Using food to create community

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The Foodlink Community Café is located in Rochester Central Library’s Bausch & Lomb building. (Photos: Foodlink)

When the Foodlink Community Café’s doors opened in May to provide healthy, affordable meals for the needy, it implemented a pay-what-you-can model. At first, more than 80 percent of customers ate for free, underscoring issues of food insecurity in Rochester and a need for the café. 

Now, the café, located in the Rochester Central Library’s Bausch & Lomb building, uses a pay-it-forward model where patrons can buy their meal or choose to cover the cost for those who can’t afford the prices on the menu, building a sense of community. Such donations enable the café to provide a community meal, which includes a sandwich, a side and a drink.

“Food is a vehicle to create community and bring people of diverse backgrounds together,” says Jes Scannell, director of career empowerment initiatives at Foodlink, who played a key role in the café’s creation.

With the café, Foodlink originally planned to create a space for trainees to perfect their skills. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, it shifted to serve a dual purpose: providing affordable, healthy meals to the community and creating job opportunities for people in Foodlink’s Career Fellowship program.

The café’s mission extends beyond food: It is building an environment where customers have a shared sense of pride and value. It is not unusual for employees to engage in cordial, lively conversations with patrons. Creating regulars and making customers feel valued is a critical measure of success for the organization.

Customers flowing in and out of the café are not the only ones benefiting from the operation. Foodlink employs members of its Career Fellowship program at the café to enhance their skills. The desired outcome is to place these graduates in the workforce and advance their careers. The program assists people with job mobility, training them and placing them in positions where they have more opportunities to move up the ladder, Scannell says.

Bre Hepburn, supervisor of the cafe, is an alum of the program. She guides trainees, “allowing (them) to break out of their box and unlock the potential we know they have.”

A pivotal component of the café’s self-weighted success is offering everyone something to eat and providing available resources, regardless of what they can pay. The organization has eight to 10 partners within a mile radius that provide free meals. Employees make sure anyone in need that comes through the café is aware of these options.

The menu offers creativity and variety at affordable prices. Specialty sandwiches, salads and soups on the menu change weekly—the café’s Top Notch Tuna sandwich is a regular among customers. The constant adjustments to the menu allow customers to try new things and allows trainees to broaden their skills. The most compelling option is the $2 community meal, where the pay-it-forward model comes into play. While the costs of production exceed the $2 price tag, donations allow the café to provide this option.

“We want our customers to feel good about where they’re choosing to spend their money,” Scannell says.

Every aspect of the café’s model focuses on bettering the community. Ingredients that are not made in-house are sourced from local businesses; FIZ Soda, Amazing Grains Bread and Fuego Coffee Roasters are a few examples.

With just six months of operation under their belt, Hepburn and Scannell are already thinking of ways the café can expand. They list catering, online ordering and continued menu diversification as some aspirations for the near future. This would allow Foodlink to offer similar leadership opportunities to Fellowship Program alumni. 

“Our main goal for the future is to continue to use the café to create and build community,” Scannell says.

Joey Fisher is a senior at St. John Fisher College. 

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