I recently traveled to Columbus, Ohio with Farm Service Agency (FSA) Administrator Val Dolcini and stopped by Southside Roots Café, Market and Kitchen for lunch. The restaurant makes delicious food from locally-sourced seasonal ingredients, but what really sets it apart is how it charges customers for that food.
Southside Roots Café uses a pay-what-you-can approach that allows everyone to eat nutritious, delicious food, regardless of their income. Housed in a former school building owned and operated by the Mid-Ohio Food Bank, the café and an adjacent fresh food market provide fresh, affordable, nutritious food to the local community. Weekly community meals, along with a kids’ meal program for students at a nearby development center and visitors to the Boys and Girls Club of Columbus, round out the food bank’s creative approach to serving families and children in need.
Executive Chef Jason Johnson – whose enthusiasm and easygoing manner make everyone feel at home – earned an undergraduate degree in Biology from the University of Kentucky with the intention of becoming a physician. But after graduation, Jason changed his mind and signed up for culinary arts school. Within five minutes of the first class, he knew that he was right where he was supposed to be.
Jason loves his job with Southside Roots Café, where one of his responsibilities is feeding the children enrolled in three neighborhood daycare programs and introducing them to fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables that they may not have eaten before. At first, most of the food he prepared came back to the kitchen untouched, but as kids experience new dishes and foods, the plates get cleaner each week.
The Mid-Ohio Food Bank is charting the Café and Market’s impact on community health—something my agency, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS), is researching at the national level. Many participants have agreed to have their baseline health information taken and indicators tracked. Healthcare providers are watching closely to find out how the addition of fruits and vegetables affects health and well-being.
The café and food bank are working to advance local and regional food systems, while also increasing access to healthy food. I was inspired by the community partners and the innovative team’s approach to making sure that everyone can afford a good meal.