While I eat a lunch of mushroom soup, arugula salad, and feta and pesto pizza, Libby Birky, who, along with her husband, Brad, founded SAME Café, says, “What you put on your plate is the most powerful statement you will ever make.”
At SAME (So All May Eat) Café, each person who eats the delicious, nourishing food pays what she can afford. Instead of a cash register, there is a donation box. If a patron doesn’t have any money she can trade an hour of work for a meal. About a decade ago, Libby and Brad thought, “What if people could work in exchange for their food instead of paying for it?” When they talked with men and women at homeless shelters, they found that people who are homeless eat a lot of fast food because it is cheap and, well, fast. “But they wanted something more,” Libby says. So she and Brad invested $30,000 of their own money to start SAME Café and provide everyone with healthful food—and with dignity.
“Food is all about dignity,” Libby tells me. She believes that everyone, no matter their income, should not only have access to good food, they should also be treated with respect. The food we choose to purchase, prepare, and consume affects our health, of course—but Libby explains that those choices also ripple outward to affect the health of our community. “I used to say I wanted to give something back to my community. But then I realized that saying this implies I’m somehow separate from my community. Building community is really about being a part of something—being in the midst of it, day in and day out.”
SAME Café centers around a simple principle: Each of us, whether we work in LoDo or push a shopping cart through the alleyways behind East Colfax, deserves to be noticed and included in conversations. Libby tells me, “I’ve always liked the saying, ‘Beware the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.’ There’s a woman who comes in here who is educated—she’s three credits from a master’s degree. But sometimes she has to sleep in her car. People make assumptions about her—she’s lazy, uneducated, an addict. Homeless people are too often invisible to us. We walk by and avert our eyes. What they need most is dignity. When we meet them face to face, see them eye to eye, really listen to them—that’s how you start to build community.”
For Libby, writing checks to charities isn’t enough. She would like all of us to roll up our sleeves and work together to feed our community. When Libby explains what she aims to achieve with the café, I’m reminded of neighborhood gardens—efforts to seed community life in a culture stricken by affluenza. Libby seems to be pushing back against the kind of consumerism that allows us to purchase a signifier of compassion without engaging in the act itself.
Clearly the principle behind SAME Café is admirable. The financial model, however, at first struck me as absurdly unsustainable. But the harder I looked at the city around me, the less strange SAME Café started to seem. I began to wonder if its sliding scale is any more unsustainable than adopting an attitude of complacency when many of our neighbors don’t have access to healthful food. If people are starved for nutrition, won’t all of us end up paying the costs by funding hospital beds and prison cells?
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Libby points out that food is at the center of the world’s religious traditions. It is the focus of family gatherings and is at the heart of a movement that is helping us appreciate essentials: community, health and—especially important to Libby—dignity. “Give with dignity,” Libby says. “When you give a gift, imagine you’re on the receiving end, and see how you feel.”
Treating people as we wish to be treated ourselves, the credo of SAME Café, is connected to many of the world’s venerable moral traditions, of course. But it also has solid science to back it up. The neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran explains that mirror neurons form a system in our brains that allows us to feel what other people are feeling. If we see someone’s arm being touched, the mirror neurons in our brain that correspond to our own arm are fired, allowing us to empathize—we can imagine what it’s like to be touched. We don’t register the actual physical sensation because receptors in our skin send signals to our brain, telling it that we aren’t really being touched. However, when experimenters anaesthetize those skin receptors in the arms of experimental subjects to disable the feedback system, and then the subjects see another person’s arm being touched, they experience the exact physical sensation of their own arm being touched. Remove our skin and we are one.
At SAME Café there is one menu, one donation box, one dining room.
After that initial lunch at SAME Café, I returned often to enjoy delicious meals made with locally grown food. I would strike up a conversation with whoever happened to be sitting next to me. A man with a flowing white beard who reeked of booze, a woman preparing for a job interview that could provide her the break she needed to finally get off the streets, a young man with his face shadowed by a hooded sweatshirt who’d run away from home: we ate the same food. I’d drop what I could afford in the donation box, and I would feel grateful for the good work that Libby and Brad do on behalf of all of us.
I have been hounded by depression since I was a teenager, and while researching the urban food movement, I experienced a debilitating bout. Jobless, with alcohol sweating from my pores and the hood of my sweatshirt hiding my eyes, I took my place in line at SAME Café. The thin film of separateness between me and the other patrons dissolved completely for a time. The truth is I needed to be there not to research a book but to keep from losing my mind. Meeting people like Libby and Brad was a powerful antidepressant, and meals at SAME Café were the best medicine I could find.
Excerpted from Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement. Reprinted with permission.