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Philadelphia's Secret Ingredient for More Civic Engagement: a Lot of Food

The Knight Foundation’s “On the Table” series mixes eating and grantmaking with community discussion. Come hungry: It lasts all day.
Table talk: Jamie Gauthier of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Dan O’Brien of Philadelphia’s Office of Grants, and Anuj Gupta of Reading Terminal Market discuss creating equitable public spaces in the city.
Table talk: Jamie Gauthier of the Fairmount Park Conservancy, Dan O’Brien of Philadelphia’s Office of Grants, and Anuj Gupta of Reading Terminal Market discuss creating equitable public spaces in the city.Paola Nogueras/Knight Foundation

You know those corporate retreats, where people from different departments in a company get together for breakout events, brainstorming sessions, and a lot of eating and drinking? Imagine something like that, but for an entire city. You’d get On the Table, a one-day civic blitz put on by the Knight Foundation that uses meal sharing as a way to cook up civic dialogue.

The first On the Table event was started in Chicago by Chicago Community Trust in 2014, and has returned every May since; the Knight Foundation has now spread the franchise to 30 communities nationwide. “On the Table is a pretty simple idea: It’s how do we get people to break bread together and then have solutions-oriented conversation about the community that they live in,” said Lilly Weinberg, the Knight Foundation’s program director of community and national initiatives. The program is part of a wave of similarly conceived philanthropic efforts aimed at busting Americans out of their ideological bubbles and salving the nation’s fractious political culture.“At a time where our country is incredibly divided, there’s really been a hunger for in-person, face-to-face conversations,” Weinberg said. “What we’ve found is that, at a hyperlocal level, what really matters is figuring out how to solve the challenges around us.”