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Alice’s Restaurant – A Better Community Kitchen?

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Community pantries/kitchens struggle continually to meet the needs of hungry people because their financial resources are always inadequate. I’m proposing what may be a new way to address this profound social evil, and I’m calling this social invention “The Alice Project” after Arlo Guthrie’s line “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant”.

The key to the Alice model is that it empowers poor people, whether acting as individual or as families or groups, to set themselves up with three fresh, nutritious hot meals a day, every day no matter how limited their resources.

The Alice Project rests on the observation that all but the most destitute people have small amounts of cash income and social benefits like SNAP. The predator industries that feed on the hunger of the poor have grown extremely rich exploiting the fact that the poor actually have a great deal of money, collectively.


Even after street cash, social benefits and SNAP, the fact is that poor and homeless people starve at least part of every month, and unless they can get free meals from shelters and community kitchens they starve the rest of the time.

This is an endless maze.

• The meals have to be free, because the clients have no money with which to pay.
• Hungry people have already spent their cash and their SNAP benefits by the time they get to the kitchens and shelters.
• In most states SNAP benefits can’t be used to buy prepared food, so poor hungry people can’t buy a hot nutritious meal with SNAP even if they want to.

” The following items are not eligible for purchase with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits: alcoholic beverages, tobacco products, hot food, any food intended for immediate on-premises consumption.”

This no-way-out trap means that shelters and kitchens have to operate and provide food without cash flow from their clients, and therefore are placed in a charity-dependent position, surviving on and limited by donations and the occasional miracle.

The Bread On Waters Ratio Suggests A Solution

I’ve noticed an interesting relationship between:

1. A Unit Weight of the food – let’s just say One Pound

2. The cost of the Unit Weight – let’s just say One Dollar

3. The # of cooked meal portions per unit weight of food – and let’s say 4 portions per pound

The BOW ratio appears to be something like 1:4 with many basic foods.

•1# uncooked rice @ $1 yields 4+ cooked meal portions*
•1# uncooked beans @ $1 yields 4+ cooked meal portions*
•1# veggies @ $1 yields 4+ cooked meal portions*
•1# meat @ $1 yields 4+ cooked meal portions*
•1# bread @ $1 yields 4+ cooked meal portions*
•1# cheese @ $1 yields 4+ cooked meal portions*
•1 dozen eggs @ $1 yields 4+ cooked meal portions *

* The $1/Pound isn’t intended to be precise, but to suggest that there’s some kind of an advantageous relationship at work here. Of course, there is actually a surplus in some of these ratios, since $1 will often buy more than 1# (in bulk) of many basic foods and will thus produce more than 4 portions.

But for the example, let’s just say that a number of very basic foods cost $1 a pound, as many do in bulk. I’m not, by the way, pronouncing the BOW ratio some sort of “perfect number”, or implying anything particularly magical – merely observing that a dollar, in most cases, appears to buy enough basic food to make quite a few cooked portions.

Setting Up An Alice Kitchen

Let’s envision a very poor neighborhood, with many people on the street and crowded in sub-standard housing of all kinds, and a community kitchen that is currently operating in the area using donated food, cash donations, and volunteer labor, and is providing free meals to as many individuals and families as possible.

The community kitchen is in survival mode, which means that it serves a clientele without money meals of donated and scrounged food until the food runs out. The people are in survival mode – they have a little money, but they spend it just surviving and it never lasts until the next government check or SNAP card so their only option is the community kitchen or starvation.

Now add a couple of new elements to this picture.

Let’s envision a community-based non-profit organization that contributes both community organization funds and manpower to organize an initial number of community residents into a co-operative – admittedly, no small task. The purpose of the co-op will be to operate both a food store and a community kitchen.

A Food Store will be organized and legally structured as a Co-op. It will stock only basic commodity foods, produce, meats and dairy, and other unprocessed, unprepared, non-canned and non-packaged food, except for packaged food required by the kitchen operation. All food will be SNAP qualified.

The existing community kitchen reorganizes itself as a partner with the co-op, but is legally and structurally separate from the Food Store.

A formal co-operative operating structure that physically and legally separates the Food Store operation from the kitchen/restaurant operation is necessary if the Food Store is to become Food Stamp/SNAP authorized.

However, the Food Store and the Kitchen are in close enough proximity for client convenience, and the co-op provides a coordinated operating structure and allocation of net revenues. At that point the operation will be “open for business”.

Here’s a hypothetical example of how the Bread On Waters ratio might operate, providing the economic energy which community kitchens have lacked in the traditional mode, and effectively diverting some of the poor community’s financial resources from the hands of those who exploit hunger for profit.

the Nitty-Gritty Of An Alice Kitchen

A community resident goes to the Food Store and buys 10# of rice, paying $10 in SNAP benefits (or cash).

The individual then goes from the Food Store to the (physically and legally separate) community kitchen, and exchanges the $10 worth of Rice for 10 meal coupons. 1

These 10 coupons entitle them or anyone in their family to 10 full adult meals or 20 child/elderly meals. The BOW ratio means that the 10# of rice becomes 40+ portions of cooked rice, just by adding water, of which only 10 portions are “owed” to the original buyer as a meal. This means that 30 “extra” meal portions of rice are generated.

These portions become part of the meals of others who have bought at the store and exchanged for meal coupons at the kitchen. Each $10 worth of food from the “Food Store” – 10# of vegetables, cheese, meat, bread etc. – becomes 40+ meal portions, for which the original buyer receives 10 meal portions.

An important principle is that the community kitchen does not accept cash OR SNAP CARDS for meal coupons; ONLY FOOD from the Food Store can be exchanged for coupons, and customers can only “buy” a meal with a coupon.

This means that all incoming resource transactions in the Food Kitchen result in activation of the BOW ratio.

By placing the Food Store in close proximity to the shelter or kitchen, and by requiring an exchange of basic food bought in the store for meals, the shelter/kitchen can capture enough of their member clients’ cash resources plus their SNAP resources to enable the entire project to operate like a business in the sense that it becomes self-supporting and independent of charity.

This in turn means that any contributions received can go toward improving services, rather than simply staying afloat another day or week. The threshold numbers of clients required to operate an Alice Project do not appear to be high. This means that small Alice projects can be neighborhood-based and therefore accessible to people who need the service the most, the relatively immobile poor, elderly, handicapped, and homeless.

Since the Kitchen operates using volunteer plus paid labor as needed, and since it has no food costs, the other overhead and operating expenses such as utilities can be covered from the cash flow into the co-op from the Food Store operation – where prices can be set to generate excess revenues over costs even as a non-profit.

With a food budget of under $3 a day, people who choose to participate can obtain 3 full high-quality meals a day, and the organization providing those meals can do so in a way that it not only covers expenses but generates much-needed revenues through its revenue-generating but non-profit component, the Food Store.

Spending less than $3 a day for food without cutting into life’s other “necessities”, including alcohol and cigarettes for those for whom this is reality, is within the means and abilities of even those in deeply unfortunate circumstances on the street. It is also a cost which can be almost 100% covered using properly budgeted food SNAP benefits, still leaving people enough SNAP benefits to cover other consumables.

For people without addictions to alcohol, cigarettes, and street drugs, who are simply bound by poverty, circumstances, and lack of available alternatives into the fast food/packaged food trap, the Alice Project can offer ready access to top quality food on such hard to refuse terms that there may be very real problems dealing with the demand.

By preparing and serving nutritionally superior meals including meats, vegetables, grains, dairy and eggs, and fruits and juices, all sourced from a “Food store” that stocks items based on the Kitchen’s needs, a single neighborhood kitchen could turn around the malnutrition of a significant portion of the community in a very short time.

All that is really missing from many current community shelter/kitchen projects is an appropriate co-op structure and the ability to open the doors on a well-stocked Food Store operation, plus operational items like sufficient dishes & tableware, adequate food storage and preparation facilities, and a coupon program.

The fact is that such new age operations are almost invulnerable to the kinds of political/economic pressures which would be brought to bear on a more conventional grocery operation by the fast food and packaged food industries, who will no doubt be very threatened by Alice operations.

While this proposal does not offer a comprehensive solution to the problem of hunger I believe that by addressing the issue of who gets the meager resources of the poor – those who can help them to nourish themselves with that money, or those who exploit and drain them of the money – the Alice Project is worthy of consideration.

My hope is that you can take this idea and make it happen in your community. Blessings upon you.

Author: panaceachronicles

Those of us who were young in the fifties, sixties and seventies are now well along in our aging - those of us left, that is. Just as we tried in our youth to find alternative ways of living, learning, cooperating, having fun, and being productive, I think we're destined to replay many of these scenarios in our old age. Ironically, this is when our creative independence and desire for autonomy from centralized systems that arose in our younger days is likely to be the prescription for not just quality of life but survival itself.

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