Grace Café asks Danville for funding again

Grace Café is once again seeking funding from the City of Danville, after being denied last year. This time, restaurant leaders say they have some of the hard evidence that city officials wanted last time.

“We … received some actually very helpful feedback from the city and we thank you for that,” Grace Café board President Daniel Kirchner told city officials Thursday. “Over the last year, what we’ve done is we’ve instituted a point-of-sale system that allows us to track and understand better how our customer base is operating, who is in need and taking advantage of our services and who is contributing and paying it forward.”

Kirchner said Grace Café also gathered data through a survey conducted by a Centre College sociology seminar class.

The survey, which was conducted by 17 student researchers led by Dr. Kaelyn Wiles, included “direct observation of Café operations,” interviews with customers and analysis of more than 200 “detailed surveys,” according to Grace Café.

According to data from that survey released by Grace Café:

• 31 percent said Grace Café “had provided them a meal when the otherwise would not have eaten;”

• 27.8 percent said Grace Café reduced their reliance on other food assistance programs; and 

• 57.1 percent said having Grace Café available “makes them less worried about having enough to eat.”

“This was a perfect partnership, because it was a chance for the students to learn how to conduct research in a ‘real-life’ setting that matters and that could help the community,” Wiles stated in a press release from Centre College.

This year, the pay-what-you-can restaurant is requesting $20,000 from Danville — the same amount it initially requested last year. After the city denied the $20,000 request last year, Grace Café returned with a request for $7,000, which was also denied.

Danville City Manager Ron Scott and City Attorney Stephen Dexter both cautioned city commission members against awarding the restaurant funds in 2016 because of a lack of hard numbers proving that the city’s funding would go to help people.

“The difficult thing … to understand for people seeking money in our community is that there are certain tests the city has to make certain occur in order for you to legally appropriate funds,” Scott said at the time. “It has to be an activity that the city can legally engage in. You have to have the ability to control decisions or direct how the money gets spent and that it serves a valid public purpose.”

Dexter said last year that he would “not feel comfortable” having the city provide funding to the restaurant “without a measurable standard that can be managed.”

“You can’t track the dollars that were actually spent in furtherance of that public mission (to feed people who are food-insecure),” Dexter said at the time. “If they didn’t serve $6,000 worth of meals to the hungry of this community or to the needy, and it went to pay of the middle-class citizens of Danville or visitors to the community, that is not a proper expenditure of taxpayer dollars.”

This time around, Grace Café representatives came armed with plentiful statistics on poverty in Danville, such as the facts that 19.2 percent of people in Danville live in poverty and 36.8 percent of children are eligible for free lunches. They also listed volunteering statistics, including:

• 449 unduplicated volunteers worked a total of 3,415.5 hours at the restaurant in 2016;

• 1,036.5 of those hours were worked in exchange for meals;

• 328.25 of those hours were required community service; and

• 2,050.75 of those hours were voluntary community service.

But despite all the numbers, it appeared a major sticking point last year may still be an issue this year. Commissioner J.H. Atkins, the only member of the commission to vote against preventing funding for Grace Café last year, brought up the issue of patrons’ anonymity.

“In 2016, you served 15,403 meals. Of that number, what percent were folks who could not afford to pay for their meal?” Atkins said.

Ben Kleppinger/ben.kleppinger@amnews.com
Rochelle Bayless, executive director of Grace Café talks about the pay-what-you-can restaurant’s mission to reduce food insecurity.

“I don’t know — and I’ll never know,” said Rochelle Bayless, the restaurant’s executive director.

That’s because patrons can pay anonymously. “It’s a way to preserve the dignity of people who may not have enough,” Bayless said. “We do not discriminate on the grounds of anything — we don’t discriminate against anybody. So we will never know — we don’t ask people to show us their poverty stats before we serve them, so we will never know how many of those meals went to poor people.”

“That said, if you look at the statistics that we got from the survey, you can do some quick and dirty math and get a ballpark,” Kirchner added. “… If a third of those meals are going to people who otherwise wouldn’t have eaten, that’s a significant portion where we’re definitely achieving our mission.”

“I support what you’re doing, but I wanted to get that information out in the open,” Atkins said.

Danville Mayor Mike Perros asked if Grace Café would be requesting any funding from Boyle County as well. Bayless said the restaurant would be requesting $5,000 from the county to purchase food from local farmers and producers.

Grace Café was one of 23 community agencies that requested funding from Danville on Thursday. In all, the community agencies requested $230,500; Danville awarded $200,550 last year. No decisions on funding have been made yet.