Re-imagining the Work of Ending Hunger, Part 2

June 29, 2011

A pay what you can café? With locally-sourced food and compostable take-out containers? You bet. New Brunswick based Elijah’s Promise is rethinking the traditional models of alleviating and ending hunger. Read more to learn about A Better World Café.  And if you missed last week’s guest post, read Re-imagining the Work of Ending Hunger, Part 1.

Chef Rachel at a Better World Cafe

By Rev. Lisanne Finston
Executive Director
Elijah’s Promise

Everyday, across the state of New Jersey, people are forced to make difficult choices, such as: “Should I pay my rent and my utility bills, or buy food for my family?” and “Should I pay for my medication or buy food?” “Should I eat from the McDonald’s dollar menu one more time this week, visit the neighborhood pantry for some canned goods or just not eat at all to make it until the next check?” One of the most disturbing and extraordinary aspects of life in this very wealthy state is the persistence of hunger.

For those of us working on the front lines in the anti-hunger field, we have long been witness to the harsh realities and frankly alarming choices that people who are food insecure are faced with daily.

Just before the Recession hit, the numbers of people lining up for meals at Elijah’s Promise soup kitchen skyrocketed, as did the lines at emergency food centers across the state. The rate of food insecurity (that is the number of people who regularly skip meals, cut back on the quality and quantity of what they eat or rely on emergency food sources) mushroomed from around 8% to 15% in three years. A crisis and shock wave ran through the emergency food system in the state: more people than ever before needing help, and not enough food on the shelves to meet the swelling ranks of the hungry. Most remarkable was the reality that hunger had crept up to the traditional “middle class,” people who worked, owned homes, even volunteered and donated to their local emergency food center, now turned to us for help.

Long ago, we ceased being an emergency system and became a supplemental food system. Many of our patrons rely on food pantries and soup kitchens to fill the gap everyday, every week or every month. So when an economic or other crisis hits, we do not have the capacity to respond because we are already running at full tilt.

And, if you stop and look at all the good that we are doing, you will see that it’s not all good. Every food pantry and soup kitchen has different criteria for eligibility, different schedules and little accountability in insuring consistent service delivery. Most of our organizations have a one size fits all approach: you get what you are given, and there is no choice in the selections of canned goods in the bag, or food on the plate. Much of the food donated to our food banks and local organizations is either food that didn’t sell, food that is outdated, food that is damaged, and often it’s junk food like soda, candy and chips. Corporations get tax write offs to donate this food so people won’t go hungry. In addition, they save on garbage disposal fees, because much of this is, frankly, garbage and has no place in an anti-hunger system.

In the midst of this recession and expanded numbers of people facing food hardship, it became very clear that the way we are doing this work is just plain not working! There has to be a better way—a way to insure people have access to good food, in a way that is dignified, and in a way that is sustainable over the long term, so that we don’t find ourselves faced with such a crisis again.

BWC Kids eating 2

So some folks from Elijah’s Promise teamed up with some folks from another local community based organization called Who Is My Neighbor, Inc. to imagine what this new way of approaching the work of ending hunger in our community might look like. Someone pointed us to an organization in Salt Lake City called One World Everybody Eats, a local community café. The café was founded by Denise Cerreta. Denise’s operation was unique: no menu, no prices, just good, fresh, organic food, available to all regardless of means. A few other spots had taken notice and also sprouted up. Could it be possible to create a truly community dining spot where all could eat good food, regardless of means, side by side, in a way that was self supporting and not reliant on grants and government support? We reached out to Denise to learn more.

The result of this re-imagining is a social enterprise partnership called A Better World Café, which opened in October of 2009, and was the fifth community café in the country. (the number is growing as others join in this movement, including Panera’s and Jon Bon Jovi).

A Better World Café is located in the Reformed Church of Highland Park, next to the Highland Park Farmer’s Market, and is open Monday through Friday from 11am to 3pm, with new Friday dinner hours starting this June. The café’s purpose is to help make a sustainable world where all may eat. The food is sourced locally, flexible portioning and compostable take-out containers reduce waste, coffee and tea is fairly traded, jobs were created for graduates of our culinary school, students in the culinary school help prepare food and gain skills, diners pay what they can and if they can pay more, they help subsidize those who can’t afford as much, people volunteer in exchange for a meal, others just pitch in to create sustainable eating for all.

I have to say, the food is wonderful, the feeling of community in the café embodies the meaning of hospitality, and this little enterprise is close to a break even bottom line. I really think that this is the step beyond the soup kitchen, and with some more dreaming, planning, collaborating and enterprising I think we can build a more sustainable, more dignified, more just and long term solution to hunger in our community. The way we’ve been doing it just doesn’t work.

Images courtesy Elijah’s Promise