Boone’s F.A.R.M. Café welcomes all to the table

Food has a way of bringing people together. Communities are strengthened around the dinner table.  Everyone has to eat.

But for many, the simple necessity of food is not easy to come by. The F.A.R.M. Cafe in Boone works to help solve that problem.  According to the 2010 census, one in six people in northwestern North Carolina does not know where his or her next meal is coming from.  The percentage increases to one in four among those aged 18 and younger.  Nearly 22% of Watauga County residents live at or below poverty level, and 35% of those living in poverty do not qualify for government assistance.

“F.A.R.M.” in F.A.R.M. Cafe stands for “Feed all regardless of means,” and the cafe works on a “pay what you can” model. There are suggested donations for meals, but patrons can pay more or less, depending on their means. Patrons also have the option to work in exchange for meals if they can’t pay at all.

The café’s dining room on any given day will be full of customers who run the gamut, from professionals happy to pay generously for the delicious food to college students on a reduced budget and homeless people with no means.

In June, the Watauga County Community Foundation (WCCF) awarded the F.A.R.M. Café a grant, which allowed them to purchase a commercial refrigerator to store produce.  The café had been relying on a drink cooler, the kind that you see in convenience stores, for keeping produce. This had limited their offerings.

“When her grant request came in, it was a no-brainer,” said Dr. Bettie Bond, former president of WCCF.  “It required almost no discussion -- we could see the need and were thrilled to be able to fill their wish.”

According to Executive Chef Renee Boughman, the new refrigerator allows the cafe to serve more local, farm-fresh food and puts the organization in better stead with the health department.  It also allowed the F.A.R.M. Cafe to purchase a CSA (community supported agriculture) box from a local farm, which will allow the cafe to serve more local meat. The grant will also go toward community outreach and the creation of educational materials.

The F.A.R.M. Cafe began in 2009, when a group of citizens, including Boughman, who had worked as a chef in Blowing Rock, got together to discuss how they could create something different than a soup kitchen. They found out about the “One world, everybody eats” network of “pay what you can” restaurants. This model began in Salt Lake City but has since expanded to more than 40 restaurants across the country. After three years of building grassroots support, Boone’s own F.A.R.M Cafe opened in May of 2012.

Beyond feeding those in need, one of the main goals of the F.A.R.M. Café is creating a sense of community -- a place where everyone is welcome. To do so, the cafe uses a system of tokens that patrons can either purchase as gift certificates or earn by volunteering. Boughman described the system as very democratic. “People can come in with a token, and no one really has any understanding of their situation in relationship to that,” she said.

Nobody is turned away, Boughman said. Some people may not be able to volunteer in exchange for food for various reasons, including physical or mental disabilities or dining with children that require supervision. That’s when the tokens come into play. “We have people who come into the cafe and just purchase tokens that we keep in a jar by the register, which we call the ‘donation station,’ “ she said. “So when someone’s not able to [pay], we can just look at that person and say, ‘you’re fine, your neighbor has already paid it forward and you’re welcome to have a meal today.’” 

Boughman noted that there is a real need to provide for those with mental health disabilities.  “There’s a huge segment of the population that has mental health issues, and a lot of their safety nets have been taken away,” she said. “The places they used to be able to go and ‘plug-in’ during the day kind of disappeared in our community, as I expect it has in others too, because of budget cuts. “So those people are finding a sense of solace, where they feel safe. They can have a meal, but they can also sort of plug in and find a way to participate,” she said. “So we really see that this is a value to our community.”

It’s clear that the F.A.R.M Cafe is already improving the community by providing healthy, delicious food to all, and with the help of the Watauga County Community Foundation it will be able to provide even more.

“The success of this group has been a model for other towns and organizations,” Bond said.  “She [Renee Boughman] knows how to get it done!”