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Where Food, Ideas Meet

Susan Campbell

September 28, 2008

Imagine a restaurant where the (vegetarian) food is free and you dine with strangers who just may be the most important people you'll ever meet.

Douglas Dix, a University of Hartford biology and medical technology professor, is imagining it and looking for investors. Dix, a popular college lecturer who has been teaching the course "Hunger: Problems of Scarcity and Choice" since 1986, wants to create a restaurant for the family of Greater Hartford.

Each evening will involve one seating, and meals are by invitation only. Guests will run the socioeconomic gamut because Dix thinks it's going to take all of us to figure out a solution to poverty, and where better to do it than over a healthy meal in a venue that would bring in local jazz and display local art on its walls.

Such a gathering place might be, says Dix, the perfect antidote for the growing gap between the haves and have-nots. And bridging that gap is crucial. An April study by the Economic Policy Institute and the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities said the gap is growing faster in Connecticut than anywhere in the country. For Connecticut's richest families (in the top 20 percent), income increased since the late '80s by $52,439 -- 45 percent. By comparison, incomes in the poorest 20 percent dropped $4,437, or 17 percent.

That means that Connecticut's rich earn, on average, eight times more than its poor. Twenty years ago, the rich earned 4.6 times more. Dix worries that the same scientific method that has conquered diseases has not been applied to poverty. The restaurant would bring together concerned citizens, who would then exchange ideas. "I believe when people who have means get together with people who have needs, that's a natural spawning ground for solutions," Dix said.

In the restaurant, the natural partners would be academics -- professors, college leaders and such -- and Hartford residents. Hartford is one of the nation's poorest cities. What if we viewed that as an opportunity, a -- as Dix says -- "dynamite teaching and learning opportunity."

"Imagine students leaving after four years with a degree from a Hartford college, but also with the experience of 'I played a role in converting a poor city into a thriving one,' " he said.

Dix isn't worried that people with means won't sit down and eat with people without. Look at the number of volunteers in the Hartford area. What if they put their energies into going at the root of poverty? Look, for example, at Foodshare Inc., the region's food bank. That organization just celebrated its 25th anniversary, but "celebrated" isn't the right word.

It's a crisis if a quarter-century later, the best we have to offer is a handout. Handouts are short-term solutions to a long-term problem. Handouts take families to their next meal, and no further.

As a means of creatively approaching poverty, in 2006 Dix and his wife, Patricia Cohen, a science teacher at Hartford's Batchelder School, started MOMS, a Fund for Mothers with Young Children, based in their Bloomfield home. The restaurant is just part of their plan. They're thinking micro-grants, or small loans to young people or single parents who are motivated to attend, say, Capital Community College, but are scared or unable to take out a loan.

What about offering training in household budgets? Tutoring? A vegetarian cookbook? A transportation cooperative? There's no limit to where this can take the city.

So. If you're interested -- in the restaurant, in investing -- contact Dix at 860-768-4261 or dix@hartford.edu.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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