From coffee plantation tours run by women to zero-waste restaurants, there are lots of food-related initiatives around the world that can enhance travel experiences while having a positive impact. | Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

June 17, 2024

There are some inalienable truths when it comes to traveling: Everyone needs to sleep, move around, and eat. And if people need to do those things anyway, they might as well do them in a way that benefits the social good.

When people travel, they often gravitate toward what they know about, are familiar with, or can easily find. That means travelers usually hit the “best of” sites, stay on the well-worn tourist trail, stay at the name-brand accommodation chains, and eat at the popular, easy-to-find establishments.

But approaching tourism with a regenerative lens is a chance to rethink the intention of travel: Not just where travelers go but why they’re choosing to be in those spaces. And beyond choosing what they’ll do (eat, sleep, participate, etc.), it’s possible to be more intentional with how they have those experiences.

If and where there’s an opportunity to re-evaluate tourism’s impact in a place and on the people who live there, it’s far better to make choices that have a positive impact than a negative one. This is why social enterprises and social impact initiatives should more holistically be integrated into travel experiences.

Ideally, travelers are seeking out these kinds of experiences themselves. But, knowing that people take the path of least resistance – and that many travelers aren’t even aware that such initiatives exist – the burden of raising awareness about such initiatives and integrating them into travel offerings sits on the shoulders of those working in the tourism industry. Tour operators need to build them into their itineraries. Destinations need to highlight them in their marketing materials. Travel designers and agents need to recommend them to clients.

When it comes to food and dining, specifically, more awareness and consideration about impact is needed in the tourism context. Luckily, there are lots of ways to incorporate more thoughtful food consumption and eating experiences into travel. Doing so not only addresses issues surrounding food procurement, waste, and security, but it can also increase the perceived value of an experience by offering something unique to a place while benefiting local people.

Food is a part of every trip – so let’s make it a worthwhile activity. Here are several ways the tourism industry can do a better job of helping travelers do that – and examples of eateries, enterprises, projects, and initiatives leading the way.

Eating Establishments That Are Social Enterprises

Social enterprises or social impact initiatives are businesses that maximize financial, social, and environmental impacts to improve society’s overall well-being. Travelers enjoy a fab meal or a great cup of coffee, but at the end of the day, it’s the employees and greater community that benefit. Often social enterprises focused on food service provide meaningful employment for marginalized communities. They might also be training facilities for youth seeking to enter the hospitality sector. Learning more about the purpose of these restaurants and cafes reveals not just a great menu, but also a unique, place-based story.

Examples of eating establishments that also have a social purpose include:

  • All Square (United States) - This non-profit social enterprise – and craft grilled cheese restaurant – works “humbly and unapologetically to channel resources to people who, by virtue of their criminal record or active incarceration, face significant barriers to freedom.”
  • Amma Café (Nepal) - This social enterprise offers training and employment opportunities for vulnerable women living in the Greater Lumbini Area, a part of the country tourists pass through but spend little money in.
  • Brigade Bar + Kitchen (United Kingdom) - This neighborhood restaurant serves as a training hub and provides support programs for people who are vulnerable, socially isolated, or impacted by various life circumstances.
  • The Clink (United Kingdom) - The Clink Charity’s two restaurants are located within working prisons, and all food is prepared and served by people in prison. The organization’s goal is to reduce reoffending through training and rehabilitation.
  • EDWINS Leadership & Restaurant Institute (United States) - Based in Cleveland, Ohio, this organization offers culinary and hospitality training and support to previously incarcerated adults. The EDWINS campus includes a fine French restaurant, butcher shop, and bakery. Every year, 75 students graduate from the program, and many go on to hold gainful employment in dining and hospitality positions.
  • Fair Shot (United Kingdom) - This coffee shop and cafe provides adults with learning disabilities with hospitality training and employment.
  • The Finn (Ireland) - This coffee shop serves as a social enterprise in the summer months employing young people who would find it particularly challenging to find summer jobs.
  • The Fringe Coffee House (United States) - This coffee shop in Hamilton, Ohio, serves beverages, breakfast, and lunch. It provides on-the-job training, employment, and counseling for people “impacted by incarceration, returning citizens, and those at the fringes of society so they can live healthy, whole lives.”
  • Gustu (Bolivia) - This fine-dining restaurant uses only Bolivian ingredients and celebrates and respects the 36 Indigenous groups located in the country. 
  • Social Book Cafe Hachidori-sha (Japan) - This book cafe located in Hiroshima has many books on peace and social issues, which visitors are encouraged to browse. Three times a month, social gatherings invite public dialogue on timely global topics.
  • Social Pantry (United Kingdom) - This sustainable catering company also has three restaurants and cafes throughout London. In addition to intentionally building menus focused on fresh, local, and seasonal ingredients, the company is committed to circular economies, zero-waste initiatives, and employing people who have recently left prison.
  • Sohaila (United Kingdom) - This restaurant was established by the social enterprise Fat Macy’s. It supports people in London living in temporary accommodation with a 200-hour work experience program and one-on-one holistic support to establish a more stable life.
  • Sthree Craft Shop and Cafe (Sri Lanka) - This cafe in Kandy serves breakfast, lunch, and high tea. In addition to the cafe, the handicraft shop is intended to create opportunities for economically and socially marginalized women and youth.

Cooking Classes, Tours, and Other Hands-On Food-Related Activities

Human connection is inherent within everyone, and it’s one of the best ways to bridge the perceived differences between people. Creating spaces that allow people to meet and interact with each other is one of the most powerful ways of facilitating connection. And if these interactions also integrate active learning opportunities, that’s even better!

Certainly, there are lots of foodie tours and tasting experiences in the world. But some have gone above and beyond by giving agency to marginalized communities, integrating thoughtful messaging within the offering, or using food as a vehicle for deeper cultural and historical education.

These are examples of hands-on food-related activities that have that extra bit of flavor:

  • Asomobi (Costa Rica) - The members of the Association of Organized Women of Biolley offer many services for travelers, including tours focused on coffee production. Visiting supports women working in small businesses in this remote, rural community that were historically run by men.
  • Blue Fern Travel (United States) - Booking a spot on one of these one-for-one food-based tours in Washington, DC, ensures a portion of your fee goes directly toward three full meals that feed a local resident in need.
  • Courageous Kitchen (Thailand) - These Thai cooking classes in Bangkok that benefit students at risk of poverty, malnutrition, and poor education. The organization’s aim is to fund basic needs, feed those who are hungry, and educate people within the few small communities in which it operates.
  • Do the North Culinary Adventure (Sweden) - On this trip, guests and the “wilderness” chef forage for natural ingredients like sorrel, chives, berries, juniper, and mushrooms. Then, they cook and eat the food together, all on an open fire.
  • Farm 2 Fork Tours (United States) - So few people understand where their food comes from. This Oregon-based company gives travelers the chance to learn from the farmers and fishers who grow and harvest local food, participate in experiences like shucking oysters and cleaning crabs, and enjoy a meal with a deeper knowledge of its origins.
  • The League of Kitchens (United States) - Based in New York, the League of Kitchens team is made up of women from around the world who welcome visitors into their homes and teach them favorite family recipes. In addition to cross-cultural exchange and conversation, these experiences increase access to traditional cooking knowledge and offer high-quality training and employment for immigrants.
  • Migrateful (United Kingdom) - This organization celebrates refugees and migrants on their journey to integration by supporting them as they run their own cookery classes.
  • Picha Eats (Malaysia) - This social enterprise empowers refugees in Malaysia to generate income as food entrepreneurs. Though Picha Eats generally provides catering services, there are immersive cooking and dining experiences available for groups.
  • Sharing Seeds (Nepal) - This organization offers an Arabica coffee experience tour and a bee farming tour, both of which teach travelers about sustainable farming and beekeeping techniques. Purchasing coffee beans or honey to take home further supports local farmers.

Initiatives Mitigating Food Waste

Tourism is particularly rife with food waste, and solutions are needed across the industry to address this. At his point, it’s not enough just to move away from the overzealous hotel buffet (though that’s certainly a good first step).

Luckily, there are efforts around the world that actively and creatively reduce food waste in tourist spaces and distribute excess food throughout communities, which addresses food security. Introducing people to these projects – and encouraging them to support these services – is a great way to raise awareness and encourage food waste reduction when people travel.

Examples of these food-waste initiatives include:

  • Oyster Worldwide Food Waste Reduction Volunteering (Portugal) - Travelers are invited to help reduce food waste by volunteering for one to 12 weeks. During this time, they’ll help collect unwanted food from restaurants, bars, and cafes, and redistribute it to people in the community in need.
  • Silo (United Kingdom) - The world’s first zero-waste restaurant is located in London and has a menu that is “an expression of natural farming and closed loop cooking, demonstrating quality within sustainability.”
  • Too Good To Go (Global) - A social impact, app-based company that helps users rescue good food from going to waste. Local participating stores, cafes, and restaurants reduce food waste and users get great value for their money.

This selection of social impact eateries and food-related initiatives is only the proverbial icing on the cake. I’ve been collecting interesting experiences and social impact projects for a while, and these are just a few that have caught my attention, but they certainly aren’t the only ones that exist.

If you know of any noteworthy enterprises, initiatives, and/or dining experiences that address food-related or other social challenges on the local level, please share in the comments below.


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