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 ...

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