“One in seven people are food insecure in Raleigh! That’s one in seven people in your row. Think about it that way. One in five children are hungry. That is not okay! Knowing these numbers and getting to know so many incredible people experiencing poverty, I knew I needed to do something about it.”
1. It's time to reinvent the way we feed those in need. Read how.
Close your eyes. I invite you to picture a kitchen. Maybe it is your kitchen at home or your dream kitchen that your best friend has. What does it look like? What does it smell like?
Now, I invite you to picture another kind of kitchen. A soup kitchen. It’s suddenly a different image, right? You can open your eyes. Did it look something like this? If it did, that is okay. It was certainly my idea of a soup kitchen when I grew up volunteering at one as a child. My mom, twin sister, and I would go there often. Not because we were food insecure, but because my mom wanted to teach us a thing or two about serving others. We would drive downtown, walk inside. Nancy, the woman in charge, would give us a couple of canned goods to make for lunch that day. Then, at eleven, we would serve the food to the line out the door.
I grew up serving there. It was in this experience that I began to notice several things, as any child would. One thing that always struck me for strange was why I was the one serving this food across the line to a kid who looked just like me. We would scoop out whatever we had prepared that day, sometimes chicken, sometimes pork, and serve it to a kid that looked just like me.
This was unlike any dining experience I had as a child; not even my elementary and middle school cafeterias felt this way. After serving the food, we wouldn’t sit neat; we’d quickly clean up and talk about where we were going to lunch that day. We ended up at my favorite Mexican place a lot. It was sitting there, eating chips and salsa, that I couldn’t get the diners at the soup kitchen out of my mind. Something wasn’t right.
Years went by, and I transitioned to college. I started volunteering and eventually working for a day shelter working with people experiencing homelessness and poverty. At this day shelter, I got to know so many incredible people, some of the kindest people I had ever met. I got to know their hopes, dreams, and stories, and they got to know mine. They even came to my college graduation!
So, what do you do when you want to get to know your friends more? You eat with them, right? So, I found myself back at the soup kitchen. We’d walk about a mile down the road. Once we got there, we’d stand in line outside on a cold or rainy day, like today. Once we finally got inside, we got handed a plate, and we didn’t get to choose what we wanted. Sometimes we were served chicken or pork. Then we’d have to search for two seats; we probably didn’t find them together and eat quickly so someone else could come in and eat.
“I found it was so different from my life experience where I get to eat wherever I want to eat, whatever I want to eat, and for however long I want to eat”.
Do not hear me say that soup kitchens are wrong. They are incredible! Soup kitchens feed over 300 people in an hour. Without them, we would have a ton of hungry people. But I found it was so different from my life experience where I get to eat wherever I want to eat, whatever I want to eat, and for however long I want to eat.
One in seven people are food insecure in Raleigh! That’s one in seven people in your row. Think about it that way. One in five children are hungry. That is not okay! Knowing these numbers and getting to know so many incredible people experiencing poverty, I knew I needed to do something about it.
So, I began to take people out for meals, and I saw that they wanted to go to buffet restaurants a lot. I had a friend named John. John happened to be experiencing poverty at the time, but three months prior, John had a killer job and a really nice apartment! His company shut down, and so his lights got turned off, and then he got evicted. John ended up at the shelter, and then he ended up outside.
“…being here, I feel seen and heard. Living in poverty means I get treated as invisible — a lot. People walk right by me. Here there are multiple layers of people that greet me, acknowledge me, and see me.”
John and I would eat out often. This day it was his birthday, so we ended up at his favorite buffet restaurant. It was here I asked John why. I said, “John, why do we always come to this buffet restaurant because I know it is not because of the chocolate fountain.” He said, “Maggie, two reasons. The first is being here, I feel seen and heard. Living in poverty means I get treated as invisible — a lot. People walk right by me. Here there are multiple layers of people that greet me, acknowledge me, and see me. And then someone even comes around and asks if I need anything and if I need a refill. I feel seen, heard, and welcomed here.”
The second John said was, “I have choice. Living in poverty means people make the choices for you. Here, I get to choose if I want a salad because I’m feeling healthy or want a waffle because, some days, don’t we all just want a waffle. I have choice here, Maggie.”
Mic drop. Powerful stuff, huh? I finally realized that I needed to do something about this. I needed to soup kitchen 2.0 this town.
“I finally realized that I needed to do something about this. I needed to soup kitchen 2.0 this town.”
Soup kitchens could be this instead. So 48 months later, yes 48, count them because I sure did, I opened [Raleigh’s] first and [North Carolina’s] second pay-what-you-can cafe. In opening A Place at the Table, we joined over 60 other pay-what-you-can cafes across the country! With one million restaurants in the United States, we would be the 61st pay-what-you-can restaurant.
So, what is a pay-what-you-can cafe? I now invite you to walk into this kitchen with me. When you walk in, you see a regular restaurant, like most of us who can eat out, who can afford to eat out, go. You smell hot scones or warm bacon. You hear good music, depending on whose Spotify it is. And you see big photos with friendly faces on the wall. You don’t even know we are a nonprofit until you start to see some explainer signs or people with volunteer name tags.
Once you get up to the register and order your salad or your waffle, the person behind the register says, “your suggested price is…would you like to pay that price, less or volunteer for your meal?”
Suggested pricing means just that. You can choose to pay that price, pay more, and pay it forward for someone else who can’t afford their meal. [you can] pay less because we know some weeks are just harder than others, and all you can do is pay a couple of dollars for your meal. Or you can pay by volunteering with us.
Our main mission is to provide community and good food for all, regardless of means, and we do that in two ways. We eat together. We’ve large community tables where people can come together and share a meal from all different backgrounds and walks of life. We volunteer together. We see over 80 volunteers a day that have either signed up to volunteer or are volunteering for their meal.
The cool part is you don’t know who is volunteering for their meal and who signed up to volunteer! We’re bussing tables, we’re doing dishes, we’re greeting people at the door, and again, we’re doing it together!
We are hand-up versus hand-out. We see 40 to 60 people a day who are volunteering for their meal. They’re volunteering for their meal not because we forced them to, but because they want to. We all want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves, and at A Place at the Table, we are!
“We are hand-up versus hand-out. We see 40 to 60 people a day who are volunteering for their meal. They’re volunteering for their meal not because we forced them to, but because they want to.”
I want to tell you a story about my friend named Dino. Dino started coming to the cafe in January of 2018, right when we opened our doors. Dino didn’t say much. He would come in, he would order his waffle, and he would do dishes for hours. Six months later, Dino started talking more. He’d still do dishes, but he started talking to more people in the dish room. Nine months later, he didn’t want to do dishes anymore. All he wanted to do was talk to people and run food.
A news outlet came to do a story on [the cafe] and Josh, our Manager, said, “hey Dino can you do the story?” I said, “Josh, don’t ask him. He’s not gonna want to do it.” and Dino said, “Absolutely!” He talked for 30 minutes about what A Place at the Table means to him. All of us, John, Dino, you, me, all of us have community and dignity. We welcome every single person in, no matter who you are, where you come from, you are welcome, and you have a place at our table.
And it’s working! A year after being open in 2018, we provided almost 80,000 meals to people who could not afford their meal. With almost 25,000 volunteer hours in the cafe. An even cooler statistic, 25,000 times people in this community paid it forward for someone else who couldn’t afford their meal. In 2019, we almost doubled that. Isn’t that crazy? Thank you to everyone in this room for providing a place for my friend John, Dino, and my new friends and their kids.
I want to tell you another story about how this not soup kitchen impacts our community. We had a family of four come in. Liz, the person behind the register, heard them say, “Kids, get whatever you want today because we won’t be eating out for a while.” Once they got up to the counter and ordered their food, Liz said, “Your suggested price is… Would you like to pay that price, pay less, or volunteer for your meal?” The dad said, “What do you mean pay less?” Liz explained it a little further. The mom started crying, and the dad said, “You have no idea what this means. I just lost my job, and we are living on her teacher’s assistant salary. You mean I can get a side salad with my meal?” They ate their meal and thanked abundantly.
“Y’all, we are changing up the soup kitchen model… So all of us have community, dignity and choice. Three things in life that we all need and we all deserve.”
Y’all, we are changing up the soup kitchen model, for all the John’s, the Dino’s, our family of four, for you and me. So all of us have community, dignity and choice. Three things in life that we all need and we all deserve.
So, what can you do? I get asked this all the time. Sure, you can support all the other pay-what-you-can cafes across the country. Sure, you can go volunteer with another hunger organization or something else you’re passionate about. But, I leave you today with a simpler consideration — something you can do right now.
Remember when I invited you to picture a kitchen? I now invite you to picture how you view your daily friendships, relationships and what you have to offer people. What do you have to offer people? Imagine if every stranger was a friend that you had not met yet. The person in front of you in the Starbucks line. The person sitting next to you in the doctor’s office. The person sitting next to you right now.
What do you have to offer people? How can you soup kitchen 2.0 your life? And how can you make space at your metaphorical table?
2. Pay-what-you-can is working!
Don’t believe us? the numbers speak for itself!
40,725 meals given
8,837 Pay it Forwards equaling $100,165.84
17,635 biscuits enjoyed
14,997 cups of coffee drank
10,737 clubs eaten
2,751 cinnamon rolls devoured
Numbers total since March 2020. Last updated 08/02/2021.
3. How can I help?
You can volunteer in the kitchen or restaurant.
If you live outside the Triangle, that’s okay! We would love for you to stay involved and for you to follow us on our social media platforms. Stay-up-to-date on our blogs and newsletters and see what we are doing.
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