A small mountain of onions, a heap of carrots, bags of noodles. Imagine preparing a sit-down meal for 42 in your home. Now imagine doing it more than 900 times.
In 2005, Marnita Schroedl and her husband decided to do their bit to overcome what they saw as a lack of connection in the community. They especially saw an issue with people who seldom interacted because they differed in ethnicity, income, sexual orientation, and other ways.
So, they served a meal for 42 in their Kenwood home, and spiced it with engaging conversation. Guests loved it, and the project grew into a non-profit organization, Marnita’s Table, that has now served more than 43,000 people across the country.
Satisfying a Hunger
Schroedl’s experience as a disconnected outsider made her especially interested in inclusion and connection. She spent her early years in the foster system in the Pacific Northwest. “I grew up as the only black person in an all-white town of 2,000 people. I always felt like ‘the other,’ an outsider,” she says. “I never want anyone else to feel unwelcome the way I did.”
Schroedl dropped out of high school and headed to San Francisco, where she worked as a receptionist at a radio station and later a law firm. She eventually landed in Los Angeles, where she did public relations for restaurants. By the 1990s, Schroedl lived in Minneapolis, where she added advertising work to her portfolio.
It was here that she came up with the idea of offering a feast that satisfied both hunger and the deep need for connection. She says, “Food is the great equalizer that allows people to talk about something they have in common and to overcome preconceived notions of one another.” She compares Marnita’s Table events to family reunions, with relatives from around the world who differ in terms of race, class, culture, and other forms of self-identity.
Setting a New Table
Schroedl is an energetic person who, it seems, would naturally be unfazed by the idea of whipping up huge meals and turning her home into a giant dining room.
She devotes the first floor of her home to the organization’s diverse staff of 10 — LGBTQ+, non-binary, women of color — who are spreading the idea of communal eating through consulting and training. Their Intentional Social Interaction model, called IZI, has been taught to individuals, businesses, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies in the Twin Cities and rural communities.
For example, the Suburban Ramsey Family Collaborative (SRFC) has worked with Marnita’s Table for three years, starting with a year-long train-the-trainer initiative to learn the art of “authentic welcome.” SFRF Director Mary Sue Hansen says its partners have convened more than 60 IZI’s, including over 5,000 people. The Collaborative has trained more than 700 people in the IZI model, a third of them youth.
As a result, Hansen says, “Our school districts have a model that works. These IZIs have ‘plowed the fields’ for community connections around equity, inclusion, micro-aggressions, and parent-school involvement. The IZIs allow us to build social capital through bridging, bonding and networking and to address relationship gaps, just by spending three hours together.”
“Ultimately,” says Schroedl, “it’s a chance to find each other’s humanity.”
See marnitastable.org or @MarnitasTable on Facebook for information on upcoming training events.