Deeper Purpose of Karma Kitchen

As Karma Kitchen (KK) continues to ripple out, more and more folks are moved to replicate KK in their own communities. And as we broaden, it continues to help us deepen our own understanding of what KK is. The volunteer experience and the personal growth that come from it are a major part of the KK experience, but it only begins there. From the standpoint of our guests, the value that KK brings is that people get to practice generosity, and be in an ambiance where everyone is paying for each other. That rise in the density of inter-connections is what creates the "vibe" and subsequently sensitizes us to each other, to our neighbors, to the strangers on the streets. That's why thousands come to participate in this experiment. Surely, Karma Kitchen offers a food-experience; but it is this potential for an internal shift in all of us that makes Karma Kitchen what it is.

At a broad level, the gift economy is about moving the paradigm from transaction to trust. Of course, implementing this model comes with its challenges. Last Sunday, for instance, a group of five folks came to Karma Kitchen. One had a small puppy tucked inside her overalls, another was intoxicated, the third was smiling, a fourth held a drum and a fifth stayed in the back. We couldn't seat them in the restaurant, but we explained the pay-it-forward concept and offered them some food to go. Along the way, they became friends too. Before they left, one of them genuinely handed two quarters to the Maitre-D with a wish to pay it forward. Quite a touching moment.

The challenge comes at the edges, where the gift economy meets the constraints of operating in the current paradigm: at Karma Kitchen, which is hosted by an existing commercial restaurant, we aren't able to serve everyone. Those coming in intoxicated or mentally unbalanced are clearly not in a space to participate. And then, take the example of serving the "street community": it creates a tricky situation for the restaurant -- the clientele affects their brand, neighboring restaurants complain and they have problems with related guests on other days of the week. In addition, unlike a traditional soup kitchen that is financially supported entirely by an external funding organization, a gift economy outfit covers its costs only when enough people choose to be a part of the chain of giving. Since we don't own a restaurant and a farm, we have to pay for rent and food, and so being part of the chain costs a bit under $10/person being paid forward (in Berkeley).

But the deeper challenge in people seeking a free meal is in the nature of seeking. KK is an experiment designed with a simple idea in mind: everyone is invited to come from an internal space of abundance, to practice generosity the best way they know how. If someone comes in that spirit, it makes no difference whether they contribute financially or not. This subtlety makes all the difference. The value that KK brings to the dining experience isn't that you get a cheaper meal than another restaurant; people will literally walk in and say that "there's something uplifting about this place." For volunteers and guests, it's simple -- serve whatever or whoever is in front of you. It is in this internal shift that the work happens -- the values of Karma Kitchen come alive one heart at a time.

For the organizers, it's a bit more nuanced. The fact of the matter is that we consciously strive to be unconditional, and so it's natural that some KK Maitre-D's feel a tinge of awkwardness in denying someone a seat at KK. Practicing generosity in this context is in learning how to maneuver these edges with wisdom and compassion. On initial survey, refusing a person doesn't feel like the right response, and yet, there's also a great value in holding the whole situation in mind. We can either serve 100% of the people for a few weeks (either when the restaurant can't partner with us, we aren't financially sustainable, or when we can't create a context of generosity) or meaningfully serve 99% of the people sustainably and potentially indefinitely. For that 1%, what we're really saying is that we aren't able to feed them in this context but that we hope our experiment does help create a more giving world that will hopefully benefit them as well. It's a humble and real response.

The bottom line is that practicing generosity is an incredible service. Constantly bombarded with messages of consumerism, we gloss over the deep value in giving and forget our inter-connectedness. When we find a hundred dollar bill on the street, we think we got lucky. Unfortunately, that mindset is exactly what leads to the Tragedy of the Commons, that if everyone approaches community resources with a free-loading perspective, these resources dry up in the long run. Actually, there is no such thing as "free" -- if we ever get a no-strings-attached gift, it is incumbent on us to pay-it-forward and keep the chain alive. If we are able to see it as a circle of giving, everyone is taken care of so long as we're all paying-forward. Sharing that understanding, not just intellectually but experientially, is the deeper purpose of Karma Kitchen: along with a meal, we are serving a subtler generosity-experience that creates this cultural shift from consumption to contribution.