With her nearly 3-year-old daughter Olivia in tow, Elisabete Kim headed down the line of tables stretching along the center of an avenue west of Altru Hospital on Thursday, Sept. 14, to take their seats at The Longest Table event at Sertoma Park.
Kim and her family moved here from San Antonio, Texas, on assignment with the military, she said.
“We are new to the area. We were looking for things to do, and this (event) popped up on, I think, Facebook and it looked like fun.”
Kim and her daughter joined the more than 850 people who were gathering for the event as dark storm clouds accommodatingly sidled to the southeast, leaving sunny blue skies and a faint rainbow to grace the occasion.
Another attendee, Marcia Wahlstrand, said, “there’s nothing like learning together and getting things going – and have something that the community can be proud of.”
The event was meant to bring together residents for a meal and conversation about ways the community can work to promote a healthy lifestyle. Participants could expect to be sitting and dining with people they know or people they’ve just met.
The meal was provided by chefs at Skies 322 restaurant.
Before the event got underway, Wahlstrand said she hoped it would “help the community to understand that people need to have good health and have access to health and wellness (resources).”
She is concerned the community does not have enough low-cost recreation opportunities for families, she said. “I’d like to see a big recreation center that is low-cost and inviting.”
Wahlstrand, a retired teacher, was interested to hear what others think are ways that the community can encourage healthy eating, she said.
At every 8-foot table, captains were tasked with leading discussion by asking guests to respond to a series of questions, not only about challenges to health and wellness, but also the community’s positive attributes.
Among those, Wahlstrand said, is how “welcoming Grand Forks is to diverse cultures – that means the world to me.”
Those who come here from other countries bring a rich background that benefits local residents, she said.
he results of a survey taken at The Longest Table event will be compiled and maintained by the Community Foundation of Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Region, which, along with Greater Grand Forks Young Professionals, the event hosts.
Molly Hane, who works for Fenworks, an e-sports and drone-racing company based in the former Herald building downtown, helped with The Longest Table event in 2019 as a UND student. She was impressed by the creative ideas posed by residents then and how some have since been implemented.
At this event, she said, “I am most intrigued by what people think about what Grand Forks offers or would like (the community) to eventually offer. I’d like to see ideas stirring up about what we can do, so in three or four years, we can offer more options.”
Lindsay Bell, who works at the Community Violence Intervention Center office at UND, served as a table captain. A friend had encouraged her to get involved, she said, “and I thought, what a great experience. It sounded like a wonderful way to meet new people and just get out there. I looked forward to doing it, and I’d like to do it next year too.”
The overall goal of the event was to encourage residents to “exchange stories and share ideas about what we can do as a community to foster connections with each other and promote daily healthy habits to achieve better mental and physical health,” organizers said in a news release announcing the event.
The organizers maintain that social connections, discussion, relationships and community have never been more important.
They envision ideas relating to creating walkable communities, building active friendships and promoting healthy food choices to come out of the group discussion.
In planning for this year’s Longest Table, the topic of health gained traction, in part due to the pervasive years-long impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is fading. Also discussed was the significance of the new Altru Hospital, which is emerging on South Columbia Road.
Information gathered at this year’s Longest Table will be available at the Community Foundation for use by public officials, city councils, local and county governing bodies, and other entities that make decisions that affect the community, according to Becca Baumbach, the Foundation’s executive director.
The community-building event was first held in September 2018 in Grand Forks, with a Main Street-type theme, to gather residents’ viewpoints on what the downtown should look like and how it could be improved, for the benefit of locals and visitors alike. A total of 717 participants took part in that event.
It was inspired by a similar event, “On the Table,” that was held in Chicago, but organizers styled the event here “a little differently,” Baumbach said.
The last Longest Table event in Grand Forks was held in September 2019, drawing 868 participants, she said. Discussion centered on the kinds of development and amenities people would like to see become available on the University Avenue corridor between UND and downtown.