by Christina May, PhD, MPA, SPHR
F.A.R.M. Cafe opened in Boone in 2012 to address food insecurity in the North Carolina High Country, where 1 in 4 people don’t know where their next meal is coming from.
An average 85 meals a day and 2,043 meals a month are served at F.A.R.M. Cafe. Approximately 1,818 meals (89%) are paid for at the suggested price or more, about 143 meals are earned by people who volunteer in exchange for food, and about 82 meals are received with no volunteer exchange. Thus, approximately 225 meals a month are provided to people of less means.
Chef, Renee Boughman, and former manager, Angela Rockwell, tell about their experiences operating a community cafe.
On the pay-what-you-can concept:
Angela: We talk people through the whole no-set-price idea. Our practice is to ask diners, “What would you like to donate for your meal today?” I’ve worked cash registers in other places; people are on the phone, they’re not paying attention, and they just hand you money. Here, we see people wake up and all of sudden be very present and go, “What do you mean, ‘What do I want to pay?’” It’s fun to tell them, “We don’t have set prices. If you give more than the suggested amount, you’re helping pay for someone else.” And to watch reactions to that… People are, like, “That’s so cool!”
On why people volunteer:
Renee: People want to participate in community but they want to do it in a short period of time and they don’t want politics. The purpose of pay-what-you-can cafes is broad enough that you don’t have to stand for any philosophy or believe in any doctrine. It doesn’t matter what you think about the president or Republicans or Democrats. You just serve with people, side by side, so everyone can have enough to eat. It’s so simple. Someone said to me, “You must get tired of volunteers saying, ‘Wow, what a great concept!’” But I tell them, “It’s not a concept. It’s real! Look. It’s happening. And you’re participating!”
On providing support to those in need:
Renee: One of the crucial things I’ve learned is there are people who are able to work… no doubt about it, they are physically able to work… but they are not able to be employed. That’s a key distinction. They cannot do what our society expects in a regular job setting. They might not be mentally or socially capable. No one is likely to hire them. So, in order to support those types of volunteers, we are prepared for that. And we welcome them.
On support from the community:
Renee: I depend on individuals as well as organizations with missions similar to ours. There’s a network here. We’re dependent upon the kindness of business owners who allow us to hold events in their buildings, sponsor us, allow us to advertise without having to pay for it. We’ve had shirts donated, hats donated. Our entire building was painted, scrubbed, put together by folks who did it out of their hearts. It’s social responsibility and it’s part of being in community.
Note: Dr. May is very familiar with pay-what-you-can community cafes. She served as the founding vice president of the F.A.R.M. Cafe board of directors and currently serves on the national OWEE board and the Unity Tables advisory board. Chris holds a PhD in nonprofit management and leadership, and her doctoral dissertation, titled The Pay-What-You-Can Nonprofit Restaurant Model: A Case Study, was the first known scholarly publication to describe the experience of operating a community cafe.