The concept of the Groundswell Cafe in Cedar Rapids (201 3rd Ave SW) is simple: Eat, and if you’d like, leave some extra money to pay for someone else’s meal. Nonprofit Matthew 25 opened the cafe on Oct. 8 in the neighborhood just across the river from downtown, not far from the McGrath Amphitheatre. According to Matthew 25, 90 percent of elementary school students in this neighborhood qualify for free or reduced lunches. At the same time, many high-priced condos have popped up in the area in recent years. This seems to make the location an ideal match for the vision of the nonprofit group, which is “to help create thriving, connected communities where all people are valued and talents are multiplied.”
The impact of making a donation at the cafe feels immediate and tangible — my small contribution will help pay for healthy food for someone who might be struggling. Right when you walk in, you see a sign outlining specific instructions on how to donate or get a free meal, if needed. This helps avoid any awkward conversations or confusion about what to do. The sign explains that you can simply leave a couple of extra bucks in the “tip” jar if you’re able, which will go toward funding someone’s meal. If you are in need of free- or reduced-cost food, pick up a meal card and hand it to the cashier. The cafe doesn’t ask questions; it operates on the honor system.
I ordered a vegan Cajun tofu sandwich, which was served on savory carrot bread with vegan “gouda” and garlic aioli. I’ve never had anything baked with carrots that was savory instead of sweet. It was a pleasant surprise and was my favorite part of the meal. Let’s all agree to stop forcing carrots to be sweet! It was also a pleasant surprise to find vegan/vegetarian options, which can feel somewhat few and far between in Cedar Rapids. The tofu was warm, and it was the perfect spice level for someone who is fairly wimpy about spice, like I am. The sandwich came with a small orzo salad with feta and some greens, but you can also choose a soup if you prefer. The portion was on the small side, and big eaters might want to grab an extra side. For me, it was the perfect amount to avoid any food waste.
The staff at the cafe were very friendly, and they tracked me down to bring me my order when I had wandered off to explore the co-working building that is located right next door. Matthew 25 also operates this new space, which is open to anyone. It’s a super convenient place to work if you like to eat lunch. The environment of both buildings is very open and welcoming, and even features art by local students and community groups hung on the walls, and a stage for events.
Instead of ordering Panera online and picking it up without making eye contact with anyone, it was a nice change of pace to eat at the Groundswell Cafe. This cafe makes it easy to do a little bit of good in the middle of your day.
This article was originally published in Little Village issue 253.