen meals are taken by people who are younger than 30 years old. Another third of meals are taken by people between 30 and 50 years of age. And, the last third of meals are taken by people over 50. Shopkeepers, workers in neighborhood offices, students, families, refugees and the elderly – all of them come regularly to their canteen. They cover their meal charges by following the “pay as you feel” model, which allows them to choose what they want to give considering their personal budgets. The model also allows the canteen to be financially sustainable, since an equivalent number of people pay above and below the meals’ at-cost price.
In only four years, Diane has already reached 15,000 people via five Petites Cantines across three cities. The results directly observed in the first canteens are compelling since seventy eight percent of participants state that they feel like they belong to a community, and a lot of links and projects are created every day among neighbors (eg : shared permaculture gardens have been cultivated, some participants have come together to support a neighbor’s struggle with domestic abuse for example). Equally important for Diane is the fact that the impact on participants goes way beyond time spent with other members in the canteen. Fifty five percent say they took action to recreate social bonds with people beyond the canteen, such as by talking to a stranger on the street or organizing social gatherings for others in the buildings where they live.
By 2022, Diane plans to double the number of canteens (the next five are on their way early this year). And, by 2030, she hopes to have opened at least one Petite Cantine in all French cities of more than 20.000 inhabitants. That represents 50 places in total. Diane and her team receive a significant amount of calls from potential local project holders every month, and they are tapping into this interest to build a network model. Indeed, apart from the first canteen she opened in 2016, Diane never opens a canteen on her own. She is convinced that each canteen needs to reflect the image of its neighborhood and therefore that local inhabitants are the ones who know their neighborhood best. She made all her organizational choices based on this understanding that she had to create a community of empowered local entrepreneurs rather than trying to apply a mold to an unknown geography. Through a selective and empowering process, she’s building a lively learning community made of autonomous non-profit organizations able to coalesce around the same societal project and to replicate her idea on a large scale.
Eventually, relying on this community of local Petites Cantines, Diane has started to provide open training to all NGOs interested in her idea. Her new way of catering collectively is also creating space for a new type of restaurant (“pay as you feel” model regulation and tools development, advocacy actions to soften hygiene requirements and reconciliate it with sustainable development, etc.). Diane is also working with sociologists and anthropologists to demonstrate the utility of this kind of project for the city of tomorrow and convince municipal authorities to integrate it in calls for bids.
Diane grew up in Paris in a rather well-off Catholic family. Older than her three brothers and a girl scout, she had many opportunities to develop both leadership skills and a taste for launching collective projects. Aged eight and fascinated by human relationships, she decided she would become a journalist because she wanted to create links with and between people. Diane also created her own small newspaper and used this opportunity to interview her neighbors on different topics and then sold these stories to her community. Later on, at the age of 14, she went on a mission for a charity that helped elderly who were isolated. She understood then the disasters that loneliness can cause. She became friends with the old lady she was assigned to visit and saw her ever week for 10 years.
During her literature studies and still passionate about human interactions and society dynamics, Diane wrote a dissertation on writer Milan Kundera and the concept of alterity – both between people and between countries of the European Union. She pursued her studies in European Relations, simultaneously launching several student newspapers. She practiced TV and print journalism for several years but, despite her success, experienced a sense of an inner emptiness. She felt that something was missing from her life.
In 2013, Diane lost her husband in a car accident, and one of her three children lapsed into a coma. This hardship overhauled her life. First, she observed herself dealing successfully with this highly difficult event on her own. She realized that she is powerful and able to change her life radically if she wishes. Secondly, she experienced deep loneliness but realized that she found her salvation by relying on others to bounce back, experiencing the extraordinary power of alterity. A few months after the car accident, she decided to quit her job and find her new path through entrepreneurship, despite the discouragements of her relatives. It was then that she met Etienne, co-founder of Les Petites Cantines. Etienne was (and still is) working for the social innovation department of a big French corporation. He had many ideas in mind and wanted to embark on an entrepreneurial journey. When he mentioned to Diane his idea, among others, of a “community restaurant”, she immediately sensed its relevance and potential impact due to her personal story. She convinced him to launch the project with her. Since then, a gut feeling that they have a powerful idea in their hands has never left Etienne and Diane, and they are actively working together to turn this idea into reality.