I believe in the power of pay-what-you-can. And since becoming part of this trend in the restaurant industry, I see how it could potentially help calm our perpetually turbulent world. I mean, I can’t get my head around failed farms in Uganda, or mass starvation in North Korea. But stuff right in front of my face I can relate to.
Five years ago, I met Denise Cerreta of One World Everybody Eats. She was trying to feed people any way she could. She realized the best way to do that was to let them decide how much they paid for what they ate. I thought that was crazy. “How can anybody stay in business like that?”, I asked her. She just kept saying, “It’ll happen.”
I saw her kitchen like the little engine that could. And since I like underdogs, I offered to help her. Since then, I’ve become a board member and spokesperson. Me and the other board members have formed a strange and close little family that argues over economics vs. philosophy; employee policy vs. forgiveness and fair payment vs. giving people the benefit of the doubt. In 2005, the for-profit became a non-profit.
I work for the pay-what-you-can model even though I know that some people take advantage because for them, it’s a game. But when I see a mother come in towing shoeless toddlers, I know it’s no game. Then, our policy of an hour of work by parents for a voucher that they and their kids can eat from starts looking pretty good. Why punish people with hunger when they want to give something out of their own sense of dignity, but have little to offer?
Likewise, for people who do have money but not a lot of it, tailoring a full plate of our gourmet prepared organic food, but just smaller portions, lets people eat healthier while they can feel like an equal in the transaction. That’s something they want to see on the menu too; dignity. It makes many people thank us for not making them feel less than.
We even offer free food but with no stigma. And in exchange, people give something of personal value, namely, a promise to themselves that they will do what they can and should to earn to food they eat. Over time, it even seems to me that for some people, the food has becomes an excuse for them to eat beside other, different people without fear.
We’re not alone. One World Spokane, the SAME Cafe in Denver, Potager in Arlington Texas and others are inviting their own neighbors to build and then eat at the community table. There is an ancient word for this; “conviviality.”
We must eat. But it doesn’t have to leave us empty. Thanks to the growing pay-what-you-can movement in the restaurant industry, I think we may reach a point where we can have this kind of respect, not only in how we eat, but how we live.
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