Pay-what-you-can cafes let din­ers pay it for­ward

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ME­LANIE D. G. KA­PLAN Ka­plan is a free­lance writer in Washington. Her Web site is www.melaniedgka­

On a re­cent morn­ing in York, Pa., walk­ing to a vol­un­teer job, I ex­changed pleas­antries with a man on the side­walk. He looked as though he held the weight of the world on his shoul­ders, and our short con­ver­sa­tion con­firmed he was feel­ing down and out. A cou­ple of hours hence, I was rolling dough while he played the pi­ano. We were sur­rounded by a bus­tle of lunch­ers and nour­ish­ing, lo­cally sourced food while im­mersed in the riches of a com­mu­nity cafe.

I first en­coun­tered the con­cept of pay-what-you-can cafes last sum­mer in Boone, N.C., where I ate at F.A.R.M. (Feed All Re­gard­less of Means) Cafe. You can vol­un­teer to earn your meal, pay the sug­gested price ($10) or less, or you can over­pay — pay­ing it for­ward for a fu­ture pa­tron’s meal. My only re­gret af­ter eat­ing there was not hav­ing a chance to give my time as well as my money. So as soon as Healthy World Cafe opened in York in April, I signed up for a vol­un­teer shift and planned my visit.

F.A.R.M and Healthy World are part of a grow­ing trend of com­mu­nity cafes. In2003, Denise Cer­reta opened the first in Salt Lake City and sub­se­quently helped a cou­ple in Den­ver open S.A.M.E. (So All May Eat) Cafe. Cer­reta even­tu­ally closed her cafe and now runs the One World Ev­ery­body Eats Foun­da­tion, help­ing oth­ers repli­cate her pay-what-you-can model.

Most of the non­profit, vol­un­teer-run cafes are started by in­di­vid­u­als or groups, but Pan­era Bread and the Jon Bon Jovi Soul Foun­da­tion also have opened cafes with Cer­reta’s guid­ance. The foun­da­tion holds free an­nual sum­mits at which start-ups can learn best prac­tices and net­work with other or­ga­niz­ers. To date, nearly 60 have opened across the coun­try, and another 20 are in the plan­ning stages. Gen­er­ally, 80 per­cent of cus­tomers pay the sug­gested price or more, and the re­main­der pay less or vol­un­teer for meals.

“I think the com­mu­nity cafe is truly a hand up, not a hand­out,” Cer­reta said. She ac­knowl­edged that soup kitchens have a place in so­ci­ety, but peo­ple typ­i­cally don’t feel good about go­ing there.

“One of the val­ues of the com­mu­nity cafe is that we have another ap­proach,” she said. “Ev­ery­one eats there, no one needs to know whether you vol­un­teered, underpaid or over­paid. You can main­tain your dig­nity and eat or­ganic, healthy, lo­cal food.”

The suc­cess­ful cafes not only ad­dress hunger and food in­se­cu­rity but also be­come in­te­gral parts of their neigh­bor­hoods—whether it’s a place to learn skills or hear live mu­sic. Some en­list culi­nary school stu­dents as vol­un­teers, some teach cook­ing to se­niors, some of­fer free used books. Eat­ing or work­ing there is a re­minder that we’re all in this world to­gether; the cafes seem to pro­vide a much-needed glue in the com­mu­ni­ties they call home.

In York, a long­time res­i­dent who works for an in­ter­na­tional re­lief or­ga­ni­za­tion — where he learned first­hand the truth be­hind the proverb “If you give a mana fish . . .”— spear­headed the ef­fort to open Healthy World Cafe. It op­er­ated for a few years as a monthly pop-up in a church be­fore it opened in a ren­o­vated build­ing down­town. A small group of vol­un­teers raised more than $100,000 from foun­da­tions, com­pa­nies and in­di­vid­u­als. Stu­dents from vo­ca­tional schools do­nated their trade and art skills, and a fire depart­ment do­nated in­dus­trial kitchen equip­ment.

My 10 a.m.-to-1 p.m. shift be­gan with the cafe man­ager — one of only two paid staff mem­bers — run­ning through an ori­en­ta­tion. As she talked about food safety, we passed one reg­u­lar vol­un­teer, minc­ing ginger, who works other days as a per­sonal chef.

I donned a name tag and ball­cap, clipped my hair above the nape ofmy neck (per health code) and started my first job: weigh­ing 11/ 2- ounce balls of dough and rolling them out for cha­p­atis (a flat­bread cousin of pita and naan). The man I’d met that morn­ing — Tony, who I’d learned had been un­em­ployed and home­less — came in and played the pi­ano, which he does daily to earn his lunch.

Be­hind the counter, the scene was part camp kitchen, part speedy cook­ing class. Our vol­un­teer crew wasn’t the most or­derly, but we man­aged to pre­pare and serve meals with a lot of laughs in be­tween. I be­gan flip­ping bread on the 500-de­gree grill (af­ter re­sep­a­rat­ing all my rolled-out dough that had stuck to­gether); a phys­i­cal ther­a­pist served or­ders such as a salad with lentils, chick­peas and wheat­ber­ries; a tat­tooed man bused ta­bles; and a graphic de­signer (and cafe board mem­ber) ran the register. At one point, a 90-some­thing man walked in and be­gan play­ing the har­mon­ica with Tony.

Cus­tomers ar­rived, in­clud­ing a few in busi­ness suits, a judge and a group of vol­un­teers from a lo­cal shel­ter who cleaned trash off the block in ex­change for their lunches.

With lovely pi­ano mu­sic in the back­ground and a con­stant flow of or­ders, the hours passed quickly. At the end ofmy shift, I took off my name tag, un­clipped my hair and or­dered my earned meal at the counter. A few other vol­un­teers and I ate to­gether — dishes of but­ter­nut squash and red len­til curry soup (with my cha­p­ati on the side), roasted radish salad and house-pick­led veg­eta­bles.

Af­ter lunch, I bought a few more dishes to go and called out “Bye!” to Tony at the pi­ano.

Tony looked up from count­ing his tips, smil­ing. “Bye, sweetie,” he said. Then I walked out the door, with a hand­ful of new friends, mu­sic in my head and a sat­is­fied belly and heart.


The non­profit Healthy­World Cafe in York, Pa., uses a model that ac­cepts vol­un­teer kitchen la­bor in ex­change for a nu­tri­tious meal. Peo­ple can also over­pay so that a fu­ture pa­tron can eat.

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