Start-up offers ‘Phfeast’ for hungry families

Restaurant reward programs allow frequent diners to rack up points they can cash in for a free meal. Phfeast, a new philanthropic endeavor founded by Dan Napierski, pools these points and gives meal certificates to local food pantries. Diners, restaurants and Phfeast work together to give families dealing with food insecurity a meal — on the house.

Napierski said the idea came to him while dining with his wife. He looked around at the empty tables and realized that the restaurant had the capacity to feed families in need. He reasoned that they already give away free meals through loyalty programs and that diners might be willing to donate those meals.

“If you’re fortunate enough to be able to go out and buy dinner at a restaurant 10 times, you can afford to go out the 11th time,” Napierski said.

Currently, 11 restaurants in the Boston area participate and donate meals to nearby food pantries, including two run by Catholic parishes: the Paulist Center in Boston and St. Bridget Parish in Framingham, Massachusetts. Representatives at those two pantries said Phfeast enhances their mission of ministering to the hungry.

Contributing to the feast

In order to earn points, patrons visit one of the 11 restaurants and use their mobile phones to check in on Phfeast.com. Once their geolocation is confirmed, they can promote the restaurant on social media — Facebook posts and Twitter tweets earn bonus points.

The points each diner earns go into a pool with the points from all other participants. As soon as they collectively earn enough points, the restaurant issues a gift card to the food pantry.

“You may walk in the doors and they’re at 990 points, and it’s your tweet or your check-in that pushes them over the 1,000 and gets the next reward,” Napierski said.

Phfeast enables regular diners to give out of gratitude for their bounty. Napierski explained that he chose the name Phfeast, a unique spelling of the word “feast,” because he liked the image of diners sharing a smorgasbord.

“A feast is where everyone brings just a little bit, but the consequence is there’s more than enough for everyone,” he said. “I’m trying to do my little bit.”

The program helps diners recognize how blessed they are to eat out by giving that same experience to low-income families. The rewards go straight to a nearby food pantry, which passes the gift cards to families in need.

Food insecurity

Phfeast

Napierski said he did not realize how widespread food insecurity was until he learned that one of his daughter’s friends lived in emergency housing and always ate every morsel of her free school breakfast and lunch. His daughter’s friend is one of an estimated 230,000 children in Massachusetts — that is 1 in 6 — who live with food insecurity. Nationwide, 1 in 5 children were food-insecure in 2013. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 8.6 million American children lived in food-insecure households last year. Of those, about 765,000 faced very low food security, which means they experienced reduced food intake and disrupted eating patterns at some point during the year.

Susan Rutkowski, pastoral minister at the Paulist Center in Boston, said many people who cannot afford to feed themselves feel defeated. They start to feel bad about themselves, particularly if they are unable to support children in their care.

“It’s humiliating for a lot of people who cannot provide for themselves,” she said. “It’s really important to give people opportunities to understand that this may be a tough time they’re going through and that people are here to help them over that bump.”

Rutkowski added that feeding the hungry is something Jesus himself did. He also showed that everyone deserves the same dignity and respect. Christians are called to follow his example.

Breaking bread

After receiving the first meal certificate the Paulist Center gave out, one local mom called the chance to share a worry-free meal with her children a “lifesaver.” The woman was tearful when expressing her gratitude, Rutkowski said.

She added that dining as a family transcends the need to eat.

“There’s the necessity of putting food into your stomach — of course we need to eat,” she said. “There’s that whole other side of just breaking bread together and being together as a family.”

More than a time to fill empty stomachs, meals shared with mom, dad and their children can be an opportunity to strengthen bonds. Sitting down to dine has long been central to the idea of family in America, Napierski said.

“We say to parents, ‘If you do nothing else, have a meal with your kids,’” he said. Family meals are associated with kids doing better in school, staying off drugs and other positive outcomes.

‘A real treat’

In addition to dining together, Phfeast provides families with an enjoyable experience — the opportunity to eat out. Supporters call the company a “unique jewel” and say it gives low-income families a night off. The families receive a chance to go out for a hot meal. They do not need to cook or worry about how to pay for their food. They can focus on enjoying time together — like any other family eating out.

“We want to provide the children of families that are the beneficiaries of our program with the experience — the event — of going out and having that social time together in their community,” Napierski said.

Mary Kulas, director of St. Bridget’s food pantry, said many families go out to eat regularly, but for the families that come to the food pantry, dining out just is not in the budget. Her excitement over handing out the Phfeast gift cards stems from memories of her own childhood. “When I was a kid, we never went out to eat. We couldn’t afford it,” she said. “When we went out to eat, it was a real treat, and to this day I still remember it.”

Christine M. Williams writes from Massachusetts.

Feed the Hungry
During the Christmas season — and throughout the year — volunteers are needed in homeless shelters, soup kitchens and food pantries across the country. Here are organizations that can help you find a place in your area to give back to the community.