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One Acre Cafe to provide free meals for kids during the summer

David Floyd • Updated May 30, 2016 at 9:01 PM

If you don’t have the money to pay for a meal, the One Acre Cafe has got you covered.

But, the restaurant will ask you to stop by sometime to volunteer.

“If someone walks in the door and says, ‘I’m hungry, I don’t have any money,’ we say, ‘Great, come on in and eat,’ ” said Jan Orchard, the cafe’s executive directive. “We’ll bring over a little paper and you can tell us when you can give back and give an hour of their time. ... We have about a 98 percent hit rate of people who come back in and work.”

Beginning June 1, the cafe will revive the Kids Eat Fee program, a campaign it launched last summer. The program stretches through June, July and August and provides parents with an easy way to ensure kids age 12 and under will have a steady meal throughout the summer months. The cafe’s regular hours are 11 a.m. to 2 p.m.

“The parents don’t have to buy a full meal for their kids to eat free,” Orchard said. “Parents can come here and just have an iced tea — that’s a little different than what you’d see at Fuddruckers or the other restaurants that promote Kids Eat Free.”

According to an article published  March 9 by the Johnson City Press, in six of 10 counties in East Tennessee, at least 30 percent of children live below the federal poverty level.

The cafe places a particular emphasis on providing healthy, locally produced food to its customers, meaning the meals kids eat at the One Acre Cafe are more nutritious than the ones they would receive at a fast food restaurant.

“A lot of time people of low income, when they don’t have a lot of money, it’s fast and easy to go to a fast food place and get a dollar meal or a two dollar meal,” Orchard said, “but it’s not good for you, it’s not healthy for you.”

The cafe has advertised its program by sending 2,500 promotional fliers to all the Title I schools in the Johnson City area, and Orchard anticipates the cafe will need a reliable pool of volunteers to ensure families can be served in the most expedient way possible.

“Because we’ve launched this program and we’ve communicated it so widely, we anticipate a strong response,” Orchard said.

Since its founding in December 2013, the cafe has served about 49,000 meals, with 10,000 of those being meals that were served in exchange for volunteer service. After a strong initial showing by the community, the number of regular volunteers has diminished over time.

“We need to remind people that we’re a resource for the Johnson City area and without volunteers, we cannot continue,” Orchard said. “We need the community to respond to a call for volunteers.”

The restaurant has only a handful of regular employees, and a steady rotation of volunteers is needed to ensure the cafe runs efficiently.

Large windows give the restaurant a welcoming atmosphere, and tables and booths are set up around the inside of the cafe, including a small area where visitors can lounge on couches and plush arm chairs. 

Mariyah, a middle schooler who was volunteering at One Acre Cafe for the first time Friday, said most of the volunteers who work at the cafe generally do it out of the goodness of their heart.

“Everyone here is so nice,” she said. “Even the customers.”

Shirley Franklin, another volunteer who was at the cafe Friday, said she volunteers because she wants to give back to the community.

“This is the No. 1 restaurant and cafe,” she said. “You can’t beat the food or the customers that come in here. I just love it.”

Volunteers fill a variety of roles at One Acre, including serving, food preparation and washing dishes.

“If you imagine a 5,000-square-foot restaurant and what it takes to run it, there are so many things for people to do,” Orchard said.

The One Acre Cafe is modeled after a business that was started in Salt Lake City about 2003. The restaurant was originally a for-profit institution, but after several years, the owners discovered several customers couldn’t pay the full price of the meals. So, the owners let their customers pay what they could and work in exchange for their meal.

Today, the One Acre Cafe is one of more than 50 institutions in the U.S. that provide this kind of service to the community.

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