When Renee Boughman arrived in the Blue Ridge Mountain town of Boone, North Carolina, 41 years ago, it was a somewhat different place. Its population today is around 20,000, almost double what it was when Boughman settled in. Boone is home to Appalachian State University (ASU), which likewise has experienced steady growth.
With that have come the challenges most burgeoning communities face – foremost among them, affordability. Many of those who’ve shaped the character of this town no longer have the means to live here. Boughman knows plenty of folks working two or three jobs to make ends meet – folks who were enticed to move here by the promise of a relatively low cost of living and jobs to be had.
But so many of those jobs are service industry or otherwise tourism based, minimum wage or little better, no benefits. Over the years, Boughman says, she’s witnessed ever more neighbors descend into “the desperation of poverty.”
This is the origin story of F.A.R.M. Cafe, launched by Boughman and a team of like-minded community members in January 2012.
The acronym stands for Feed All Regardless of Means, and that’s precisely what they do. Everyone who walks through that cafe door is fed, fed well, treated with dignity, and likely to leave having caught up with a friend or made a new acquaintance. The F.A.R.M. Cafe experience is about nourishment in multiple regards.
Addressing food insecurity was the impetus.
“When we talk to people about what it means to be food insecure,” Boughman said, “it doesn’t mean that it’s somebody sitting on the street begging with a tin cup. It just means, are they going to be able to buy food this week?” Must they choose between groceries, the electric bill, or a car repair? “Are they going to be in a tough spot?”
F.A.R.M. Cafe helps relieve that stress.
A recent menu: “Meatloaf or Veggieloaf with Smashed Taters, Blueberry Balsamic Kale Salad, and our Local Mixed Green Salad.” For dessert: “Double Chocolate Chip Cookies and Chocolate Chip Almond Cookies!”
Suggested price: $10. Pay what you can spare or volunteer if you can. Even if neither, sit, nourish, chat.
Meals served: 15,934 in 2022.
“Who would ever think that pay-what-you-can, if-you-can, is going to be sustainable as a business model?” asked Skip Beck, a retired ASU professor of psychiatry and longtime cafe regular. “But it is.”
These folks, Beck attests, are “visionaries.”
‘Tugging at My Psyche’
On a mild Wednesday morning in May, F.A.R.M. Cafe hummed purposefully in preparation for another lunch. The vibe at the cafe echoes the mission. Welcoming. Interactive. It reflects Boughman’s personality.
Alvis Dunn, a University of North Carolina Asheville associate professor of history who’s known Boughman for decades, said he recently described his friend to someone as “the closest thing to a saint they could ever meet and a person who would truly despise that description because of her genuine humility.”
“Whenever I meet a person doing good things,” Dunn said, “I want them to know Renee.”
Boughman is a self-proclaimed “small-town girl,” raised in Belmont, North Carlina. She went off to college at Gardner-Webb, a Christian liberal arts school in nearby Boiling Springs, having declined to come to Appalachian State, a couple hours up the mountain, where most of her friends were headed, because “it overwhelmed me. Which is kind of funny.”
She finally did make it up that hill, earning a master’s degree from ASU in history. The plan was to be a college professor. But she came to recognize she had no desire to pursue a Ph.D., partly because it might have meant having to leave these mountains. She’d found her home.
Meanwhile, she’d begun to supplement work as an adjunct professor with gigs in restaurant kitchens, eventually going to culinary school in Asheville.
“I didn’t go to culinary school to be Top Chef,” she says. “That was never my goal. It was just a practical thing: ‘Well, let me go learn the basics.’”
She worked in several restaurant environments, including fine dining, learning from each experience. But something was troubling her.
She’d begun making connections with local farmers and distributors, thinking, “‘This is just a weird setup – that only the people with money are the people with means to have access to local food, when you know that half the people who are here in this community grew up on farms. And yet now it’s this expensive cuisine. It’s in this category of elite.’ It seemed really weird.”
“That was always tugging at my psyche and my heart,” Boughman said.
One in six people in Boone, she learned, were regularly reliant on community-based organizations – soup kitchens, shelters, the Hunger and Health Coalition – for sustenance.
She began researching creative alternatives. She learned about One World Cafe in Salt Lake City. It served as a model for what would become F.A.R.M. Cafe – one that required adapting for a smaller community.
Momentum was building. But this was a considerable undertaking.
“We were just a group of folks from different sectors, folks from ASU, folks from faith communities, folks from different walks of life,” Boughman said. “We started having the conversations; we kept meeting. It was the kind of thing where you’re like, ‘Well, it’s fun to talk about all that. It’s really exciting. But I don’t know if we can pull this off. Because it’s going to take a lot.”
They did some fundraising, a few pop-ups, and then learned that Boone Drug, in a 100-year-old building on historic King Street, was planning to relocate and looking for a suitable tenant. Boughman talked with the owners; they were enthusiastic. “And I was like, ‘Oh, shit. We’re in trouble now.’” It was really going to happen.
Downtown Boone soon had a new enterprise.
“This is such a novel but promising concept,” Beck said. “You know, the idea that everybody should eat? What a reasonable notion.”
It’s Beck’s birthday and the house serenades him.
Counter space in the cafe is designed such that it’s easy to converse. “You might have a college professor here, someone struggling with housing there, someone with mental health challenges here. They all know each other, after a little while, by name,” Boughman said. “They can share a meal together.”
“The beauty of this place is that because we see the same folks so often, we get to know them. We get to learn their stories,” said Elena Dalton, who last year replaced Boughman as the cafe’s executive director.
Volunteers are central to its success.
“Something Renee said that’s always stuck with me that’s really beautiful,” Dalton said, “is that we see this shift from people talking about the cafe as ‘They are having this for lunch today’ or ‘They have this event coming up’ to ‘We are serving this for lunch today.’”
Marcus Gupton, a regular and volunteer, entered. “Hey, Marcus,” Boughman said. “I’m gonna pick on you today.” “Oh, good, good” Gupton replied.
“I was successful at couch surfing for quite a few years,” Gupton said. “I was sitting at the public library one day with another homeless man. I was very hungry, and I knew about this place but had never been here.”
“When I walked in the door,” he recalled, “one of the employees met me at the door and made me feel like a prince.” He quickly made friends with the staff. This was some seven years ago.
Boughman views her decision to turn over executive director duties to Dalton as the right move at the right time. Dalton came on board five years ago under a grant to launch the Full Circle initiative, stayed on, and is helping advance the cafe’s mission.
Full Circle is a food recovery and redistribution program, whereby volunteers prepare ready-to-eat meals and meal kits using products that were at risk of going to waste. The meals are then offered to food-insecure people in the community.
Boughman – whose new role is as F.A.R.M. Cafe’s director of community engagement – appreciates the energy and fresh ideas the young staff members bring.
Though Boone, in Gupton’s words, is no longer “the hippie farming town I fell in love with 30 years ago,” the cafe crew strives to maintain that small-town, hand-out-to-your-neighbor spirit.
F.A.R.M. Cafe has been “a great, great, great blessing,” Gupton avowed. “I don’t know if I’d still be in the area if I had not discovered this place.”
“I think this is as good a representation of the spirit of Boone as you’ll ever find,” Beck added. “I really do.”