Feeding the Poor Through Pay-As-You-Can
Kathy had been out of the job market for about 25 years—instead staying home with her three children—when everything fell apart. The 50-something resident of Edison, in north-central New Jersey, had worked part-time as a file clerk to help pay for her three daughters' college tuition. But she left that job after her father died and her husband suffered a heart attack. Then her husband left, leaving Kathy without an income to provide for her children.
"It's a little scary," says Kathy, who asked that her full name not be used. "The rug was pulled out from under my feet."
Kathy isn't alone. In some communities surrounding Edison, 27 percent of the population lives below the national poverty level.
For Kathy and many others, a church in nearby Highland Park offers a unique solution. A Better World Café, one of a handful of "pay-as-you-can" restaurants in the United States, provides clients with good meals and job training, among other things. Hosted at the Reformed Church of Highland Park, the idea for the restaurant was hatched in 2009 in a group working to meet local needs.
At one meeting, Lisanne Finston, executive director of Elijah's Promise, a faith-based nonprofit, discussed "food insecurity" just when the recession was pushing more people into food pantries. Someone mentioned hearing about restaurants where customers pay only what they can afford. Jean Stockdale, executive director of Who Is My Neighbor? Inc., another New Jersey faith-based nonprofit, Googled the concept. Then she e-mailed Denise Cerreta, founder of the One World Cafe in Salt Lake City, arguably the country's first pay-as-you-can restaurant.
"It seemed like a solution for a lot of problems in our town and for the low-income families in our area," Stockdale says.
Stockdale and Finston pursued the plan, and A Better World Café opened in October 2009 at the church.
When customers enter A Better World, a greeter explains that the café's posted prices are only suggestions, and that meals can be earned with volunteer work. One hour of volunteering earns a voucher for one meal. A whiteboard displays the daily menu—soups, breads, salads, sandwiches, and desserts. And there's always a free dish, such as pasta with vegetables or rice and beans.
Customers line up with trays and order from servers. A cashier totals the suggested price and asks, "Would you like to pay that amount or something different?" What they choose to pay is accepted; some give above the suggested price.
Eight tables seating six each foster dialogue. "People like it that conversation is encouraged," says chef Rachel Weston.
It's a diverse crowd. Nearly 30 percent of Highland Park's residents were born outside the United States, compared with 11 percent nationally, and there are pockets of poverty all around.
Every week, some 3,000 people visit the church—senior citizens taking classes; Jews, Buddhists, and Christians from ethnic congregations who use the facilities; members of clubs, exercise groups, and support groups for everything from debt to addiction. Many stop by the cafe, where on any given day, the homeless mingle with businesspeople, refugees, and students and professors from nearby Rutgers University.
Highland Park mayor Stephen Nolan likes what he sees: "When somebody sits at a table and breaks bread with another and learns about them as a person, that enriches the community."
A Better World is one of 16 pay-as-you-can restaurants in the U.S. (see "A Growing Model,"). Many such eateries provide food and opportunities to gain job skills to people of all income levels.