Imagine sitting at a long table, opposite friendly, unknown faces, awaiting a meal that costs as much as you feel you’d like to pay for it. There are two courses, prepped and cooked by volunteers. The meal is vegetarian and the ingredients are locally sourced (other dietary requirements are catered for). The simplicity of the exchange removes barriers between people and the room is alive with conversation. You find out how the couple next to you met, you get recommendations for local places that you’d be interested to visit, the diner opposite offers to share their bottle with you.

That’s what it’s like to attend the Community Canteen in Abergavenny. The Canteen is one model for local meal-sharing that has been running for over 10 years. A two-course meal prepared for the community by the community is served every other month. Meals are created from local produce, from suppliers such as Paul’s Organic, La Mediterranea, and the Abergavenny Community Orchard.

What really makes the model work with the Abergavenny Canteen, what really keeps the diners and the volunteers coming back, is a shared sense of purpose. You could call this the heart of the meal. It shows up in several different collective actions.

Those that regularly attend the Abergavenny Canteen take it in turns to cook dishes of their own design and to serve them on the night. This is co-ordinated by a planning committee. There is also entertainment provided by local people and some information sharing. In November the theme was mental health. The words of a local storyteller and a representative from Mind Monmouthshire were met by an energetic and receptive crowd.

Perhaps most crucially of all is that the Canteen is supporting the livelihoods of the Abergavenny food community by putting money back into its local economy. It also raises money for charities: £33,000 has been raised since the first meal. The diners are feeding themselves whilst helping so many others. It feels especially meaningful to eat at the Canteen.

There are a whole host of community eating events in Monmouthshire. In addition to the Canteen, Abergavenny has a weekly two-course lunch at the community centre on Merthyr Road in exchange for a donation; in Gilwern there is a pay-as-you-feel Roots Café serving cake and drinks on a Tuesday; and in Rogiet, the Rogiet Community Junction has a community café every Wednesday.

While each group of volunteers has a different model for community eating, each has a social purpose that extends beyond food. For the Rogiet Community Junction charity, their café is designed to bring people together and create social networks in a village that no longer has any other social meeting spaces. The charity is currently raising funds to give the café a permanent site, which will also include a community shop.

Other community cafes are more regular, with business models that include staff hire. Some commercial cafes have social objectives. But the time-bound eating event that brings people together for only the length of a meal is an opportunity like no other. What happens is up to the people that come along, the spirit of the group, and of course their appetites.