The Madison Children’s Museum has recently opened a new cafe named Little John’s Lunchbox. This cafe is part of the nonprofit group Little John’s Kitchens and is the first pay-what-you-can restaurant in a United States museum. With pay-what-you-can restaurants there are no prices for any of the food, instead customers are asked to only pay what they can afford whether that is a little, a lot, or nothing at all. Though they do encourage those who can afford to pay more to do so since the payment goes to sustaining the cafe as it is a community kitchen where everyone contributes however they can. If a customer does decide to pay, they can do so with cash payments or at a paystation that accepts credit cards, debit cards, and Apple Pay.
Chef Dave Heide stated that the reason for the box and paystation is: “Sometimes that’s a barrier to food access if you have to tell someone you can only afford a lesser amount, we don’t want you to have a barrier, we want you to be able to come and eat food no matter what.” During museum hours, both visitors and the general public can choose from six entree choices in giant lunch box-shaped refrigerator cases stored in a self-serve cooler such as macaroni and cheese; lasagna; veggie stir fry; veggies and dip; and sandwich wraps, along with juices, snacks, and desserts. These meals are made using fresh ingredients donated by partnered grocery stores and farms that would otherwise go to waste since they do not get sold in markets.
According to Feeding America, about 415,400 Wisconsin residents in 2020 experienced food insecurity. They also report that 108 billion pounds, or nearly 40 percent, of all food is wasted in the United States each year, which equates to 130 billion meals and more than $408 billion in food thrown away. This is similar to what the U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported in which they mention that this waste creates a reality where whole foods that could help feed families in need are instead sent to landfills. Little John’s Kitchen’s mission in tackling the problem is to transform food excess into accessible, chef-quality meals for everyone regardless of their means through community kitchens like Little John’s Lunchbox.
Some might be skeptical about this more community centered socialized approach to restaurant dinning but apparently the food website Eater discovered that even unwatched customers consistently paid for their food, perhaps due to being more invested in the impact these types of restaurants provide to local communities.
For Chef Dave Heide: “Watching someone go hungry is one of the hardest things that I struggle with, for me food is love.” Museum communications coordinator Florence Edwards-Miller has also stated: “Part of our mission is to serve the community, serve the public and really center the needs of children and families in the community, this is one more thing we’re doing to try to be family-friendly.” They all believe that everyone, especially children, deserve to have nutritious and delicious food, and that financial barriers should have no sway over that moral principle.