NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - What better to hear what people really think about day-to-day life than over a relaxing meal.

Now Middlesex County freeholders are looking for volunteers to host a dinner, at county expense, and have groups of residents say what they think would improve their community.

Working with Rutgers University’s Public Outreach and Engagement Team (POET), the county is launching "Set the Table," a program to have gatherings of friends, neighbors, and colleagues. 

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Up to 100 people, age 18 and older, who live, work or study in the county will be given $50 each to host dinner parties with six to eight peers and their priorities for the county’s future.

This is an outreach effort for Middlesex County’s DESTINATION2040 Comprehensive Master Plan initiative.

In addition to the money, hosts will get a “To Go Box” kit with question cards, interesting facts and other tools to kick-start conversations.

The goal is to spark discussions about living in the county, including the aspects of housing, economic opportunity, the environment, transportation, land use and development, public health, arts and culture, parks and open spaces, historic preservation, technology, public services, and public safety. 

The POET developed this program a couple years ago, and used it for the for the North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority's Regional Transportation Plan (Plan2045) in 2017, said Miriam Salerno, senior research manager for the engagement team at Rutgers' Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy.

That effort was successful, but used on a smaller scale, with 20 hosts, Salerno said.

All the dinners in Middlesex County must be hosted this spring, and later the volunteers will report back key ideas and suggestions for input into the county's DESTINATION2040 plan, which will be used as a guide as to how the county will grow and change over the next  20-plus years.

All volunteer hosts must attend a kick-off orientation where Rutgers POET will provide some training and helpful information about hosting the dinners. The hosts will then receive the kits and $50 cash. 

There are three dates in different parts of the county, with the first on March 8 from 10 a.m. to noon in Plainsboro, and the second on March 14 from 6:30 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in Carteret, and the last one on March 24 from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. in Piscataway.

People interested in volunteering as hosts can fill out a brief online form at middlesexcountynj.gov/destination2040. More information is available at destination2040@co.middlesex.nj.us or by calling (848) 932-2876.