As an ecofrugalista (if that isn't really a word, well, it is now), I don't eat out very often. Eating at home isn't just cheaper; it also gives me a lot more control. If I want to choose local produce, or Fair-Trade coffee, or free-range eggs, eating at home is generally the easiest way to do it.
But not, it appears, the only way. As it turns out, my little town of Highland Park is now home to the Better World Café, described as a "community café"--the fifth of its kind in the country. It serves up local, seasonal foods at reasonable prices. It lets customers choose their own portion sizes--and also the size of the bill. While the cafe will give you a "suggested price," you can pay less if that's what you can afford, or pay more if you'd like to make a donation. If you don't have any money at all, you can instead volunteer an hour of your time to pay for your meal. So no one goes away hungry. Cheap eats, living-wage jobs, no disposable dishes--how could I not love a place like that?
I'd been meaning to give this place a try since it first opened back in October, but I kept forgetting about it--or at least, forgetting about it during the lunchtime hours (11 to 3) when it's open. Today, as lunchtime rolled around and I realized that there were no leftovers in the house, I decided this was the perfect time to check it out. I wandered in and found a cheerful crowd eating and a server chatting away with one of the customers. She explained how it all worked and pointed out that day's menu on a white board, with suggested prices. I got a bowl of mushroom broth with tofu and veggies, a chunk of bread to go with it, a carrot cupcake with cream-cheese frosting, and a cup of Fair-Trade, organic coffee--all for a suggested total of $5.28, which I rounded up to $6. The soup was hot and savory (though a bit on the sour side), and the carrot cake moist and tasty. It didn't look like a big meal when I sat down, but by the time I finished my coffee and bused my tray, I was stuffed. Yet I didn't have to feel guilty, because it was all nutritious (hey, carrot cake is a vegetable, right?) and locally grown. A hearty, healthful meal for six bucks--from a place that helps feed the hungry, supports local farmers, and strengthens the community. How cool is that?