One World Everybody Eats: A Response to Hunger on a Community Scale


Written by Christina May, PhD, MPA, SPHR

Food insecurity is a serious and persistent problem in America.  The Department of Agriculture reported that 14.3% of households (17.5 million households) had trouble getting enough to eat in 2013.  Experts have called on organizations to find new ways to address this serious and sometimes invisible issue.

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One response to this call is the One World Everybody Eats (OWEE) pay-what-you-can community cafe model.  It allows some people to pay what they can, some to volunteer for a meal, and some to “pay it forward.”  These restaurants are intended to benefit everyone in a local environment.  Those who are struggling are able to obtain food in a place where everyone is treated with dignity.  Those who can pay are rewarded by helping others, building relationships with their neighbors, and contributing to social change.  Usually it is impossible to distinguish one type of diner from another.

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OWEE Founder, Denise Cerreta

OWEE founder Denise Cerreta pioneered the first community cafe in Salt Lake City in 2003.  The concept occurred to her when she experienced what she refers to as a “Field of Dreams” moment.  Denise had opened a sandwich shop and noticed that some people were struggling to pay for the food and drink on her menu.  She realized several of her neighbors were going hungry.  One day, she looked across the counter while ringing up a bill and was inspired to tell the customer to pay whatever they wanted for their meal.  A year later, Denise renamed her shop One World Cafe.  She established the cafe as a pay-what-you-can nonprofit organization, and news about this novel idea began to spread.

There are now over 50 community cafes in America and 20 more in the planning stages.  The model has gained attention in the national press and restaurant sector.  Denise has been featured in Parade Magazine, Christianity Today, and many other mainstream media outlets.  F.A.R.M. Cafe in Boone, NC was mentioned by the Wall Street Journal as a “must-stop” on a culinary tour through Appalachia.  Panera Bread opened five Panera Cares restaurants, and Jon Bon Jovi opened Soul Kitchen, which celebrity chef Carla Hall endorsed.  OWEE estimates that community cafes have served over 1.3 million meals; 30% of those to people of less means.

The OWEE pay-what-you-can community cafe model is different from for-profit restaurants in how pricing, volunteers, and resources are managed.  It is operated by skillful coordination of seven core functional elements in a way that capitalizes on cost savings and additional, untaxed income to compensate for lower revenues resulting from pay-what-you-can pricing.  It is a delicate balancing act, but the model has proven successful over the course of a decade.

OWEE’s functional elements are:

  • Pay-what-you-can pricing
  • Patrons choose their own portion size
  • Patrons may volunteer in exchange for a meal
  • Healthy, seasonal food is served whenever available
  • Volunteers are used to the maximum extent possible to staff the organization
  • Paid staff earn a living wage
  • A community table is offered.
  • Some community cafes acknowledge an eighth value:  No set menu.

Chris MayNote:  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.

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A Place at the Table is grateful for Dr. May’s wisdom and experience and for her willingness to contribute to our blog.

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