Social interaction and the importance of food and mealtimes for bringing seafarers together

September 30, 2022
B11 Pieter Dekker
© Pieter Dekker

In the second of a series of articles exploring the key themes, guidance and recommendations in ISWAN’s recently released Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project Phase Two Report, the project Research Lead Dr. Kate Pike explores why food plays a key role in crew wellbeing on board a vessel.

Nutritious and varied food is vital for good health and provides the foundation of socialisation. Sharing daily meals brings people together and contributes to the formation of individual and collective identity (Poulain, 2016). None of this is truer than in a seafaring environment.

The Maritime Labour Convention (MLC) 2006, (regulation 3.2), requires all seafarers to have access to sufficient food and drinking water which is of appropriate quality and prepared by trained catering personnel (MLC, 2006). Access to a variety of different food options is also vital to maintaining good physical and mental health on board (ISWAN, nd). However, food has the potential to be much more than merely sustenance.

The Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project clearly demonstrated how food, among other drivers of social interaction, can influence positive changes to the mood on board and raise morale. Food is a daily convenor and mealtimes are social occasions which bring people together and can often be the highlight of a seafarer’s day. When crew relax and eat together it helps conversations to flow and provides an opportunity for people to get to know one another better. This is particularly important when crews are frequently changing and often meeting each other for the first time. Conversation generated during mealtimes is valuable when other types of socialising are difficult to facilitate, or time is short. Making the most of these communal times to instigate discussions has a positive impact, and these opportunities should be promoted and supported, particularly by the senior officers.

'I’ve seen the importance of food for health and wellbeing both for nurturing overall health, but also the act of bringing people together around a table. A well-balanced, good-looking and nutritious meal does more than provide fuel; it keeps people at the table, talking, connecting, sharing.'

Mealtimes can also be turned into special occasions or celebrations with the right creativity and skills. Certain foods are seen as a treat and obtaining snacks like chocolate or pizza when in port can help to lift spirits. During COVID-19 this has been much harder to achieve, but some port welfare services have stepped in to help bring seafarers their favourite supplies.

The latest Seafarers Happiness Index report (Quarter 2 2022) from The Mission to Seafarers highlighted how morale on board can be boosted by takeaway food from ashore, with one seafarer commenting: ‘We asked the Seafarers Center if they could bring us some chicken. They did, buckets of it. We had a great laugh on board eating it. Thank you’.

The following quotes extracted from the SIM Project research demonstrate the value of ‘special’ food and how it can lift the mood on board:

'Crew were happy with the food prepared by Cook during the day. Cook made delicious Biryani and freshly baked cookies. Everyone enjoyed the food.'

Vessel 1

'Today was the Italian Republic Day and we enjoyed a meal all together. Great time, this increase[d] the mood of the crew a lot.'

Vessel 6

'Having tasty and healthy food makes the day.'

Vessel 15

Most modern-day crews are mixed nationality and multicultural, and the importance of preparing food which accommodates and demonstrates respect for their different religious and cultural backgrounds should not be underestimated. Recognising various cultural occasions also helps a mixed nationality crew to feel valued and more at home. During the SIM Project phase two trials, celebration meals and feasts were planned for cultural events including Christmas, Diwali, Italian Republic Day and Day of the Seafarer.

The project showed that continually developing and adapting the menu on board to reflect the current crew nationalities provided the opportunity for different cultural dishes to be shared and enjoyed by all. This can help to generate conversations and a celebratory atmosphere, and, if advertised in advance, provides the crew with something to look forward to.

It is evident that the role of a ship’s cook is complex and likely underrated. It comes with significant responsibility for ensuring that mealtimes are nutritious, satisfying and enjoyable for everyone. To achieve this, it is important that cooks should be well trained, accomplished and educated in nutrition. It is the responsibility of the ship management company to ensure that they have access to good and varied resources to cater for all crew nationalities.

Overall, getting food right is very important and most crew members spend a lot of time thinking about food and looking forward to mealtimes. Ironically, despite the significant influence that food can have on their own wellbeing, this is often something that seafarers have very little control or influence over.

Food on board matters, and mental, as well as physical wellbeing, relies on it.

© Vincent Dwight Rafil

The Social Interaction Matters (SIM) Project shows that:

  • Food plays a significant role on board, providing the foundation for daily social interactions.
  • Good food greatly influences the mood on board and can raise morale.
  • Crew of all nationalities should be considered and consulted about the food they would like to eat over the course of the voyage.
  • More emphasis and investment should be given to the provision and preparation of quality, varied food.
  • Increased daily food budgets and ongoing/advanced training for cooks are recommended.
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