Pay it Forward: Park + Vine’s Ethical Challenge

Pay it Forward: Park + Vine’s Ethical Challenge

by Dr. Mark Mussman
Zeff, head Chef at Park + Vine, makes awesome food Photo: Mark Mussman

Last month, I took a group of students to Park + Vine on Main Street, which bills itself as a “Vegan General Store” to check out their Pay It Forward and sliding scale options. The more that I work within the community, I realize that everyone can use their talents to create opportunity for those who are struggling and suffering. Park + Vine has taken inspiration from a restaurant in North Carolina by creating a model that has been beneficial for people experiencing homelessness in Cincinnati.

We were walking through the store and I overheard a student stay that veganism is a “first-world problem.” I didn’t get an opportunity to delve deeper into the concept because we were heading out the door, but it really stuck in my head and has been something I’ve been wrestling with since. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been vegan for several years, and I’ve been a vegetarian for 20 years. I became vegetarian to decrease my risk of colon cancer – a disease that took my mother’s life while she was in her 40’s. I did not come to vegetarianism “because of the animals” or the “environmental impact” but rather to save my own life.

Pay It Forward and Sliding Scale item available Photo: Mark Mussman
Pay It Forward and Sliding Scale item available Photo: Mark Mussman

Since last month, I’ve been walking around wondering what connections can be made between the suffering of humans and animals. I think there are real easy connections between the health effects of animal consumption, and the fact that farm animals consume huge amounts of grain and other food that humans could eat, if they had access to it. To get another perspective on this, I decided to ask Dan Korman, the owner of Park + Vine, a few questions about his journey and the Pay It Forward program.

I asked him whether he thought veganism is a first-world problem, and he immediately responded with compassion, trying to figure out the perspective of the student. He connected it with how “most meals are centered around vegetables, not meat” in many parts of the world. He saw the comment as possible deflection, or that they don’t want to take responsibility. “We are living in denial about a lot of things that we take for granted, where they come from, and how they get to us.”

Dan grew up in a typical American middle-class family, that ate most of their meals at home – typically centered around meat. He became vegetarian 30 years ago while living with a vegetarian roommate, and when out with a friend, he saw how disgusting noodles with creamed beef seemed to him. He immediately dropped red meat, and phased out all other animal products. While “it’s hard to avoid” animal products, Dan says that becoming vegan has been one of the easiest decisions he has made, and one of the easiest to stick to throughout his life.

He would like to know how people have been impacted by the availability of vegan food at Park + Vine, or even the composting and home care items they carry. For me personally, Park + Vine has been an important establishment for those reasons, but also because I can usually walk in and run into a friend. There seems to be a strong community feel at Park + Vine, which is why, I believe, the Pay It Forward program has been such a natural feel.

Zef, the chef at Park + Vine, wanted to do something like Pay It Forward before Dan went to Rosetta’s Kitchen in North Carolina. Pay It Forward works when people put a little extra money on their bill, and then they put the amount on the board. Anyone can pull the value from the board and use it at the lunch counter. “There was a period of time that the board was bustling, but now it’s not so much.” In the past, they have posted a success story from someone who was experiencing homelessness and using the board to eat. “Another piece of the puzzle is letting people in the community know about it.” Dan says he’s concerned that there aren’t enough people who know that it’s happening here on Main Street, but the Symphony has been inspired by Park + Vine, and they are doing something similar for their shows.

Park + Vine also has a big plate of beans and rice available on sliding scale. People can pay $2 or $7 for the same size plate. A couple of months ago, I went with a gentleman who was sitting at the Coalition and was suffering from severe hunger. I asked if he wanted to check out Park + Vine and he was excited because he wants to eat healthy. He used the Pay It Forward board, and we ate our meals, and he said it tasted amazing – “It kept me full for hours!”

Pay It Forward Board needs more love Photo: Mark Mussman
Pay It Forward Board needs more love Photo: Mark Mussman

We are starting a new program through the Coalition called A Place at the Table that will encourage restaurants to get involved in eradicating homelessness. Restaurants will be able to use the model that we suggest, including a “round up” feature on their bill, or use their own strengths to find a good way to contribute. Nation Kitchen and Bar, in Pendleton, donates a portion of their “burger of the month” sales.

As cliché as this is, I am a firm believer that until all of us are free, none of us are free. Over the years, my understanding of the connections between animal and human suffering has grown immensely. I get wary when people say things are first-world-problems when we have an ability to make changes. If you feel guilt about what you are doing, deflecting the issue is not a good look. It is a problem that animals are better fed than our neighbors. My hope is that people will try to live ethical lives, in the ways they feel most comfortable, and strive to do better with every bite.