FOOD is more than mere sustenance, it’s part of our heritage, our culture and our own personal identity. Food not only has the power to communicate who we are and what we value but can also inspires us to connect with others and to facilitate change. Our desire to be ‘united by food’ was reported to be one of the three mega trends predicted by Mintel in their 2021 Food Trends report.And, as lockdown restrictions continue, consumers more than ever are craving connection. Food and drink provides producers an excellent platform through which to build community. With the advent of social media, food and drink producers have the opportunity to connect directly with their customers and interact with them in an authentic way. Think about the latest Instagram trend for baked feta pasta or the local food craze for a grilled cheese toastie from the Toast Office in Belfast – providing consumers with a reason to post images, use a specific hashtag #EatForTheGram or share a story – they offer people the opportunity to feel part of something. Belgium franchise Balls & Glory, specializing in Belgian potatoes and meatballs, features user-generated content and videos from their followers.Showing real people enjoying their product enhances the authenticity of the brand creating a sense of trust and fun among its followers. Businesses that really connect with the local community around them can also encourage consumers to become change agents themselves. Raw Gorilla, a health food brand promoting raw breakfast snacks and the first Keto range of sugar free breakfasts in the UK are actively involved supporting local communities and the environment through their charitable support to organisations like the Rainforest Trust UK and the Gorilla Organisation. More locally, Jubilee Farm based in Larne practices and promotes community supported agriculture (CSA) whereby subscribers have the chance to be involved in the food production. Another way for producers to build a sense of community around their products or brands is to involve others in rituals or traditions. Local food markets offer people a chance to come together and enjoy food together. Sheridan’s cheesemongers in Meath is a prime example where every Saturday they host a range of local food producers. People travel from the surrounding area to sit together around a few large communal tables to eat, drink and life share together. Creating communities whether physically at home or virtually can offer companies the opportunity to build deep and meaningful connections with consumers.Last week, UU Business School along with colleagues from Queens University, St Angela’s College, TU Dublin and Dublin City University ran a virtual cooking camp to get kids cooking together. A total of 250 kids across Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland logged on each day to cook along with Chef Stephen Jeffers from Forestside Cookery School.This virtual community not only fuelled kids’ passions but also helped to improve their cooking skills. Interacting with others through a common interest, be it recipes, brands or services can offer consumers a form of escapism and provide producers with an opportunity to listen to the customer and gain new insight. Some global food companies like Starbucks and Ben and Jerrys have dedicated pages on their websites for their customers to submit their ideas for new product concepts making them feel valued and part of the company. Engaging directly with the people linked to your brand can provide you with the opportunity to control the narrative, co-create ideas, establish meaningful rituals and provide a sense of belonging to your customer. Having an in-depth understanding of the consumer and the factors shaping their behaviour is key in any business. Currently, the Food and Drink Business Development Centre at Ulster University Business School is offering individuals who have been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic the chance to upskill and retrain by offering a module in Food Choice, Culture and Environment funded by the Department for the Economy. n For course details, eligibility requirements and how to apply please visit: www.ulster.ac.uk/upskill/businessn Applications close on April 28.