March 21, 2018
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This pay-what-you-can restaurant is fighting hunger and obesity in rural Missouri

Renewal Awards finalist Take Root Cafe welcomes everyone to its table for a local, nourishing meal

Take Root Cafe co-founders Jessica and Tracy Parks traveled abroad and around the country with their son visiting sustainable farms and communities. They finally landed in Kirksville, Missouri, where they opened their nonprofit restaurant. Photo courtesy of Take Root Cafe

EDITOR'S NOTE

Meet the finalists for The Renewal Awards, a project of The Atlantic and Allstate. These individuals are the forces behind the 25 nonprofits competing for $150,000 in grant money. Ten winners will be announced March 27 at The Renewal Summit in New Orleans, on TheAtlantic.com, and here, on The Renewal Project.

Food is a surefire way to bring people together. In the small town of Kirksville, Missouri—located in one of the poorest counties in the state—one restaurant is bringing local, sustainable food to its community in a way that everyone, even families who are struggling, can afford to take part.

Take Root Cafe offers nourishing, high-quality meals on a pay-what-you-can basis. According to the nonprofit restaurant’s co-founder Jessica Parks, Kirksville—population 17,000—is similar to many small towns in America that are facing issues of hunger, obesity, and other health-related illnesses, as well as a lack of services and resources compared to larger cities. Take Root is helping to serve some of its community needs. The nonprofit, which is located in the town’s center square, partners with other local organizations to expand their reach to those in need, and they provide educational opportunities for residents to learn about health, wellness, cooking, and fitness. We asked Parks to tell us where she got her passion for service and how she and her husband Tracy came up with the idea for the community-style restaurant. The following is an edited and condensed version of our Q&A. Follow Take Root Cafe on Facebook, Instagram, and on Twitter at @TakeRootCafe.

Describe some of the community projects take Root Cafe is currently working on.

Take Root Cafe is a pay-what-you-can community cafe. We believe that everyone deserves access to fresh and nourishing food, no matter if they can pay or not. On a daily basis we are open to the public 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. We serve everyone who walks in a local and organic meal. We are trying to blur the lines between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” You may be sitting at our community tables next to someone who donated $100 for their meal, or nothing at all. It’s an exciting community experiment in generosity and love.

In addition to offering this service, we actively reach out to low income populations through monthly community partner meals. We partner with another nonprofit to offer their clients a free meal together at the cafe. We want to make sure that our cafe model is approachable and that low-income families and individuals feel comfortable in our space, so we invite them as a group for their first meal. Then we hope they can come back and participate in the cafe by volunteering and/or eating.

Another very important thing we value at Take Root is community events and education. On a weekly basis we offer our space as a platform for Community Skills Share where members of our community teach each other skills in the areas of health, wellness, food, cooking, fitness, and sustainability. We also have volunteer-led knitting groups, quilting, yoga, and other pop-up events. We want our space to be a gathering spot for positive change and grassroots activism in the community. Take Root also hosts monthly documentary films, seasonal plant walks, and an Annual Community Roots Festival. These are all free to the public or on a pay-what-you-can basis.

How did you start your community work?

I grew up in southern California and Seattle. Much of my childhood experiences growing up with a poor single mom and in very diverse neighborhoods led me to work with refugees and immigrants in college. I began volunteering in an after-school program for refugee children from Eritrea. I loved it. There was so much for me to learn from these children, maybe more than they had to learn from me. I was amazed at their resiliency and desire for a better life here in America. I also loved the feeling of community that I had with them. This led me to continue community work in Kansas City, Missouri, with a refugee resettlement agency. It was there that I worked with refugees who were in a farming program and discovered my own love of farming and growing food.

What inspired you to do this work?

After learning about our current food system in America, and how that negatively affects so many—from what is being sprayed on food to the food waste we produce to the quality of food offered to those on a budget—I was compelled to act, to make a difference, but I didn’t know exactly what that should look like. My husband, 5-month-old son, and I left the country in 2012 and traveled for nearly two years abroad and in the states visiting sustainable farms and communities. We finally landed in Kirksville of all places and decided to make this our home.

Our vision is to create a more compassionate, thriving, and economically strong community through local and sustainable food.

Kirksville has a food insecurity rate that is nearly 1 in 4 people. One-third of our adult population is obese. Our children will live sicker and die younger if we don’t do something to change this. While hunger and obesity are often looked at as separate issues, we should be looking at them together, along with food waste and how we farm. Due to federal subsidies of corn, soy, and wheat, the relative prices of high sugar, high fat, processed foods have gone down 40 percent since the 1980s, while the prices of fresh fruits and vegetables have gone up 40 percent, meaning that if someone is struggling to make ends meet and they have to choose between a bag of chips and a head of broccoli, they will choose the bag of chips because it has more calories and will fill their belly for longer. My experiences traveling and learning about these issues inspired me to look at them holistically and get into this very needed community work that aims to positively change our food culture in America.

What ways are you helping to make your community thrive?

The stories that I get to hear after people experience Take Root for for the first time lets me know the impact of what we are doing. People are inspired to make positive change in their lives, whether that’s eating healthier, volunteering, or changing to live more sustainability—we are impacting our community on so many levels. We can’t just feed people’s bellies, while ignoring the social needs they have. Take Root is addressing health, community, sustainability, and hunger simultaneously. We can’t do it alone though, and that’s my favorite part. We are leading the way to create a local foods system that feeds and works for everyone, but we are not the only ones. We are collaborating with other nonprofits in town. We are working with student groups to help them with projects. We are working with the city to bring more community events downtown. We are supporting farmers to continue to produce locally and ethically raised products. Our vision is to create a more compassionate, thriving, and economically strong community through local and sustainable food.

What do you love about your community?

I love the people. It’s funny, the Kirksville’s slogan is “Where people make the difference.” But it’s true! When we first started this project, we got a lot of people telling us this was a crazy idea—that you couldn’t offer the highest quality food on a donation basis only; people would take advantage of it. But even with the doubts, our community came together to fundraise over $80,000 to get the cafe open. And many of those donations came from everyday people. Now that we’re open, they have continued to inspire me through donating and supporting us. Anytime we need help with something, people step up so fast to offer a helping hand. For example, just recently, our coffee grinder broke and we posted a note on Facebook that we were looking for a new one. In just one day, the local coffee shop donated a commercial one to us, which was better than the previous one! This really is such a giving and kind community.

What’s one thing you want outsiders to know about your community?

Kirksville is like so many struggling rural towns in America, dealing with poverty, hunger, and lack of resources, compared to larger cities. However, the people here, while they don’t have a lot, they give what they can and they are so friendly. When I lived in big cities, I didn’t know my neighbors or community very well. Living here in Kirksville, I know so many people and it’s so great to see a friendly face wherever I go. Sometimes in the cafe, I’m reminded of the Cheers theme song, “Where everybody knows your name …” I really believe that Take Root is bringing people together, not only to feed those who are hungry, but to create a deeper sense of community, that is needed deeply in America. For so many, we’ve lost a sense of connection to each other, to our food, and to the land. Take Root is trying to bring that back and this community gives me so much hope for that.

What leader or leaders inspire you?

Young people like Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, the Youth Director of Earth Guardians, or Malala Yousafzai, founder of the Malala Fund inspire me. While the problems we are facing on this Earth can seem overwhelming sometimes, I find inspiration from the youth. Our young people are being born into a world that doesn’t have a set future, and instead of allowing the world to happen to them, they are changing the world and coming up with new and innovative approaches to our problems. This gives me so much hope for the future, that we can change and create a more positive future for our children and grandchildren. That’s why Take Root is so important. It’s not about one thing. It’s about bringing people together, creating community, feeding people physically and spiritually, changing our food culture, and moving in a positive direction as one community and one world.

Margaret Myers

Margaret Myers is the editor of The Renewal Project.