Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers in the Commons

By Anuj Gupta

Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers at Reading Terminal Market; photo credit: Alex Styer

When originally conceived, Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers felt timely. The backdrop included a splintering nation, an increasingly diverse and growing city (Philadelphia), a diverse public space that sought to embrace Philadelphia’s expanding diaspora, and enormous social challenges requiring collective action at every level. The project is now vital. We are in desperate need of shared experiences that point to our commonalities; that is the only way we can talk with one another and find communal solutions. This project leverages one of the few common denominators we share — food — to bring people together and connect through cultural exchange.

photo credit: Alex Styer

What role does a public market have in community building and helping people cross societal chasms?

I would argue, a very significant one. As one of the city’s most diverse public spaces, the Reading Terminal Market is uniquely positioned to host this project as it is one of Philadelphia’s most diverse public spaces. The market’s non-profit mission includes “maintain(ing) an environment that recognizes and celebrates the diversity of our citizens and fosters their interaction.” As the city’s most visited site (6.5 million+ in 2016), the market now draws all walks of life. Every race, religion, ethnicity, income level, etc., finds a home at Reading Terminal. Dr. Elijah Anderson, a Yale sociologist wrote about this dynamic in The Cosmopolitan Canopy in which he observed the Market to be a place “where anyone could expect civility.” He determined that the market’s product — namely food — had the power to break through many of the social barriers we erect among ourselves. Anderson wrote, “When diverse people are eating one another’s food, a social good is performed for those observing. As people become intimate through such shared experiences, some barriers can be broken.”

photo credit: Alex Styer

Programming to bridge divides using food as a common denominator.

We decided to see if this dynamic could be used to bring our increasingly diverse city closer together, help people bridge their divides and form and then strengthen relationships with this remarkable public space. The project structure includes inviting two to three communities to engage in an interactive cooking demonstration at the market, in which they learn to cook one another’s food. The cooking demos are led by chefs who are able to explain the dish’s technical requirements and, more importantly, how the foods reflect their respective cultures. The participants (30–40 a session) then sit down for dinner with the food they just prepared, to truly break bread with one another. The dinner includes a trained facilitator from the City of Philadelphia’s Human Relations Commission and the University of Pennsylvania’s Project for Civic Engagement at each table to help the strangers meet, converse and build a deeper appreciation for one another. Each pairing is then asked to return for a subsequent session before which they must collaboratively decide what dishes they wish to cook together and why.

To date, we have completed three pairings. We have reached out to new and old Philadelphians alike. Our first two sessions paired longstanding neighbors that have historically had tense relationships — Korean Americans and African-Americans around a West Philadelphia commercial corridor and West African refugees and African-American residents around a Southwest Philadelphia playground. Our third pairing brought together the city’s newest residents, Syrian refugees, with longstanding Philadelphia residents in Northeast Philadelphia — two communities that simply did not know one another.

photo credit: Alex Styer

Early results are promising.

While the project still has many sessions to go before completion, and it is too early to fully assess the work, I believe the dinners are already impacting communities positively. We have seen Syrian refugees invited for the first time to their neighborhood association meetings. We have hosted the West African community at Reading Terminal for an edition release of a community publication and now we are jointly planning an African continental celebration at the market. We have heard participants say that they have lived in Philadelphia for 20+ years and come to the Reading Terminal for the first time.

We have also learned how challenging community building can be. Recruitment, even when providing guests with a free meal cooked by talented chefs, can be difficult. We now know that we need to work through community organizations, on the ground, that already have credibility in the communities we are drawing from. It is not enough to simply extend an invitation from an iconic Philadelphia institution. But once there, food has a remarkable ability to spark conversation, get strangers to share details of their life and ultimately realize they have far more in common than they would have ever thought.

Anuj Gupta is General Manager of Reading Terminal Market; Breaking Bread, Breaking Barriers was a 2016 Knight Cities Challenge winner.

Reimagining the Civic Commons is a collaboration between The JPB Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, The Kresge Foundation, The Rockefeller Foundation and local partners.