Domestic Poverty

Agape Café: Breakfast – and all you want of it – served with a heaping helping of dignity

February 22, 2012
Domestic Poverty


One morning a week, the homeless and the hungry in Iowa City, IA, can at least count on having a good breakfast – just about anything they want, and all they want of it – ordered off a menu, and delivered to them by a waiter.

“Here, no one stands in line to get their food,” says the Rev. Raisin Horn, Episcopal chaplain at the University of Iowa and one of the leaders of Agape Café, a Jubilee Ministry that’s the primary outreach of the campus chaplaincy.

The Café is now in its 19th year. Every Wednesday, a dozen volunteers gather bright and early at Old Brick Church, a historic landmark that now houses the Episcopal Chaplaincy as well as other non-profit groups. The space is transformed into a dining room with about a dozen round tables. The tables are set with table cloths and flowers. A coffee bar is set up and stocked with pastries. Music is playing. Newspapers are set out for guests to read. (Watch a YouTube video about Agape Café.)

Breakfast is served from 7-8:30 am. Anyone who wants a free breakfast is welcomed.

Patrons can order off the menu, which has some regular favorites as well as specials of the day. “Today, we had Mexican casserole and johnnycakes, which are pancakes made with cornmeal,” said Horn. “Or you can have eggs, any style you want. Some people actually order 10 eggs. You can have as much toast as you want. You can have bacon or sausage. And home fries are a staple.”

Birthdays are marked as they would be at many restaurants – with candles stuck in pancakes.

On an average Wednesday, the Agape Café will serve 75 to 100 guests in 90 minutes. And every one of them is made to feel like a valued customer, even though there is no charge for the meal.

“Sometimes people bring their plates back and say ‘God bless you. I feel like I’m a real person this morning!’ Horn said.

Much of the food for the ministry is donated from food banks and local grocery stores. Horn says it costs about $75 a week to fill in the gaps. The Jubilee Ministry Health and Nutrition grant will be used to help cover the cost of food, plus to create an emergency fund. “If we have a microwave or a dishwasher go out, we have to replace it right away, and it would feel really good to have a sum in that emergency fund, because we don’t have much padding there,” Horn said.

Agape Café is one of a number of feeding ministries to be awarded a Health and Nutrition grant this year. Others include:

  • St. Clare’s Ministries, in Denver, is housed in the fellowship hall of the Episcopal Church of St.  Peter and St. Mary, but draws volunteers from eight nearby Episcopal parishes to cook and serve dinner to between 100 and 160 homeless and low-income diners every Tuesday evening, following a worship service. The meals are nutritionally balanced using quality foods, and fresh fruits and vegetables. Thanks to savvy shoppers and occasional donations of food, the ministry spends an average of just $1.32 per meal. The grant will be used to defray the costs of food for the ministry’s ever-growing clientele.
  • The Way Station at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston prepares and serves a hot breakfast to more than 300 homeless and hungry individuals five days a week, 52 weeks a year. The ministry began in 1989 when the vestry sought ways to assist the homeless who gathered at the church. Initially, “breakfast” was coffee, instant hot cereal, crackers, and soup. Now diners enjoy scrambled eggs, grits, pancakes, and other hearty fare. After the meal, they can receive medical or mental health services. Last year, the Way Station served approximately 79,000 meals. More than 80 percent of the food comes from the Houston Food Bank at minimal cost to the ministry. The grant money will be used to purchase other products not available through the food bank.
  • St. James Jubilee Center at St. James Episcopal Church in Houston provides a hot balanced meal every Sunday for homeless friends and neighbors, along with a worship service. Worship is led by a team of lay ministers, and teams of parishioners cook and serve the meal. The grant will assist in the purchase of food, as well as educational materials about nutrition and health, since many of the clients are at high risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes.
  • The G.O.A.L. (Great Opportunities of a Lifetime) Project, in conjunction with St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Spokane, WA, is offering a community family-style meal after a new Sunday afternoon worship service. St. Andrew’s is in a working-class neighborhood with a large population of working poor. Recently a major grocery chain closed in the area, making access to fresh produce difficult. This grant will assist in buying food, and in creating recipes for healthy meals on a “food stamp budget.”
  • Venice Community Dinners in Venice, FL, provides a meal for the homeless on Monday or Tuesday night each week. St. Mark’s Episcopal Church partners with two other churches in Venice to host the weekly meals, feeding 55 to 65 guests each week.
  • St. John’s Episcopal Church in Eagle Butte, SD, a small community on the Cheyenne River Reservation, runs a Thursday community supper. The program has only minimal funding, sometimes offering only soup and bread when there isn’t enough money for a more substantial meal. Still, this small church manages to feed 60 to 100 people each week. The Cheyenne River Reservation is in the poorest county in the nation. More than 75 percent of the children there live in poverty, and unemployment is over 70 percent. This grant will help this ministry to continue.
  • St. Alban’s Monday Night Supper Mission began more than 10 years ago at St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Tillamook, OR. Currently, the ministry feeds more than 100 people every Monday evening.
  • Episcopal Housing Corporation (EHC) in Baltimore, MD, has a robust food pantry and food education program to address the needs of the Remington community. EHC has formed a relationship with a local farm cooperative to receive produce not distributed to members. Education efforts have included organizing a training class for families with young children and including a food and nutrition module in its youth employment program. With this grant money, EHC will distribute fresh vegetables during the months when the CSA is not active, and will supplement the food served at its weekly Wednesday night community dinner and Sunday morning community breakfast.
  • Family Kitchen in Bend, OR, provides meals to anyone who needs one, in a safe and caring environment. Lunches are served four days a week, and dinner is served two nights a week. The ministry is a partnership of 11 churches, including Trinity Episcopal in Bend.

–The Rev. Rebecca Jones is a deacon and serves as the Diocesan Jubilee Officer in the Diocese of Colorado.