by Adelle Bergman
The Crescent City Cafe believes everyone deserves a dignified meal, and we strive to provide one for each and every person that attends our bi-monthly breakfasts. What does a dignified meal look like? Well, to us it looks very similar to a typical casual dining restaurant experience—our guests are greeted at the door by a host, led to a linen draped table, and left in the capable hands of one of our servers who explains the menu options of the day, takes orders, and returns a little while later with the food. However, unlike at a typical restaurant, most of our guests are not able to pay for their meal.
In 2009, the Crescent City Cafe was founded to provide meals for the homeless and low -income population of New Orleans without the often-unavoidable stigma of the “soup kitchen” or the typical “homeless shelter meal.” It was and is the goal of the Cafe to give our guests a restaurant-type dining experience in hopes of downplaying the “us” and “them” mentality that can be so very persistent when providing service to the homeless community and those who are food insecure. Another part of our mission is to provide volunteer opportunities for young adults in order to give back to the community and to help them recognize that homelessness does not define a person. This mission of building community around a meal that has moved the Crescent City Cafe to explore the idea of opening a pay-what-you-can community restaurant here in New Orleans.
Such a non-profit restaurant would provide meals regardless of a guest’s ability to pay and all members of the community would be welcome. The hope is to provide an eatery not only for those who cannot pay, but also for those who can and do. This “pay-what-you-can” model instills a sense of a community of affluent people taking ownership of hunger problems in their neighborhood while also offering a dignified way for low-income residents to enjoy a healthy meal without it feeling like a handout. Diners can pay it forward by donating more than the suggested meal option, pay the suggested amount, pay what they are able, or volunteer in exchange for the meal. Those diners able to pay it forward will be helping support the restaurant and it’s ability to feed the members of the community that are in most need of it. Diners who are unable to give financially are able to support the restaurant by providing a needed service. At the same time, everyone shares a good meal not knowing the amount paid by anyone else.
The homeless are not the only ones struggling to have access to nutritious food. Per Feeding America’s annual “Map the Meal Gap” project 2014, there were 87,360 food insecure people in Orleans Parish, that’s 23.7% of all residents of New Orleans. Food insecurity is represented in many ways. It can be a homeless person searching for his or her daily meals, but it might also be a working family deciding between paying for food and paying the electric bill. It could be senior citizens on fixed incomes who have to choose between food and medication or medical assistance. The rising costs of living, medical expenses, etc., coupled with low, stagnant wages are leaving many people with difficult financial decisions. This creates a great need for a pay-what-you-can community cafe.
We recognize that there are many places for the underserved to access food in New Orleans, including soup kitchens and food pantries. However, the social connotations may prevent hungry low-income people from getting the help they need due to the lack of perceived dignity in taking a “handout.” There is a gap population that needs access to food but will not utilize the current food distribution models. The Crescent City Cafe wishes to create a model where the myriad of faces of food insecurity will all be welcome. The proposed pay-what-you-can cafe will create a restaurant community where an individual’s ability or inability to pay for a service has no real consequence. It is a place of community where one’s financial situation has no bearing on how one is treated.
It does seem like a bit of a romantic notion—a community getting together and paying for each other to eat out of the kindness of each individual’s spirit. Personally, when I imagine the cafe I see smiling faces: an obviously down on his luck old man laughing with a young, smartly dressed business professional or a college student volunteering for service hours next to someone working in exchange for her meal. The wonderful thing is, I have seen actual scenes like this at the Crescent City Cafe’s current operation, serving breakfasts twice a month at Rayne United Methodist Church, and at the F.A.R.M. Cafe, a pay-what-you-can cafe in Boone, North Carolina that I recently had the pleasure of visiting. I firmly believe that all we need in order to find common ground and community is a space we can all comfortably share. Unfortunately, where dining is concerned, there are not too many places where people of different socio-economic situations are going to rub elbows. Sharing meals, especially here in New Orleans, is what gives us our strongest sense of community. At the Crescent City Cafe, our goal is to create a restaurant where food is the excuse for building community.
Adelle Bergman is the director of the Crescent City Cafe. She’s lived in New Orleans for 10 years, focusing on assisting elders and the homeless in the community. She currently runs a memory care ministry at St. Charles Avenue Presbyterian Church while also focusing on expanding the Crescent City Cafe. She is a member of the Mid-City New Orleans Rotary Club and the Shimmy Shatki Dance Troupe. If interested in volunteering or learning more about the Crescent City Cafe, contact her at Adelle[at]crescentcitycafe[dot]com.