Back in April, A Place at the Table’s Maggie Kane was serving upwards of 250 free meals a day. It was the beginning of the pandemic, when restaurants had all just been ordered to close, layoffs were beginning, and no one knew what the future held. 

In some ways, not much has changed since. The state has begun to reopen, but as it does, COVID-19 case counts have continued to tick upward, along with need. Rising to the occasion was one thing; rising to meet the needs of an ongoing occasion—a pandemic with no certain end date—has been a whole other. It’s required some adjustments from Raleigh’s first pay-what-you-can cafe

Before March, Kane says that 40 percent of customers paid less than the going rate for the meal but were able to volunteer, since then, 99 percent of customers have received free meals—but, because of COVID-19 precautions, there are no volunteer opportunities available to counterbalance the costs. 

“Our mission is community and good food, and it’s always been community first for a reason,” Kane told the INDY. “I want to do free meals, but we’ve been transactional, getting out as many meals as possible.”

In early October, Maggie Kane temporarily shut down the restaurant, which she says had been overwhelmed by need, and began trying to develop a more streamlined system. She says that she’s trying to get the organization back to its give-and-take mission of solidarity. 

A Place at the Table isn’t ending the free meals program: Instead, customers can either get a discounted meal program at a flat rate of $3, or get a free meal by acquiring tokens via a handful of Raleigh nonprofits, including Oak City CaresHaven HousePassage Home, SouthLight, and the Feed the Pack food pantry. Kane’s hope is that by routing customers through nonprofits, they’ll also get connected with resources for food, housing, and medical care.

“To get that community back, we really want to partner with other nonprofits and build community with them so everyone’s working together,” Kane says. 

There’s one notable exception to the token requirement: families with children will be able to receive a full meal without tokens—no questions asked. 

The organization says that it has served 30,000 free meals since March. This number reflects the nationwide high rates of food insecurity: According to one study by Northwestern University, food insecurity has doubled since the pandemic, affecting as many as 23% of United States households.

A Place at the Table will reopen on October 24 with its new system and a new menu by chef Andrew Gravens. Meanwhile, the restaurant is continuing its “set the table” campaign, with a goal of raising $50,000 for 5,000 free meals by December 1. 

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