Food has the potential to beget trust, researchers at The University of Chicago found in a 2016 study, which observed that people who eat similar foods not only trust each other more but are also more likely to cooperate.
Perhaps not an earth-shattering conclusion for those who frequently dine with friends and family, but it's an idea that's being harnessed for civic engagement by individuals and organizations intent on addressing difficult issues.
In May, 360 people gathered across the Charleston area for the pilot launch of Lowcountry on the Table, modeled after a similar initiative in Lexington, Ky., which attracted 13,000 participants to its second On the Table event in March.
The May pilot in Charleston was designed to test the forum before launching the main event this fall. George Stevens of the Library Foundation of the Lowcountry, the nonprofit behind Lowcountry on the Table, says they got a resounding answer from participants: "Yes, it will work," he said. "Three hundred and sixty people came to small tables in restaurants, coffee shops and people's homes, and they talked about the issues."
Stevens says the issues are determined by the people who gather at the table as they are encouraged to discuss the "challenges and opportunities we face." A post-dinner survey provided insight into what people are most concerned about. "People identified education, traffic and affordable housing as important issues," said Stevens.
Transformation Table is another dinner table initiative that has been bringing people together since 2016. In the past two years, Tina Singleton has hosted 20 dinners and more than 200 guests.
Singleton said Transformation Table has evolved into a venue for international cooks to share not just their food but their immigrant stories.
"It's stories about these people who have made America home and are sharing their culture through food. Unlike going to a restaurant, it’s a very intimate and personal experience."
That experience helps counteract the negative talk about immigration that swirls in the national political arena, she said.
"For me, I'm using food as a tool, as an act of resistance against all that hate and divisiveness."
For Stevens at Lowcountry on the Table, when food is on table, conversations are different immediately: "You have to slow down a bit, be more civil. You don’t immediately jump to soundbites when you’ve got a mouthful of shrimp-and-grits."
The conversations sparked novel suggestions at the table Stevens hosted where his guests discussed public transportation.
"One person said, 'Why don’t we give free bus passes to kids?' " (Currently, a CARTA student pass costs $80 a semester, although a number of local schools help underwrite the fee.)
The organizers will reward the best ideas that come up in October with small grants.
Civic Dinners, an Atlanta-based company that organizes dinner discussions on behalf of governments and nonprofits like The King Center, has found table talk can lead to action.
"Sometimes some of the best solutions emerge from individual participants," said co-founder Jenn Graham, citing a women's co-working space and transit advocacy group that emerged from discussions at Civic Dinners events.
Lowcountry on the Table is hoping to have 1,000 tables and 10,000 diners participate this fall. Stevens thinks it's more than doable. He is currently reaching out to churches, municipalities and restaurants to encourage involvement. People can sign up to host a table and are responsible for inviting guests, providing food or organizing a potluck, and mediating the conversation. A toolkit will be provided to guide hosts.
Stevens said that during the May event, one host held an outdoor picnic, one met invitees at a coffee shop and a lucky few took advantage of the generosity of a restaurateur who donated a space and a meal.
The restaurant owner who donated, Michael Shemtov, said Butcher & Bee and The Daily at the Gibbes Museum of Art will once again host diners in October. While he wasn't able to attend, he provided tables and food.
"The idea sounded cool," he said. "And we're always trying to be civic-minded."
He sees the dinners as an opportunity to bring diverse viewpoints together in a time of heightened partisanship.
"I think there's a way to disagree without being disagreeable," he said.
Those who register to host by Sept. 12 will have a chance to get their table covered at Charleston Grill on Oct. 4. To learn more, go to www.lowcountryonthetable.org/hosting.