Discussion program offers food for thought - over a meal

EVERY YEAR for the past seven years, Pew Philadelphia Research Initiative has issued a "State of the City" report that captures a moment-in-time snapshot of the city. Pew captures statistics on employment, population, residential construction, income and education, among others, and measures progress- or lack thereof-from year to year.

This is a very useful exercise to paint a picture of where the city stands, although, more often than not, because we're a big and complicated city, the edges of that picture can be blurry. This year is no exception. In fact, the first line of Pew's report states that "considering all that has happened in Philadelphia over the past several years, it is difficult to find a single statistical indicator that best captures the state of the city . . . " (Find the report at pewtrusts.org.)

For example, the city has seen 10 straight years of population growth, though that growth is modest. It has seen steady job growth, as well as income growth, with both outperforming the nation, though the fact is both have not grown dramatically. More good news: Major crime is down, and residents feel pretty good about the direction the city is heading.

On the other hand, poverty remains a stubborn problem, with more than a quarter of the city living below the poverty line. And the number of Philadelphians with college degrees grew, but that number still falls below other major East Coast cities.

These are big-picture statistics, and don't provide a prescription for improving those numbers. It's likely that most residents who are paying attention will find much surprise in the numbers.

But this year, these statistics could provide a useful backdrop for conversations that will focus on the ground-level experiences of the city's residents - and tap their ideas for how to make change.

In a month, in fact, we expect that thousands of residents will be gathered to talk about just these issues, on a single day.

On May 23, a project called "On the Table" will gather Philadelphians from all corners of the city to break bread with their fellow residents and spend a meal talking about the city's big issues. Sponsored by the Knight Foundation and the Philadelphia Foundation, "On the Table" has a simple premise: Solving our problems requires talking to each other, and food is the best way to get people together. The way it works: Individuals organizations and companies (such as ours) will sponsor tables of 10 to gather and talk over a meal. The host will issue invitations and provide the food. It can be coffee and doughnuts or something more substantial. It can be breakfast, lunch, dinner or snacks, or all of the above. (PMN will host at least four tables throughout the day; email table@phillynews.com if you're interested in participating in ours, or in another table.)

Anyone can be a host; hosts will be responsible for inviting people and providing a food (and a location). For more information on host duties and registration: http://onthetablephl.org It's a chance for Philadelphians to do two things they know best: talking and eating. And in the process, maybe find ways to make the city better.