When a group of concerned neighbors in Cooperstown, NY felt like the citizens of their town were becoming disconnected from one another, they did something about.
The “Growing Community” project began six years ago to demonstrate a love of community, cooking and eating, growing vegetables and sharing knowledge. Through planting, nurturing, harvesting, cooking, and sharing with friends, family, and strangers too, they grow a stronger community.
Each year, the group puts together a community potluck dinner that stretches down Main Street and brings out over 600 people to share in a wonderful communal dining experience.
We sat down with some of the Growing Community team to learn the recipe for success.
What have you learned over the past six years that have helped make this event a success?
Our guiding principles have always been simplicity and inclusion. We keep the table setup simple so that volunteers don’t burn out and participants feel relaxed and enjoy the fellowship. When deciding on a location we chose a section of street that was near a park. This helps manage crowd control and also gives children a place to play safely while their parents are chatting with newfound friends and neighbors. An added bonus is that there are public restrooms available. We set up one long table (using 40 8-ft tables) with gaps every few yards to facilitate crowd circulation.
We set up approximately 300 chairs, making sure there is room for wheelchairs and strollers (tables and chairs are fairly inexpensive to rent but you can also gather folding tables from local churches, schools, and civic organizations for free.)
We set a time frame for the event from 4:00pm to 7:00pm and the seats turn over a couple times. This helps with crowd control as families with young children can come in early and leave. Ending promptly at 7:00 also allows the set-up and break-down volunteers to schedule their time appropriately.
We use inexpensive but welcoming decorations (long rolls of butcher paper for the table runner, mason jars weighted with birdseed and candles, flowers from gardens and fields, crayons for kids and adults). Many of these items can be scavenged and reused year after year. They also make cleanup really easy.
The supper is free to all – which is essential to making all members of the community feel welcomed.
There are no agendas of any kind – no fundraising, no politicking, no campaigning, no tabling, no flyers. All are welcome, period. This is just to enjoy supper together as a community. This has been one of the reasons the event continues to grow each year. Everyone realizes that we can be united by our love of where we live.
This is truly a potluck event. BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything: a dish to pass, beverages, plates, cups, cutlery, napkins. We strongly encourage reusable dishes, etc. and aim for a zero waste event. Seeing everyone’s mismatched dishware on the table adds to the festivities, but we provide accessible receptacles for those who choose to bring paper and plastic.
We encourage, but do not require, that folks bring dishes made with local ingredients, if possible. If you don’t cook, no problem – bring a bowl of apples. If you don’t garden or shop at the farmers’ market, that’s okay too – bring your favorite dish. We just want everyone to share.
We provide festive live acoustic music–acoustic only so it doesn’t overwhelm conversations and no need to fuss with electricity.
How much does it cost to host the event and how do you raise the funds?
It costs about $700 to put on the event, and this money goes towards the rental of tables and chairs, printing posters, table decorations and music. This price can be reduced even further if you have community organizations that want to pool resources or barter.
We don’t want to be yet another group passing the hat. So to raise funds, we start veggie seedlings in the spring to sell, and other gardeners divide their flower bulbs to sell. Occasionally someone will make an unsolicited donation to us for the supper.
For readers who may want to replicate this idea in their own communities what have been some of the obstacles you have overcome and what logistical problems have you encountered and resolved over the years that they can learn from?
We really haven’t had any challenges besides wondering what the weather will bring us each year! We have been fortunate to have an enthusiastic village government for permits (important to follow the rules!) and cooperation, and an enthusiastic community who readily volunteer.
The biggest challenge initially was figuring out how to set everything up so that the crowd could flow, and what to do in case of rain. We’ve found that the event naturally encourages so much community good will that even small inconveniences are overlooked in honor of the greater good of the event.
For an autographed copy of our new cookbook, A Seat at the Table, click here
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